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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Why are there so many Opera Houses in Maine?

Bangor, ME, picture postcard, undated.
The other day, my husband forwarded me the above lovely postcard of historic Bangor, Me, with a note: “Why is there an Opera House in every city and village in Maine?” It’s quite remarkable. I’ve traveled extensively in small-town America, and no place I’ve been has the number of preserved Opera Houses as are found here.

From the Civil War until the advent of the Talkies in the late 1920s, the Opera House was a fixture of American small town life. These community meeting houses had little, if anything, to do with actual opera; they were simply the local theater and town meeting hall. “Opera” was just a more respectable term than “theater.”

Stonington Opera House, By Choess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17557400


A quick search of the National Register of Historic Places shows five Opera Houses in Maine, a vast underrepresentation of the selection at hand. Stonington’s is perhaps the most prominent, an uncompromising block of a building set on an equal block of granite above the town pier. It was built in 1912, and still has an asbestos-lined projection booth, from the days when nitrate-based film regularly caught fire. The asbestos was appropriate; the first Opera House had burned to the ground in 1910.

The Island Falls Opera House was built in 1894, on land whose deed prohibited the sale of alcohol. That didn’t stop it from becoming a major entertainment space. How could tiny Island Falls support an Opera House? Its population in 1920 was exactly twice what it is today. The hall is now vacant.

Pythian Opera House, Boothbay, By Magicpiano - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35548577
Bangor’s Opera House was built in 1920. It was in the very trendy Egyptian Revival craze that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter. Although it’s not on the National Register, it continues in use as a theater, most notably as the home of the Penobscot Theatre Company.

At the turn of the century, some Opera Houses were being built as part of multi-purpose facilities, combining town offices and meeting rooms. Camden’s was constructed on this model after a large fire swept through downtown in the late autumn of 1892. Among the destroyed buildings were the town hall, fraternal order meeting rooms and the original opera house. Why not roll them into one unit? Waterville’s Opera House, which was started in 1898, was built along the same lines, as was the Pythian Opera House, built in 1894 in Boothbay Harbor.

Camden Opera House, By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States - Camden, Maine
Uploaded by Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29697947
That brings me to the one around the corner from me, the Rockport Opera House. Built in 1892 and originally called the Town Hall, it too was designed as a multipurpose building. After a varied and colorful career as a library, bowling alley, basketball court, roller skating rink, YMCA, public theater and town hall, it was rescued by the Rockport Garden Club in the 1970s. A second renovation project in the 1990s brought it up to its current condition.

Why have all these Opera Houses survived? Maine has not been overrun by suburban development as have most other states. That means that much of its history remains writ large along the roadsides. And Mainers really are thrifty.

Part of this, also, is based on what historians once called the “New England Conscience.”

“Other sections of the country and other cultures of the world exhibit, I have no doubt, scores of conscientious men and women; only in New England is there a Conscience so standardized that it must be capitalized. As John Quincy Adams succinctly put it, ‘New England was the colony of Conscience,’” wrote historian Perry Miller.


That’s been dissipated in the modern age, but New Englanders are still more inclined to sit still and be talked at than most people. An Opera House is a fine place in which to do so.

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