The Music Hall takes center stage

For more than a century, The Music Hall in Portsmouth has served as a meeting place and entertainment venue for residents of and visitors to New Hampshire’s Port City.

Formerly known as “The Temple” and later “the Civic,” New Hampshire’s oldest theater has drawn crowds with live shows, films, speakers and musicians. Thanks to recently completed renovations, however, The Music Hall itself is now worthy of the spotlight, and has begun opening its doors for guided tours once a month.

The Music Hall tours were introduced following the completion of an interior renovation project that began in 2005 and was made possible by a $400,000 grant awarded from the National Park Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation, after the facility was named an “American Treasure” in 2003.

Music Hall historian and production manager Zhana Morris hosts the tours, ushering visitors back in time with tales of a bygone era, when Shakespearean actors and such memorable figures as Buffalo Bill Cody and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company of Gilbert and Sullivan fame took to the Music Hall’s stage.

Morris talks of work performed at the theater by local sailors and shares historical anecdotes about former owners of the facility from as far back as 1878, when members of Portsmouth’s Peirce family banded together to resurrect the Portsmouth landmark one year after it was destroyed by fire.

While its history is intriguing, it is the building itself that takes center stage during the Music Hall tour, with ornate architecture and grand paintings capturing the attention of visitors.

Eyes are drawn up toward the newly restored proscenium arch where the head of the Greek god Dionysus is accentuated with gilding and glazing and the theater’s sounding board is adorned with a whimsical mural of cherubs carrying an arrow-pierced moon across the sky on gossamer ribbons.

High above the stage and its red velvet curtain are tromp l’oeil paintings of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, music and war, created W. S. Henay and Son of Concord.

Music Hall officials and historians alike believe the artwork discovered during the recent interior renovations was originally created during the 1901 renovations as a sentimental expression by then-owner Frank Jones for his daughter, Emma Sinclair.

In addition to the rebirth of the artwork hidden for decades under layers of paint, Music Hall tour-goers have the opportunity to venture up into the theater’s horseshoe balcony and backstage where antique riggings still remain operational.

The Music Hall today is one of only 15 theaters built in the 1800s still operating in the country. It welcomes more than 90,000 patrons each year.

The 900-seat theater plays host to such well-known annual events as the Telluride by the Sea film festival and Writers on a New England Stage. Alan Alda, Paul Newman, Wynton Marsalis, John Updike and Cokie Roberts are only a few of the famous faces that have graced The Music Hall stage in recent years. Thanks to its recent facelift, not only does the historic venue serve as a proud backdrop for such talent, it again does justice to a grand piece of New Hampshire history.

Tours of The Music Hall, located at 28 Chestnut St. in downtown Portsmouth, leave from the theater’s lobby at noon on the third Wednesday of each month (except December).

Tickets for the tours can be purchased for $6 ($5 for members) the day of the tour, or in advance at or through the box office by calling 603-436-2400 between noon and 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.