Downtown’s Grand Old Lady

Each Thursday since June 6, 2012 the Sumter Opera House has presented a family movie as part of the Summer Kids’ Series.  With popularity growing among children and parents alike (partly due to the addition of a 7 p.m. showing), scores of visitors have enjoyed Madagascar 3, The Lorax, and other films.

However, I recently happened to look at the calendar for this week and noticed thatOpera-House-today there’s no movie playing on August 8 due to a large event that was scheduled nearly a year ago.  But fear not—the movies will be back on August 15 with Escape from Planet Earth.

Now, if you moved to Sumter after the early Eighties, you may be wondering why the Opera House is doing duty as a movie theatre in the first place (and not just for this series, but for the Downtown Friday Nights series, as well)—after all, it’s an “opera house,” right, as well as home to City Hall?  But in actuality, the Opera House spent almost 50 of its 120 years—from 1936 until 1982—as the Sumter Theatre, the city’s most opulent cinema.

Before the advent of in-home media such as radio, and then television, an evening’s entertainment often involved a trip into town to see a live performance, and South Carolina boasted numerous Opera Houses prior to the turn of the 20th century.  But with the rise of mass media, many of these structures were demolished or repurposed, so that today only a handful remain.  Of these, four are included on the National Register of Historic Places.  Among them is the Sumter Opera House, a splendid Richardson-Romanesque edifice with a clock tower soaring 100 feet into the sky, as it has for more than a century.

Sumter’s first performance venue was on the second floor of the Sumter Town Hall.  Academy-of-Music-1887Despite the state’s shaky Reconstruction-era finances under the administration of the colorful Governor Franklin I. Moses, it was completed in 1872.  Referred to as the “Opera House” only for the first year of its existence, it was known as the “Music Hall” for the next eighteen years.  This period was when it featured the only hometown performance (in 1886) of Clara Louise Kellogg, the first American prima donna of classical opera.  Other performances included The Mikado, Trial by Jury, Above the Clouds and other popular shows of the day.  In 1890, the name was changed again, this time to the Academy of Music.

During a performance by the Chick Company in 1892, the Academy of Music burned to the ground, and although no lives were lost, the community mourned theOpera-House-1894 destruction of its landmark.  But with the strong community spirit that has always been one of Sumter’s outstanding qualities, leaders were able to lay the cornerstone for a new building on December 27, 1893.  Completed within a year, the new Sumter Opera House featured the impressive four-faced clock tower, a sandstone façade with red mortar, and a breathtaking auditorium featuring a hand-carved, hand-painted proscenium in the Art Deco style.  It was once again the scene of theatricals and traveling road shows until the rise of “moving pictures” forced it out of business.

In 1936 (during the Great Depression), the Sumter Opera House interior was completely refurbished by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The $120,000 renovation (including a beautiful Art Deco interior) created 300 local jobs.  The first feature shown was Earthworm Tractors,  and the Sumter Theatre remained a movie Sumter-Theatrepalace (named to the National Register in 1973) until the decline of downtowns across America began in the late 1970’s.  It closed its doors in 1982.

In the mid-Eighties, the sadly neglected building was completely refurbished and reopened in 1987 as Sumter’s new City Hall.  Since then, it has once again become the proud centerpiece of our downtown, and has hosted concerts, plays, comedy shows, poetry readings, and a variety of entertainment that would rival the Music Hall during its heyday.  And once again, it’s Sumter’s most beautiful movie theatre.  For a fascinating detailed history of the building, please click here.   To follow current Opera House events, please “like” it on Facebook or check out the online calendar at http://www.sumtersc.gov/downtown-calendar-of-events.aspx.

Next time you’re in the Opera House—whether for a movie, a live performance, a graduation, or a government function—please take a moment to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you.  Downtown Sumter’s grande dame has come through some rough times, but still she stands tall, leading Sumter into the second decade of the 21st century.

For more information, please call (803) 436-2640.

by Colette Daniels

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