To enhance the economic and cultural development of Newberry County and the Midlands through the window of the arts in concert with educational opportunities for all.
A Brief History:
The Newberry Opera House was completed in 1881 at a cost of $30,000. C.L. Norman, architect from Columbia, S.C., designed the French Gothic-inspired structure. The building was designed as a place of entertainment for the local citizenry and as a seat of government for the city. The building is an excellent example of Victorian civic eclectic architecture.
The building was constructed with brick from three local brickyards. The granite used in the construction came from a quarry approximately two miles outside of the city limits. Local craftsmen’s and artisans’ talents in woodworking and masonry were used throughout the construction of the original building.
The original design called for the first floor to house the fire engine room, council chambers, a clerk’s office, a police officer, and three jail cells. The second floor was a hall 53 by 52 feet with a stage 29 by 52 feet. The floor had an inclination of two feet four inches from the rear of the hall to the stage. In connection with the hall were a ticket office, a "green room", a cloakroom, and three dressing rooms.
The building had a tower 130 feet high topped with a Gar fish weather vane, and the tower housed an E. Howard Tower town clock which was 90 feet from the ground.
A gas lighting system was installed with a reflector, or "sun burner", for added brilliance. Drop curtains and seven scenes or sets for the stage were available. One scene, a landscape, survived to the late 20thcentury.
The Opera House quickly became known as "the entertainment center of the Midlands". On its stage appeared touring companies of New York plays, minstrel and variety shows, famed vocalists and lecturers, magicians and mind readers, novelty acts and boxing exhibitions.
The Opera House was used not only by professional performers but also by the community. Meetings, dances, college commencement exercises, and musicals were held in the spacious auditorium.
Silent "moving pictures" were shown at the Opera House in the early 1900s. A "Thomas Edison Talkie" was presented in the late teens. It used a phonograph record for sound. Slowly, movies replaced the big stage shows, and in the 1920s the Opera House was remodeled as a movie theater.
In 1952 with the showing of The Outlaw, the Opera House was closed as a movie theater. By 1959, there was talk about tearing it down, but a public outcry stopped the wrecking ball. The Newberry Historical Society in 1969 promoted the preservation of the Opera House, as did several other community groups. In 1970 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The City of Newberry vacated the building in 1992. The exterior restoration and window replacement were completed in 1994.
The interior renovation was begun in 1996. An additional 10,000 square feet was added to the original building in order to create a full theatrical production facility. The total cost of the renovation was approximately $5,500,000.
The seating capacity is 426 at maximum capacity. The theater is equipped with state of the art lighting and sound systems. The Bayreuth orchestra pit easily accommodates Broadway and operatic productions. The theater boasts a full-size rehearsal hall with an acoustically soundproof, electrically locked door. The theater has electronic capabilities that readily facilitate live television production and transmission.
The citizens of the City of Newberry are proud to be the owners of the Newberry Opera House and contributors to the performing arts in the Midlands of South Carolina. The Newberry Opera House is leased from the City of Newberry and is operated by the Newberry Opera House Foundation.
Renovation and Transformation:
The renovation of the Newberry Opera House was the heart of a six million dollar project, which returned the building to its former glory, and transformed the interior to a full featured, professional, and engaging center for the arts and the community. A renowned architectural firm, Craig, Gaulden & Davis, Inc., which has successfully completed such projects as the Peace Center in Greenville, SC, developed the drawings. Experienced theater consultants recommended design features to maximize the quality of the theater’s acoustics, comfort and esthetics.
The restored structure, done by Mashburn Construction Company of Columbia, S.C., married historical accuracy with a state-of-the-art performance space ideal for internationally recognized performers and the regional audiences they will attract. The facility also includes spacious public areas and support spaces and is completely accessible to all patrons.
The Opera House’s electrical, plumbing, and heating and air conditioning systems were replaced, and state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems have been installed. Restoration also included a 10,000 square foot addition to house a new loading dock, an elevator, a second stage for rehearsal, and dressing rooms. The improvements for the building incorporate full accessibility and an assisted hearing and TDD capability.
The Opera House project design included acoustic isolation and shaping of the performance space, and a space conditioning system that is virtually silent. Oversized doors and corridors provide for the easy flow of patron traffic and for movement of instruments and set pieces.
The facility offers a variety of specialized theatrical lighting and sound reinforcement systems, and exhibition spaces for area artists. Large and gracious public spaces accommodate a variety of events, and allows for catered gatherings.
Space is allocated for additional public meetings, to host the frequent visits of area schools, and as secondary rehearsal space. The project plans for the Opera House also called for the preservation and restoration of the original exterior brick work and for the replacement of the building’s windows.
The restored Newberry Opera House is the catalyst for an artistic and economic rebirth in Newberry, helping to showcase talented area artists and fostering a creative environment which draws regional artists and creative people and visitors from throughout the South, who will come, create, perform, enjoy and display the arts in Newberry.
The success of a facility like the Opera House is proven by its use. There is a constant flow of people and activities in the building. The goal is to keep the Opera House filled and busy.
As part of its role as a center of community activity, the Box Office also serves as a central information point for Newberry citizens, not only selling tickets for Opera House events, but also for arts performances throughout the area, sporting events, and civic and special events.
A sense of ownership will be developed among students of all ages. Educational opportunities and opportunities to work and to serve in the project as well as the artistic experience of enjoying a performance will be available to senior groups and organizations of every type as well as to individuals. Opera House educational programming will engage people from throughout the Midlands-Piedmont region.
Area schools and Newberry College are partners in the venture as is the business community. The City of Newberry is an active partner and area political leaders are enthusiastically supportive. The Newberry Opera House Foundation Board includes business, cultural, and civic leaders.
A partnership with the State Museum will frequently bring traveling exhibitions to the new facility. The South Caroling Arts Commission sees a restored facility as a venue for showcasing South Carolina playwrights, composers, and artists.
Arts Centers like the Newberry Opera House make effective catalysts for attracting visitors into an area. In the first year of operation, the new facility will sponsor or host 140 events. With a capacity of 426 seats, the Opera House should draw more than 50,000 people to downtown Newberry in its first year.
Many guests will visit the area twice, once to pick up the tickets at the box office and again to attend the show. Others will visit the lobby gallery, which will display work from local artists and artisans, and visiting exhibitions from South Carolina institutions like the State Museum. The Opera House will also sponsor programs for area schools, events which will bring hundreds more children to the Opera House.
The Opera House’s most dramatic and lasting impact may come in the form of ongoing economic development. Successful recruitment of new industry, and the expansion of existing industry, inevitably follow the enhanced quality of life produced by a community with an artistically stimulated, involved citizenry. Quality of life, good schools, and a vigorous cultural environment, are among the top priorities for most leading growth-oriented companies.
South Carolina, rich in history and culture, is lacking in arts facilities. Bracketed on the north by the Greenville-Spartanburg corridor and on the south by Columbia, the area along I-26 appears to be artistically dormant, but is actually alive with talented artists, who are looking for a place to perform and exhibit.
Nowhere in the region can a national theater or opera company play to over 400 people in a more current, acoustically sophisticated facility. Performers will find a gracious, state of the art home in the Newberry Opera House.
Many arts groups and individual artists thrive in the Midlands of South Carolina. Members of the Newberry Ballet Guild both teach and perform. Newberry College’s dynamic and respected music and theater departments, and the area’s public schools, have outstanding arts teachers and talented students. The Newberry Fine Arts Center and it’s group of local visual artists are an important part of the local arts scene. And the Community Players, the local theater group, present a variety of theatrical events. The company works in an art deco theater, The Ritz, which serves as the second anchor for the proposed Newberry "arts district".
The Newberry Opera House Means Business
Traditionally throughout the country, arts centers have sparked business revivals in deteriorating urban areas. The impact of arts centers on downtown districts, economic growth and the overall business climate of a city is substantial and verifiable. Through the Opera House project success, Newberry can develop a vibrant cultural identity that will reach far beyond the city limits to stimulate economic growth and bring visitors and tourists to the Midlands-Piedmont region.
The economic impact of similar projects has been documented many times over the last twenty years, beginning with the remarkable change in the upper West Side of Manhattan after the construction of Lincoln Center. Revitalized communities ranging in size from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Abbeville, SC all attest to the economic strength of the arts and to their power as magnets for drawing people.
An Important Part of Newberry’s Past, Present and Future
The Newberry Opera House has been the heart of Newberry County for more than 100 years, serving both as the cultural center of the region and, more recently, as the home for the City’s fire, police, transportation, and municipal services. Built in 1882, the historic structure’s French Gothic clock tower dominates the City’s skyline and has, since its construction, been a landmark for the area.
In its prime, the Opera House was an artistic lodestar, drawing the nation’s best performers to South Carolina. Visiting groups included theatrical troupes, burlesque acts, musical groups, and performers ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to Tex Ritter. Even members of the famous Barrymore family are said to have performed in the historic structure.
Although the majestic performance space has been dark for decades, until 1994, the main floor of the Opera House housed City offices. Structurally sound and culturally significant, the Opera House has been restored by both local residents and national specialists in theater restoration.
After decades of neglect and use for administrative purposes, the Opera House restoration required substantial effort and investment. The Newberry Opera House Foundation Board thoroughly studied the feasibility of restoration, consulting with historic renovation specialists, engineers, and theater consultants from South Carolina and around the country. These professionals unanimously recommended that the Opera House be renovated and returned to its original use, as a focus for the town and a gathering place for Newberrians and arts audiences throughout the region. It has once again become a place for plays, art exhibits, musical performances, and social, cultural, and business gatherings. The Southeast has a restored Opera House.
Community leaders view the Opera House as a vital step in the growth of the area’s cultural and business environment. The restoration of the Opera House brings a new center of commerce, and a revitalized identity to downtown Newberry.
Arrows Hit the Mark
For nearly 25 years Mr. Walter Sims has served our community, working with Fulmer Wells and caring for the Newberry Opera House. As custodian of the Opera House one can only imagine all that he was able to see and do because of this job, the actors and actresses he must have seen and the local citizens he met. He felt in his spirit a close personal attachment to the magnificent structure. As anyone who has responsibility for a building can attest, an inanimate object can take on a personality of its own.
These are the thoughts that must have been on Mr. Sims mind when he gifted the Opera House with a donation of major importance. The gentle man left his collection of arrowheads and Indian artifacts to the Opera House. This collection, which he had personally gathered during his life, was once proudly displayed over his fireplace. Mr. Walter Sims was born in Newberry in 1923 and died 1998. He graduated from Drayton Street School. He joined the military in 1942 where he served first in the Artillery and then in the Signal Corps. It was in the Signal Corps that he fought in Europe in Belgium, France and Germany during World War II.
When he returned to Newberry, Mr. Sims went to work for Mr. Fulmer Wells and Mr. Henry Burton Wells. He and Mr. Fulmer Wells cared for the Opera House for more than 25 years. Mr. Sims also cared for the Wells Japanese Garden, until the time when responsibility for it was given to the City of Newberry.
In addition to his love of Newberry and of the Opera House, Mr. Sims was an avid reader and historian. His historical knowledge, mainly self-taught centered on Newberry County. This fascination with our history led him to begin collecting arrowheads, points and prehistoric Indian artifacts. Over his lifetime, Mr. Sims collected well over 100 artifacts.
A local businessman commented about Mr. Sims: " he had so little—but he gave so much. He seemed like one of many but he stands above most. He may have had little education but he knew so much. A man whom few of us knew, or even knew about, he has set an example for all of us to follow."
The citizens of Newberry are indebted to this unselfish individual for his dedicated service, for his generous gift, and for his inspiring example. He has re-taught us all the age-old biblical lesson when he gave his most prized possession to the project which he loved.
When you enter the Opera House and see the wall of honor recognizing the generous donors to the Opera House, let us also pay tribute to an exceptional man – Mr. Walter Sims.