The 100th Anniversary of an Island Entertainment Milestone

text by Marissa Donovan
for 
The Working Waterfront’s Student Journalism Program


Today’s building, shown here shortly after it was built and opened in 1912, was placed on the footprint of the town’s original music hall.
Photo courtesy of Stonington Opera House

In 1912, Fenway Park first opened, the Oreo was invented, and the Titanic sank not far from the Maine coast. It was also the grand opening year of the Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle.

Marking its 100th anniversary, this iconic building is now on the National Register of Historic Places (NHRP). Built in 1912 on the previous site of a music hall that incinerated two years prior, the Opera House is one of the few extant buildings of its kind in Maine. Described by the NRHP, the architecture represents “a once common pattern of local cultural centuries.”

The Opera House has been used as a venue for movies, vaudeville performances, high school graduations, town meetings and many other community events. Today not much has changed, as the Opera House shows “stewardship to the community,” says executive director Linda Nelson. The Opera House continues the tradition of entertaining Deer Isle and Stonington. It still has the same popcorn machine from the 1920s and a movie screen from 1914.

The National Register also states that a list made by the Northeast Historic Film archive has found that 66 buildings in Maine have been referred to as “opera houses.” Field surveys have not been made to confirm how many have survived. “There were probably many more opera houses that have since disappeared,” said Christi Mitchell, an architectural historian of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “Often, if a community did not have an “opera house,” performances would be held in the town hall, a fraternal hall or a grange hall.”

The Stonington Opera House is not the only coastal entertainment venue in Maine still in operation. Lincoln Hall in Damariscotta, the Waldo Theatre in Waldoboro and Hammond Hall in Winter Harbor are similar to the Opera House and entertain their coastal communities.

The Opera House has planned many events to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Movies from 1912 to 2012 will be shown to the public for free, in honor of the movie projectors that were installed in 1918.

Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, an original opera production of author Robert McCloskey’s children’s book, has returned to the Opera House for its second year running.

Both kids and adults from the community act and sing together in the musical, directed by Joan Jubett. “Burt Dow was a great experience,” said local student performer Amy Bolton. “Performing at the Opera House allows one to have a sort of personal relationship with the audience, while still providing a high-quality performance. It’s a nice balance that’s hard to come by.”

Maine author and historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. will present postcards of the community from the 20th century on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. These postcards will display visuals of the Opera House from the past, views of the waterfront, villages, individual buildings and visible features of Stonington quarrying operations.

Over the years, community members have kept the Stonington Opera House going strong. “I have been volunteering at the Opera House for longer than I can remember,” said Sarah Wilson, a senior at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. She started at a young age by helping take candy out of cases for the concessions. As she got older, she gained more responsibilities such as selling concessions, making popcorn and working at the cash register and box office. Wilson now works year-round as house manager and has a full-time position in the lower box office during the summer. “I also still volunteer regularly and have found that I enjoy volunteering for shows even more than I enjoy being a patron,” she said.

Wilson enjoys the atmosphere that she works in. “Actors, directors, stage managers and others involved in professional theater are some of the most interesting and larger-than-life characters you will ever meet, and I found them fascinating,” she said. “It was wonderful to work so closely with these people. I believe that you really have to love the Opera House and its mission to work here. It takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work to make a nonprofit theater run as well as ours does.”

Of their hopes for this season, “What we are most looking forward to out of the centennial…is for a real, community-wide celebration and sense of pride in the longevity and success of this institution of the Stonington Opera House,” Nelson said. “The community owns this place, and everything we do is about engaging all parts of the community, and inciting not only art and creativity but pride in what our community has always been, and what it has the capacity to be.”

The Opera House has an eventful year ahead as it continues its centennial celebration. For more information, please visit www.operahousearts.org.

Marissa Donovan is a resident of Deer Isle and participant in The Working Waterfront’s Student Journalism Program.