Portsmouth Music Hall reveals its past in “lost” finds within its walls

posted by philbertgray on July 22, 2008 at 8:08 pm

PORTSMOUTH NH – The Music Hall in Portsmouth is one of only 15 existing theatres built prior to 1900 in the United States. The Music Hall was built in 1878 by a group of citizens after a fire in 1876 destroyed the town’s meeting hall. The theatre is rich in history and has seen the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, Mark Twain, John Philip Souza, The US premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, and the local debut of the very first moving pictures on Edison’s Graphophone in 1898.

As films became the primary entertainment in the early 1920s the theatre continued a steady decline in attendance and was eventually sold at a public auction in 1945. The new owner painted much of the interior white, renamed it The Crest and instituted a venue of mostly second run and less popular films. The theatre was leased to the Loew’s chain in the mid 1960’s. In 1980 it was considered to old to be of any further use to Loews and was sold to a holding company. Ambitious plans to resurrect the theatre failed and a new owner proposed gutting it for condominiums. Portsmouth residents balked at this proposal and formed the non profit Friends of the Music Hall. They purchased the theatre and have spent the last two decades restoring this historic treasure.

The continued restoration of the theatre took little notice of its architectural past until 2006 when the removal of years of paint in the auditorium revealed the existence of a flamboyant decorative scheme from the theater’s earliest days. The elaborate mural and gilding of the proscenium was discovered and restored. In 2007 the similar discovery of an elaborate ceiling design was found under four coats of paint. Architectural conservators called it “so dramatic, it takes your breath away.” In September of 2007 a gala opening night ceremony revealed the restored auditorium. Current work includes the lobby restoration and expansion which will debut September 19, 2008.

As ongoing work progresses a trove of forgotten artifacts continue to surface. The New York Times recently published a fascinating tale of some of these finds including a 1908 poster from a production of “Way Down East” and a billfold lost in the men’s room in the 1950s. The full article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/us/21land.html along with a slide show of the interior and some of the finds in the theatre.

The theatre has an ongoing summer film fesitval that includes both new and classic films. For those of you close by the theatre is hosting tours every other Wednesday through 8/27/08 (7/30 – 08/13 – 08/27) at 5:30pm. Additional information about the tours, the summer film series and the ongoing restoration of the theatre can be founds at the theatre’s website at http://themusichall.org/index.asp

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