(Opinion Editorial by The Newport Daily News)
The Opera House in Newport’s Washington Square showed its last movies in August 2010. At that time, a nonprofit group already had been working for the better part of a decade to restore the building and transform it into a performing arts center.
That long-held dream came a step closer to reality this week, when a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center.
The $14 million, 21-month renovation project is expected to be completed in December 2017 — in time for the theater’s 150th anniversary.
The Opera House made its debut on Dec. 28, 1867, with the opera “Lucretia Borgia,” performed by a Boston company. Noted producers such as Oscar Hammerstein and George M. Cohan brought new plays there, using Newport audiences as a test market, and Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore and some of the world’s best-known entertainers performed at the Opera House.
It was renovated into a movie theater in the 1920s, when the motion picture industry began flourishing, and in the 1980s was transformed into a tri-plex cinema.
But the company that rented the theater to show movies, citing a decline in box-office business and the requirement to install a costly fire-sprinkler system, turned out the lights in 2010.
By that time, the brick facade of the historic building had been restored, and the arts center group redoubled its efforts to raise the money to refurbish the rest of the building — efforts that bore sweet fruit this week.
“Today, we mark the rebirth of the Opera House,” Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said during Monday’s ceremony. “This will become a center for year-round performing arts in the hub of Newport to act as an educational catalyst and economic driver for generations to come.”
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, one of the prime movers behind the successful 2014 Cultural Facilities Bond referendum that funneled $4.2 million into the Opera House project, said the finished facility will be a smaller version of the nationally renowned Providence Performing Arts Center.
The newly renovated theater will be a lynchpin tying together the sometimes-fractured districts of lower Broadway and upper Thames Street, Paiva Weed said.
Once completed, the renovated theater will seat 700 people and feature an enlarged stage measuring 30 feet deep. The historically significant proscenium arch over the stage will be 32 feet high.
Its reopening will have a positive impact on the entertainment and cultural scene in Newport, enjoyed by both residents and visitors — particularly with the void left by the closure of the Newport Yachting Center and the possible closure of Newport Grand, venues for concerts and comedy shows. And it will be a boon to the local economy as well.
The Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth calculated the renovation would have a $15 million economic impact on the area. Once the curtain rises, performances at the theater will generate an additional $1.6 million in direct and indirect economic activity to the city in the first year, the center determined.
“It’s going to get people to work right away,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said, “but also for years to come providing jobs for our tourism industry. It’s vital to have a thriving arts and cultural center. That’s a deep and abiding historical strength for Rhode Island.”
We applaud the visionaries who have been championing this project since 2000, when the Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center acquired the building. As they enter the home stretch, we wish them nothing but the best.