Opera and Embers
By Jen Kessler, Managing Editor
A lovingly restored theatre that reflects its glory days from 1879 through 1924 when it was home to touring vaudeville, melodrama and minstrel shows, Stuart's Opera House is the cornerstone of the Nelsonville Historic Arts District.
Get There! From Athens: 33 West toward Nelsonville/Columbus
You’ll navigate this snaking stretch for ten miles. The glaring greenery of ancient trees will hold your attention, should it be spring or summer time. The ragged, rutted bark will watch you, soulful and still, should it be winter. Gnarled branches stretch gracefully over decrepit silos, lonely trailers that pockmark Route 33. Those trailers will draw your eyes, tangling themselves in that vague and voyeuristic sense of curiosity that no human can quash within themselves. I want to see its guts, you’ll think. Who dwells in the recesses of that solitary, frail home?
You’ll be nearing Nelsonville soon. An enormous white sign to your right unabashedly shouts “Guns and Cash Loans.” You’ll definitely notice it; it may command your thoughts for a moment. Maybe not.
Turn right on to Hocking Street at Rocky Boots
Wait! Before you turn, glance to your left. That sagging brick building towering over these houses, that one that looks like it was a factory once – it hasn’t got a roof. It looks like it was lifted clean away, like it simply crumbled into nothingness. Your curiosity will be insanely piqued. Or maybe not. Go ahead and take that right now.
Nelsonville used to be booming. It was a coal mining town. You might feel as though that old time coal dust still hangs black and heavy in the air, sinking in to your lungs, your skin. You can nearly feel a century of economic strife.
Proceed to Public Square
The Square is the pounding heart of Nelsonville. The 19th century storefronts are preserved; most are still open and operating. The colors are vibrant. The lawns are manicured to perfection.
Opera House on your right at 52 Public Square
There! In the back right corner. That’s Stuart’s. That magnificent, hulking building has been quietly occupying this space since before the town had street lights, sewer systems, telephones, paved roads, mail delivery. 1879.
Since then, the Opera House has played host to wildly popular acts, to emptiness and vacancy, to a devastating fire and valiant acts of restoration. If you ever have an opportunity to glimpse the backstage area, you’ll see charred brick where those ravenous flames licked the walls in 1980. Whispers of hauntings float through the staff. The history that saturates the bowels of this beautiful building is ever present and poignant.
Parking available in front and on side streets
Take a right on Washington, just beyond the Opera House – there’s usually metered parking right there. Take a look at the exposed side of this mass of grandeur. Two cherry red fire escapes leak from its berth. If you glance down that brick alleyway in the back, you might catch one of the members of the small staff smoking a cigarette, hunkered down behind the overflowing collection of trash bins.
<img src="http://imgur.com/xRKrg.jpg" alt="Photo by: Erica McKeehen">
"In every community, it just takes a few people who have the will, the energy, and the vision to create a culture. Keeping this theater alive is a fantastic thing to do because so many people are affected by it." -- Richard Thompson, British folk rock legend, on Stuart’s Opera House
George Stuart’s showboat, The Arizona, sank in the Erie Canal in 1876.
(Back in the 19th century, before belching trains and rattling railways laced life together, performers carried their acts with them on showboats. These floating theaters traipsed gracefully up and down rivers and canals, namely the Ohio and Mississippi, manned by minstrels and showmen.)
Disheartened yet determined, Stuart made his way back to Nelsonville. The town was in the midst of an economic boom – the height of that manic and desperate cycle that commandeered the history of every Appalachian coal mining town – and had just been hooked to a railroad. This new means of transportation, combined with the general contentment and desire for leisure born of a thriving economy, paved the way for George Stuart’s dreams.
Stuart’s Opera House opened its doors in 1879. In the forty five years that followed, Stuart’s was wildly successful. Famous names in vaudeville and melodrama frequently graced the beautiful stage, and the building’s vital role as the community’s cultural Mecca had it acting in community theater, high school graduations, dances and recitals.
(Never opera, though, as was the case in the dozens of opera houses that littered southeastern Ohio. Research says that during the 1800s when most were constructed, theater still carried the remnants of negative connotation – it was seen as immoral, a vice. Opera, on the other hand, was considered exceptionally high class, a desirable function of culture. Thus the common misnomer.)
As Nelsonville forged ahead into the 20th century, the ugly underbelly of coal began to show its vicious colors. The town simply wasn’t as good for it as others. The economy began to slip into a destructive rut from which it is still trying to recover. The heyday was over.
Stuart’s Opera House closed its doors in 1924, leaving everything in its innards intact and untouched. She sat sleeping for fifty years, dark and quiet and a constant reminder that the town would never again reach its former state of grandeur.
1976 found a core of residents craving a performance hall once again. They set about forming a non-profit organization in order to restore Stuart’s, and the Opera House opened its doors once more in 1979.
In 1980, townspeople gathered in the Square to watch in horror as it burned to the ground. It took 150 firefighters five hours to extinguish the blaze, which had greedily devoured all but the first floor stores and the original dressing rooms. All that remained of Stuart’s was a charred and blackened husk and one million dollars in damages.
This, however, would not be the end. After another bout of exquisite care and extensive renovations, Stuarts was able to open once again in 1997 and remains open today.
You’re forced to wonder: What makes these valiant resurrections to an old arts building so necessary, so possible in a dingy, far-past-its-prime town where the average household income falls around 20,000 dollars a year? Stuart’s Opera House is a distinct treasure buried in the heart of squalor, and she’s been struggling for air since the rapid peaks and valleys of the coal industry induced demise of grandeur in the 1900s. The town refuses to let her sink, calling into question the infinitely pondered question of the importance of art. Think about that once you’ve gone from here.
You can leave Nelsonville the same way you came in. Away from Stuart’s, back out past Rocky Boots, back on to backwoods Rte 33. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the town sigh as she watches you go. You might swear that strains of old time vaudeville are audible, floating on the graceful Appalachian breeze.