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A history of the Shepherdstown Opera House

The Rise of Opera Houses

An “opera house” sounds like a civilized place for entertainment —  exactly what towns and cities across the United States were intending when they built these new types of venues to attract the itinerant performers who were crisscrossing the country after the Civil War.

The term “vaudeville” would eventually stick as a general term for the popular performance of this era (between the 1870s and 1920s). Citizens across the country could attend shows featuring a broad variety of acts. Early performances included one-man bands, traveling repertoire troops, jugglers, magicians, singers, lecturers. By the early 20th century, traveling silent film projectionists began making their rounds.  

A Nationwide Entertainment Network

Author Ann Satterthwaite chronicles the rise and fall of the main street opera house from the 1870s through the 1920s in her book Local Glories. It was a good run, with some western gold/silver boom towns hosting palatial theaters seating thousands and regular circuits competing for the top performers such as Sara Bernhardt, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, and Mark Twain.

Cover art for the book Local Glories by Ann Satterhwaite.

Opera houses brought a national culture of popular entertainment to many small towns in an era when railroad travel coast to coast was easy, but getting one town over was still done by horse or on foot.

With the rollout of talking films at the end of the 1920s, opera houses gave way to “movie palaces,” many designed with exotic themes and lavish seating. The number of opera house venues numbered in the thousands. Fast forward to the present and that count has dwindled. Today, the number of opera houses still standing and functioning as entertainment venues can fit on a single sheet of paper. 

Shepherdstown Gets Its Opera House

Upton Scott Martin purchased the property for Shepherdstown’s Opera House in December 1909. There was a small wood house on the new property which he had torn down. The Opera House was ready for shows by June of 1910. There was no plumbing or electricity provided, so construction was a bit simpler back then.

Up the street, Jefferson Security Bank still occupied the Billmyer building (today’s Admiral Analog’s record store). Licklider’s general store was next door (the current Press Room restaurant). Trains stopped at the Norfolk & Western train station. The Volunteer Fire Company still occupied the old market house in the center of King Street. The Entler Hotel was doing a thriving business (and not yet consumed by the 1912 fire).

The first few years saw a rotating cast of performers at the Opera House. Several of the town police officers who purchased a hand-cranked projector to show motion picture shows in the “family theater.” Various local organizations held “chaperoned dances” for youth upstairs.

When Clifford S. Musser needed a space for the offices and printing equipment for his new Independent newspaper, he became the first permanent tenant of the Opera House in March 1914. All of his equipment was operated by hand-operated (and hand-carried to the third floor). In May of that year Musser, with his wife Ada, took on the theater operations too. By April 1915, the Mussers had moved into a newly constructed apartment suite on the second floor. They ultimately purchased the entire building in 1926. 

The Musser family ran the theater until May of 1957. Operation of the newspaper continued until 1974 (which had by then expanded into the Licklider building next door). Then theater sat, dark and untouched, into the late 1980s. Rusty and Pam Berry refurbished and reopened it in the early 1990s.

Rebuilding The Shepherdstown Opera House

The Opera House was forced to close 2018 after a water line in the building broke and flooded the theater and second floor. Over the next few years, the entire building underwent extensive renovation and reopened in the spring of 2023. The renovated Opera House preserves historic elements of the buildings while improving accessibility and adding amenities to provide an amazing experience for artists and audiences alike.

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