The Magazine of South Carolina

"Hark Ye to Newberry!"

The Newberry Opera House after one season has emerged as an important—and charming—venue.


Scene From "The Barber of Seville"

Auditorium Interior

Scene From "Die Fledermaus"

Vocalist Stella Parton

Opera House Exterior

by Daniel E. Harmon

Actor Tony Randall’s eyes widened as he walked onto the Newberry Opera House stage. The 426 red, cushioned seats were now empty but in a few hours would all be occupied for his performance. From front row center to the balcony and the cozy side chair arrangements, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. His eyes went to the beautiful, huge chandelier, then to the control windows inconspicuously set into the rear wall. Here was the ultimate theatrical setting, classic, intimate, elegant. He knew immediately he was going to enjoy this. "Wow," he said. "This is what it’s all about."

Other performers had similar compliments during the refurbished hall’s opening season, 1998–99. Many of their words are penned on a backstage wall. Country star Marty Stewart was the first of several to liken it to a living room performance. "This hall is one beautiful dream," wrote Charles Wadsworth, director of chamber music for Spoleto and the Lincoln Center. "Why do they call it work when this is so much fun?" asked singer/songwriter Kathy Mattea. And Roy Clark of "Hee-Haw" confessed, "I don’t want to leave for fear you won’t invite me back."

Frequent sell-outs are the fiscal mark of success in entertainment—and the opera house had more than its share last season. But Deborah Smith, executive director of the Newberry Opera House Foundation, has another benchmark. "What’s been so gratifying," she says, "has been how much the performers have enjoyed it. All of them want to come back."

Why? For one thing, they clearly enjoy spending a day or two in laid-back Newberry, where they can stroll the streets without fear or hassles. For another, they find that Smith and staff are eager to please. Example: John Davidson was distraught to discover his stuffed ocelot prop had been damaged in transit when he arrived to perform his "Bully" profile of Theodore Roosevelt. Not to worry: Smith put out the word to local taxidermists and within four hours, Davidson had not one but three replacement ocelots to consider (one of which he bought).

The seasonal schedule, much of it booked a year in advance, is a mixture of theatre—drama and comedy, solo portrayals and Broadway productions—and musical concerts of every variety. And, of course, opera. Not only did the City of Newberry retain the name of the historic building; it ended up with its own resident professional opera company. The Newberry Opera Company is a class organization that last season staged such favorites as "The Mikado," "Die Fledermaus" and "The Barber of Seville."

Altogether, 165 shows played the first season—not to mention rehearsals and other events.

The circa-1881 opera house is a small town gem that almost went the way of the demolition ball in the 1950s, but for an outpouring of community pride. Early this century, it showed silent films and housed live performances by vaudevillians, magicians, minstrels and stage performers, including the legendary Barrymores. During and after World War II, it was a movie theatre and a stop for touring western screen stars like Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers.

Then it closed, and city officials considered tearing it down. Public opposition saved it. The building, with its 130-foot clock tower, had become a landmark to four generations. The Newberry Historical Society and other community groups began promoting the building’s preservation and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1991, the Newberry Opera House Foundation (NOHF) was formed and began a $6-million restoration project, hiring the renowned architectural firm of Craig, Gaulden & Davis, Inc., as planners. Mashburn Construction Company of Columbia carried out the work, preserving historical accuracy while installing a state-of-the art performance center—and, for its efforts, winning a 1999 merit award from Associated General Contractors.

Dr. James Wiseman, a local dentist and NOHF president, is recognized as the driving force behind the project. He’s justifiably ecstatic with the grandiose result—not to mention its immediate success.

What was the key? "We had a solid foundation," he reflects. "We got the right people on the board to make it work." And, he adds, they found the right director: Smith. "Deborah is the catalyst behind this whole thing. She’s the soul of it. I knew it would never work without someone like her—and she’s the only person I know like her.

"There are times for everything. To get the right situation and the right people to coincide is the key. We couldn’t have done this in 1970 or 1980."

Even after the first season ended, the opera house stayed busy during the summer with concerts by touring artists. It also hosts as many as 200 visitors a day; some groups are bused from out of state to see the facility. And it’s gearing up for Season No. 2, which officially begins September 24 when the Newberry Opera Company stages "Pirates of Penzance."

All of Newberry is booming, thanks largely to the draw and excitement of the opera house. Motels and bed-and-breakfasts fill quickly with performers and crews, and with fans who drive here from throughout South Carolina and across state borders. Several excellent dineries are within walking distance, including Steven W’s, Just Benji’s and the Cabana Cafe; they’re packed on performance nights. It’s estimated that in addition to a blitz of local business and industry growth, opera house patrons spend almost $6 million annually in the community.

How does a small city support as many as four cultural events a week, many of them sell-outs?

Smith first points to the vast community support Newberry provides. Area citizens are not only regular attendees; 250 of them are hands-on volunteers. She also credits the arts communities in Columbia, Greenville and other parts of the state with helping promote the effort. "There’s a synergy in this state that’s unbelievable." And she cites the continuing guidance and inspiration of Wiseman. "It’s a project that was driven by a vision. It was pushed along by somebody who wouldn’t let go."

Finally, she beams, there’s the opera house itself. "It’s a neat place!"

For details about the Newberry Opera House and events, contact the Newberry Opera House Foundation, 1201 McKibben St., Newberry 29108; (803) 276-6264; For information about Newberry, see the article "All Smiles" in the Spring 1998 Sandlapper, Page 19.


Home Page | Back to "Sandlapper Illustrated" Contents