Off the Clock: Dinner, a play and history

On a recent Friday evening, Claire Getz and her husband Michael put a twist on their typical dinner-and-a-movie routine. Tired of the cineplex choices, the couple instead opted to take in the live production of “Smokey Joe’s Café” at the Palace Theatre on Hanover Street in Manchester.

“We thought this would be a nice change,” said Claire, who admitted saving visits to the Palace for special occasions. “I don’t know why we don’t do this more often. It changes a usual Friday night routine into something special.”

Constructed around or before the turn of the last century, historic theaters and opera houses like the Palace Theatre are located along the main streets of towns at each corner of the Granite State.

Ticket prices for their performances are as varied as the entertainment at these regal landmarks. Productions run the gamut from live theatrical performances to independent films and from musical ensembles to comedians.

“There is something about live performances, that you just can’t replicate anywhere else,” said Alec Doyle, executive director of the Colonial Theatre in Keene, one of the restored facilities.

Nearly a dozen theaters and opera houses like the Colonial are scattered throughout New Hampshire. Many spent decades in disrepair before the dedication and financial support of local residents brought them back from the brink of destruction. Each restored building boasts a history that includes vaudeville entertainment, famed musicians, comedians and early film treasures.

The Palace Theatre, built in 1914, is located on Hanover Street in Manchester. Such beloved personalities including Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton graced its stage before the introduction of movies. By the 1930s it had become a movie house, first showing silent movies, then introducing talkies before closing its theatrical doors in the ‘60’s.

Today, the 870-seat theater once again welcomes patrons with a changing lineup of live professional theater productions, comedy shows, musical events and family entertainment.

The Wilton Town Hall Theatre, circa 1883, is located on Main Street in Wilton. It too was a stop for vaudeville acts, but currently shows artistic and independent films not typically found in today’s traditional movie theaters.

The Wilton Town Hall Theater also shows productions in its 250-seat “Big House” and its 63-seat “screening room” which once served as the changing room for visiting actors.

The Colonial Theater has graced Keene’s Main Street since 1924. Like the other New Hampshire performing houses, The Colonial welcomed vaudeville and opera stars during it heyday. Historic figures like Thornton Wilder and Amelia Earhart also took to its stage.

The Colonial’s doors were closed for more than a decade by the end of the 1980s and didn’t reopen until 1995.

Today, the Colonial boasts a state-of-the-art movie screen, showing films on a nightly basis and hosting live musical and theatrical entertainment.
Farther north, the Capital Center for the Arts, on Main Street in Concord, opened its doors to vaudeville in 1927. The introduction of moving pictures turned the Capital Center into the area’s premiere movie house, but it too closed its doors in 1989. Today the 1,037-seat theater hosts a wide mix of events and performances, including Broadway shows, dance performances, comedy and family entertainment and more in its state-of-the-art facility.

The Colonial Theatre of Bethlehem opened in July 1915 on the Main Street of a town then known as the Northeast’s premiere summer playground. So popular was the region, in fact, that the theater was actually used by Hollywood studios as a testing ground for new films.

Today, the 325-seat theater shows independent films nightly throughout the summer and plays host to musical, theatrical and children’s performers throughout the year.

The Franklin Opera House opened as part of the town’s Soldier’s Memorial Hall on Central Street in Franklin in 1893. Its stage was the backdrop for numerous musical and theatrical performances.

During the Depression, the Opera House provided social programs and hosted sporting events.

Today the 800-seat Franklin Opera House is once again a cultural center of the region, hosting community events and theatrical and musical performances.

Over in the Connecticut River Valley, The Lebanon Opera House operated as a live theater and host of community events from its 1924 opening until the early ‘50s, when it became the town movie theater. Through the combined efforts of a local music teacher, a theater promoter and Dartmouth College, professional productions began appearing once again at the 800-seat facility by the early 1970s. Today, the Lebanon Opera House hosts community and corporate events, and live performances.

On the Seacoast, the Rochester Opera House, located on Wakefield Street in Rochester, opened its doors on Memorial Day 1908.

Today, the 950-seat theater once again hosts live theater and musical performances and community events.

The Ioka on Water Street in Exeter is said to have been given its Indian name, meaning “playground,” shortly after its 1915 opening by a girl scout who later became the theater’s first cashier.

The site of vaudeville and burlesque shows and silent film screenings in the early teens, the Ioka proved an escape from the worries of the Depression during the 1930s.

Today, the 525-seat theater still boasts an Art Deco décor, a built-in soda fountain, antique jukebox and the “only Fotoplayer in its ‘natural habitat’” according to the theater’s Web site. The theater plays first-run movies and hosts a variety of live entertainment.

The Music Hall was built in 1878 on Chestnut Street in Portsmouth and has been in service ever since. It is the oldest theater in New Hampshire, second oldest in New England and 14th oldest in the country. It seats 900 patrons and showcases live theater, music and family entertainment as well as an ongoing film series.

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