News Column

Havre de Grace opera house has intriguing past, hopeful future

June 27, 2014

By Bryna Zumer, The Aegis, Bel Air, Md.

June 27--They say it ain't over until the fat lady sings, and the colorful life of the Havre de Grace Opera House is clearly far from over.

The building on North Union Avenue, discreetly tucked next to what is now a Susquehanna Hose Company station, has been a focal point for performing arts and city life for Havre de Grace, on and off, since it was built in 1871.

It's the focus of a $2.8 million renovation project that could dramatically upgrade the building's look and, organizers say, make it accessible to people of all generations.

The fundraising campaign underway is the biggest effort at remodeling the historic property to date. Those behind it, and those who regularly use the building, are hopeful it will have a big payoff.

The entire 100 block of North Union Street could look pretty different within the next decade.

Just across the street from the opera house, a much pricier project is being rolled out to re-build the Havre de Grace library branch.

Public money is going toward both buildings, and the opera house's foundation just celebrated getting $250,000 from the state (a $200,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and $50,000 approved in a bond bill), pushing revenues past $1 million.

The foundation had received roughly $725,000 toward the project, including a 2013 state grant of $250,000 and another $250,000 from the city last year, according to foundation chairman William Price.

"That is going to be a very synergistic part of the city," Bill Watson, head of the city's tourism advisory board, said. "Just for the arts and entertainment district, it's going to be a boon for that."

"The city owns the opera house and will continue to own it, and through a private-public partnership, we will be able to utilize the building for performances as well as general community services," Watson said.

Tide is high

After its original role as an opera headquarters ended, the two-story building (that was once a three-story building) served as city hall, a dance hall and the home of Tidewater Players.

Laurie Sentman Starkey, president of the board of directors for the theatre group, recalled going to dances at the building while growing up in Havre de Grace.

"When I was young, it was a teen center," Starkey, 49, said. "I remember they had a dance marathon and I slept on the stage."

"There's a lot of people that have fond memories of the building," she said.

Tidewater Players has been at the opera house since 1979. City Mayor Wayne Dougherty said although the building had been used for many years, it had not really been well maintained.

"There were a lot of issues with that building," he said. About five years ago, "I put out an initiative to make it safe again in dealing with lead paint, bringing it up to code as much as we could."

When Tidewater Players came in, Starkey said, the building was still an "aqua color" and had folding chairs.

Volunteers with the company did all the painting, replaced a ripped black drape with a new green one, extended the stage and got real theater chairs from Aberdeen Proving Ground, she said.

The new renovation would make the building handicap-accessible, up the seating capacity from 120 to 200, upgrade the theater, connect it with the firehouse via the second floor and add a box office, dressing rooms and meeting space.

"The biggest thing is handicap accessibility. That is huge," Starkey said. "We forever will be doing a performance where kids [have] grandparents who just can't come up those stairs."

Starkey said the company even looked into getting a chair lift but that was too expensive.

She is concerned, however, about what the renovation will ultimately mean for the Tidewater Players.

"We have mixed feelings about it," she said of the grand restructuring plans.

The drama company has been the building's only major user, except for the occasional performance by the bluegrass group Freedom Road or a staging of "The Vagina Monologues," Starkey said.

The improvements, and the possibility of other groups using the space, could mean less storage space for Tidewater Players.

"Since we have been there for so long, it's going to mean we are going to have to find storage elsewhere," she said. "Everything about us is located there because we are totally run by volunteers."

With the renovations, "we are not really sure how our day-to-day operations are going to look."

Starkey nevertheless called the blueprints "absolutely stunning" and said she hopes the project can preserve items like the tin ceilings and some interior paint work.

"It's very important to us that they maintain the historic beauty of the building because there is so much that is beautiful about the building," she said. "It reminds me a lot of some of the off-Broadway theaters in New York."

Tidewater Players is one of the oldest continually-operating community theatres in the state and the building is "our home," she said, calling it a nicely "intimate" space.

"Every member of the audience really has a good seat," she said. "It presented challenges because it's so small but we have never shied away from doing things even though the theater was so intimate."

History and haunting

The opera house is unusual in a small town like Havre de Grace, at least in this part of the country.

A comparable building in a similar community nearby is in Westminster, Carroll County.

Watson said Havre de Grace, "like many small towns, had opera houses," but he also thought the phenomenon may have been more common in the West.

Unlike the Westminster building, a three-story property now listed for sale, the Havre de Grace site is picking up economic steam and has already gotten plenty of financial support from the town.

Besides offering a venue for Tidewater Players, "it is going to present an opportunity for other types of entertainment to make a stop in Havre de Grace, from nationally prominent musicians to other performing arts," Watson said.

The building also may have one other performer who's a little less corporeal.

"We do believe we have a resident ghost in the building, because we have cool little things that happen every so often," Starkey noted.

The friendly spirit, dubbed Penelope, has been known to turn on just one ceiling fan during "The Civil War" musical and push someone up the stairs.

"I hope that renovations don't change that, if there is a spirit there that enjoys the building," she said.

___

(c)2014 The Aegis (Bel Air, Md.)

Visit The Aegis (Bel Air, Md.) at www.baltimoresun.com/explore/harford/publications/the-aegis

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Aegis, The (Bel Air, MD)


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