After the original Barre City Hall/Barre Opera House building was destroyed by fire in 1898, the current building was erected on the same site. The new Opera House, considered to be the finest in Vermont, seated 1,000 patrons and opened on August 23, 1899.
For its first 45 years, the Opera House served as performance space and community gathering site for such important events as the appearances of Helen Keller, socialist Eugene Debs, George M. Cohan and his family, anarchist Emma Goldman, John Philip Sousa and his band, Tom Mix and his horse. In 1912, the Opera House’s outer balcony served as a political soapbox for President William Howard Taft and as a backdrop for a Barre rally featuring former President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the 1930s and 40s the Opera House functioned primarily as a movie theater with occasional breaks in the schedule for variety shows, boxing and wrestling matches. However, with the addition of more modern movie theaters in town, the Barre Opera House doors closed in January, 1944, not to open again for almost 40 years.
Starting in the mid-seventies, a groundswell of community interest and support culminated in the re-opening of the Opera House in October of 1982, in spite of the dingy walls, broken windows, lack of proper seats and heating.
Since then, the Barre Opera House has continued its work towards complete restoration and renovation. One year it was the installation of a heating system, the next came theater chairs on the main floor. Curtains, stage lights and other amenities were gradually added as the community contributed the time, talents and financial resources necessary. Increased usage and attendance led to our most major capital construction project completed in 1993. This community-funded, million dollar project included the installation of an elevator, making us physically accessible to the box office, lobby, stage and dressing rooms, and the re-installation of seating in the balcony, raising our seating capacity by 50% to 649.
The work didn’t stop there. In the years since, we have added an infrared listening system for the hearing impaired, a full service box office, and have installed a state of the art heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, built to exceptional standards to maintain the acoustical purity of the theater. In the summer of 2005, we began a complete overhaul of our theatrical lighting system, beginning with the replacement of our electrical wiring and the project was completed in 2006.
2008 saw the installation a brass railing around the perimeter of the orchestra pit and the replacement of brass rails in the opera boxes that went missing during the theater’s period of disuse. In 2010, we sound-proofed the theater from the busy downtown streetscape by adding interior storm windows. We’re currently illuminating the beautiful balcony stained glass window to make it visible from the outside of the building. On the horizon are stage rigging improvements and reupholstering of the orchestra section seating in rich burgundy to complete the color scheme throughout the theater.
The ongoing mission to restore and operate this historic facility is only possible through the continued support of our community, which views its financial contributions to the Barre Opera House as an investment in the historic and cultural quality of life in central Vermont. To date, this dedicated community of individuals, organizations and businesses has contributed close to two million dollars to the re-birth of this historic treasure.
More than 20,000 people visit the Barre Opera House annually, attending performing arts rehearsals and events, public forums, corporate and private functions and community meetings. We serve a broad range of ages, both as audience members and performers, and people travel from all over the state to participate in events held at the Opera House. We host student matinees, where bus-loads of school children are brought in to experience live performing arts first-hand, and we provide space for local school children and student musicians to perform their own productions. In addition to central Vermont youth and adults, we serve a growing number of our seniors, as we present more and more afternoon matinees. And, as the Opera House is accessible to those with physical and hearing disabilities, we are serving a large community of people with special needs.
In addition to this wide variety of patrons, the Opera House provides a much needed performance space for many Vermont arts groups. The Opera House is home to the Vermont Philharmonic and The Barre Players. We are the central Vermont performance venue for the Vermont Symphony and our lobby offers a rotating gallery space dedicated to featuring local artists. In addition, many non-profit organizations use the Opera House for fund-raisers, public forums and special functions, and they, along with numerous others, benefit from every improvement made to the facility.