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The Opera House: a cultural history

Kayti Burt/The Littleton Courier- The Littleton Opera House as it looks now. The space’s most recent renovations were finished this past year when it was reopened to the public after being closed for five years. (click for larger version)
December 01, 2010
LITTLETON- Some residents know it as the Littleton Opera House, others as the Town Building, but everyone knows it nonetheless: the grand, Queen Anne structure that has overseen 115 years of Littleton history as the stalwart guard of Main Street.

"People are coming in and really starting to enjoy the building again," said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chad Stearns. The Chamber's offices are located in the building and the promotion of the venue is one of the organization's tasks.

"Right now, our focus is trying to get people in here," said Stearns, adding he wants the public to become reacquainted with the building, which was closed down in the summer 2005 due to safety concerns. This past May it reopened after two years of renovations to bring the building up to fire and life safety codes, and restore some of its original grandeur.

The most recent renovations cost almost $1.5 million – $500,000 from the town, $500,000 from the Fifteen Miles Falls Mitigation Fund, and $493,000 obtained from the Senate Appropriations Committee by Senator Judd Gregg.

Renovations included new windows, doors, new siding, and achieving compliance with fire and life safety codes, said Stearns. The Chamber is now working on promoting the space, hoping that its historic significance and old-time charm will woo potential renters despite upgrades that are yet to be funded – namely, bringing electricity to the stage, updating lighting and sound equipment, and buying new curtains.

"The venue is a work in progress," admits Stearns.

Still, he is optimistic about the future of the building. In just the past month, the space has been used for the Economic Development Day Celebration, Littleton Idol, winter farmers' markets, and the Santa Party following the Christmas Parade last Friday – some of these events bringing in over 100 people. Long term, Stearns hopes to extend the venues offerings from town gathering to broader culture events and would eventually like to hire a promoter for such purposes.

"We want to put Littleton on the map as a cultural destination," Stearns said.

The idea is not one without historical precedent. Though more recently the building has been used for town gatherings – at one time, all the town's board meetings were held there – the Opera House has also often acted as a cultural hub for the region. From the very beginning, its identity was a fusion of the cultural and the civic (which perhaps accounts for some of the confusion as to what it should be called).

The Town Building – as it was originally called, according to The History of Littleton, New Hampshire, published in 1905 – was built for $33,836. This was more than double the $15,000 the residents had set as a limit for the project, and more than quadruple the $8,000 estimate they were given for the cost of the project. The building was to be used as the Fire Department, Police Department, jail, street department, town offices, court, and temporarily as the library as the current library was being built. The town had previously been renting a hall to house those services for $625 a year.

The Opera House was the "entire easterly end of the building." It had a seating capacity of 750, augmented by both the inclusion of seating on the first floor of the space (balcony seating is all that remains) and the lack of safety codes. The space included a stage, dressing rooms, and stage scenery.

The building was officially dedicated on June 15, 1895 – the first of many celebrations to be held at the venue.

The Opera House played host to a number of cultural acts in the first half of the 20th century, including the internationally-renowned Dunbar Male Quartet and Bell Ringers (featuring 200 bells) in 1913, The Klark Urban Stock Company's Shakespearean and operatic works in 1914, eminent soprano Leola Lucey (a performance that was recorded by the new Edison phonograph and played back to an amazed audience) in 1921, the Littleton Outing Club Minstrel Show in 1930, and the original monologues of stage and radio star Cornelia Otis Skinner (attracting 600 people) in 1937. Famed violin virtuoso Rubinoff delighted listeners with performances on his $100,000 Stradivarius in 1942 and 1963. The Littleton Winter Carnivals were revived in the 1950s, and variety shows and royalty plays were produced at the Opera House following the events.

Perhaps the best attended of the cultural events was the celebration of film star Bette Davis' birthday in April 1941, as well as the world premiere of her movie, "The Great Lie."

"[Davis'] place was in Sugar Hill, but she would come to Littleton all the time, especially for things at the Opera House," said Stearns.

The celebration attracted roughly 10,000 people to Littleton. A 200-pound cake was made for the event, measuring five feet tall and 30 feet in circumference. The cake was suspended from the center of the auditorium in the Opera House and a backdrop of Davis' house in Sugar Hill was hung across the stage where local residents sang songs written for the occasion.

The building has also been home to events of more widespread importance. In 1897, an illustrated lecture of the x-ray, invented two years prior, was presented in the venue. A New Year's Eve Party welcoming in the new century was held in the building in 1901.

The Opera House saw the beginning and end of wars. In April 1917, a Preparedness Rally saw Littleton's men off to war. More than 1,000 attended the event featuring the president of Dartmouth College as a speaker. The V-J Celebration on Aug. 14 and 15, 1946, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the end of the second World War, included an air show, military parade, baseball game, band concert, and fireworks display, and was concluded with a dance at the Opera House.

In 1970, restoration of the Opera House began in anticipation of the country's bi-centennial. The original chandelier and weathervane – both sold over the years – were replaced with exact replicas to join the original illuminated clock that had been modernized in 1953 with electric mechanisms. The Littleton Colonial Club oversaw the touching up of the ornate flowers painting along the balcony, the shining of the hardwood floors (which were later replaced in 1995), the hanging of new curtains, some rewiring and plumbing work, and the upgrading of the kitchen. In 1976, the town was awarded New Hampshire's first Bicentennial flag in recognition of restoration efforts at the Opera House.

Over the years, the building has been used as a movie theater, for wrestling competitions, country and western dances, and countless Littleton High School graduations. In fact, during the renovations in the 90s, a list of names from the 1895 graduating class was found under the floorboards of the balcony.

"When we were growing up, we would do everything here," said Fay Llyod, of the Littleton Historical Society, from dance lessons to roller-skating. "This was the Town Building, so if anything major happened in town, this building was involved."

"I think that is what Chad is looking for," said Lloyd, "to make the building important again."

Thank you to the Littleton Historical Society and the Littleton Public Library for their help in researching this article.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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