BOOTHBAY HARBOR — When Boothbay Harbor was named one of the top small art towns in America this spring, Cathy Sherrill felt a tinge of satisfaction.
She knew the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor played a big role in helping the community of 2,200 year-round residents earn that distinction from ArtPlace America, a national arts collaborative.
The town near the tip of the midcoast peninsula was cited, along with 11 others across the country, for being a place where the arts are central to creating a community where people want to live, work and visit.
“This is a great little community,” said Sherrill, who has served as executive director of the opera house since 2006. “You can have a town with a lot of great art galleries. But to be named one of the best little art towns in America, you have to have a spectrum. We provide the spectrum.”
Since its revitalization a decade ago, the historic yellow behemoth of a building on Townsend Avenue has become a fixture of the local arts scene, revising a role it played in the previous century during Boothbay Harbor’s early heyday as a thriving arts colony. Back then, such esteemed artists as Robert Henri came here to paint before catching a boat to Monhegan Island some 17 miles offshore.
In a town better known for trinkets and tourism, Boothbay Harbor today also has a thriving arts scene. Painters still come here to make pretty pictures, along with a host of famous musicians like Jackson Browne and Mark Knopfler, each of whom played a critical role in raising money to get the now 119-year-old building back on its feet.
Browne helped rechristen the opera house in 2003, providing an infusion of much-needed capital and proof that good things could still happen in a building that had fallen into disrepair and whose future was in doubt. He came at the suggestion of his friends, East Boothbay residents Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his wife, Kristina.
The Fords were active in the early days of the opera house, and Browne is coming back in July for another sold-out show in part because the Fords wanted him to see what’s become of the place since he was last here.
“His first visit was so instrumental in a number of ways in getting the opera house recommissioned,” Ford said. “Because he was willing to come, the community rallied around, and the home builders got together and went into the opera house and stripped it of its prior uses and reformulated it as a performance space.”
Knopfler played in 2006, raising $200,000 in one night toward a $1 million challenge grant.
In each instance, the musicians waived their regular fees because they wanted to help save an historic structure.
Browne declined to take credit. “I think it’s a little overstated to say that I was instrumental in saving the opera house,” he said by phone from California. “I might have been the inaugural show or thereabouts. But this is the kind of thing I like doing. I play a lot of venues of various sizes. Sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s little. Sometimes it’s for money, sometimes it’s for free.
“As was the case 10 years ago, and the same as now, we just added a couple of dates at the end of the tour so we could get up that way and do a show. I could get up there with two or three guitars and use the house PA and do something. But I would much rather bring the crew that does it every day and knows exactly how to get the place to sound at the optimum. So that’s what we’re going to do.
“It should be fun, and I can’t wait to see it. It’s a real accomplishment for the community.”
BUZZ IS BUILDING
The reputation of the opera house has spread from coast to coast and across the Atlantic, making it easier for Sherrill to get the attention of big-name performers who crave the intimacy of a 400-seat hall and the superb acoustics of the solid wooden building with its original patina and a modern sound system.
The building has old-school charm. A pair of French doors open into the main-floor seating area from the box office. The main hall is bedecked with bead-board siding and large windows that open to the outside world.
A pair of guitars signed by the stars who have performed here hang at the back of the auditorium, along with color photographs of some of the musicians who have performed at the hall.
The bathroom floor looks like it might have been painted by Jackson Pollock, while a 30-foot bar upstairs beckons people to pull up a stool and spin a yarn.
In the past decade, many big names have played here, including G.E. Smith, Dickey Betts and Delfeayo Marsalis.
Old Crow Medicine Show is coming in for two shows in early June. “They called us,” Sherrill said. “They said, ‘We want to do two shows in Maine, and we want to do the opera house.’ They made it financially advantageous for us.”
The bulk of the big-name shows happen in the summer, when Boothbay Harbor and the peninsula teem with full-time Mainers, summer residents and tourists. But the opera house is open year-round, and Sherrill makes sure the winter months stay busy so local folks have a place to gather and socialize.
In this 10th anniversary of the reopening, the warm-weather schedule includes classical, folk, jazz, country and rock, with the Portland String Quartet, Maine Pro Musica, Ellis Paul, John Gorka, Jimmy Webb, Kathy Mattea and The BoDeans all on the schedule.
“Musicians go back to Ireland and Scotland and California and Nashville and talk about us. They had a good time here in Boothbay and in Maine,” Sherrill said. “It’s gotten so much easier to book shows. It wasn’t so easy in the early days, when no one had ever heard of us unless they had a grandfather in vaudeville.”
TRAVELING SHOWS CAME CALLING
Like many other stately old opera houses on the Maine coast, the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor earned a reputation in the early part of the 20th century as a place for traveling shows and entertainment of all stripes. Back then, performers came by boat.
It was built in 1894 by local boatbuilders who knew a thing or two about constructing massive structures.
Over the years, it hosted everything from basketball games and roller skating to town meetings and gatherings of the fraternal order the Knights of Pythias, which oversaw its construction. It was the focal point of the community for much of its public life.
But by the late 1900s, the opera house had fallen into disrepair under private ownership. At more than 22,000 square feet and four stories – five if you count the cupola – the building is nothing if not costly to maintain.
In addition to the concert hall, it has a big bar on the second floor and a large community room, used by local groups for meetings and banquets.
The building is a local landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The memory of what the building was prompted residents to mount a campaign to save it when it came up for sale in the early 2000s.
A group of locals came together to talk about a plan. They pooled their money together, then went to a local bank for a loan. A non-profit arts organization grew out of that effort.
“The opera house has done a lot to bring people together,” said Dennis Gleason, who owns the Gleason Fine Art gallery with his wife, Marty, just down the road from the opera house.
Gleason was on the board during those early days.
“We were fortunate in that we had a couple of really good benefactors,” he said. “We had a lot of local support, and not just among the locals but also among the summer folks who come out for the events and sponsor some of them as well. I think the community is really proud of the opera house.”
The opera house has been good for the entire community, Gleason said, noting that the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens opened since the opera house reopened, giving the Boothbay peninsula another major cultural draw.
More important, it provides an anchor for the community, an open door and a gathering place for locals, summer residents and tourists alike.
“There is just some kind of spirit in that place that is really different to me,” said Susan Brackett, who owns a frame shop in town and serves as president of the opera house’s volunteer board. “It draws people from so many different places.
“We have a lot of locals who come a lot, but we draw people from a lot of different parts of the state. It’s fantastic. To be able to see live performances and be 10 minutes away from home, it’s pretty special and also kind of unique.”
Gleason credits Sherrill for the recent success.
“When she came on board as executive director, it propelled the opera house forward and gave some people a feeling that it was worth supporting and keeping around,” he said. “She has brought in a lot of entertainers that people never expected they would see down here. Not just Jackson Browne and Mark Knopfler, but Tom Rush, Grant Lee Buffalo and a lot of other acts just like them.”
Ford loves that the opera house exists at all. He called it a “diamond in the crown” of the town’s culturally complex arts scene.
It existence and its revival represents the best of that community, he said, noting that much of the labor for the revitalization was provided for free by local tradesmen.
“It represents a community-wide commitment to the arts, and not just the fine arts and the high arts, but all kinds of arts that bring all aspects of the community together,” Ford said. “It’s not just Jackson Browne and big-time rock ‘n’ roll headliners like that. It’s chamber music, it’s zydeco music and music for all kinds of tastes and all kinds of backgrounds. And it’s a good venue for local musicians. It represents the community’s stated, expressed commitment to the performing arts.”
In the decade since its reopening, the opera house has been restored from top to bottom, with a new roof, windows and doors, new siding and new and efficient heating, plumbing and electrical systems, as well as fresh paint.
Two years ago, the interior floors were either replaced or refinished; the stage enlarged and raised to improve sight lines. The theater got new sound and lighting systems, along with a splendid house piano.
The heavy wooden balcony half-wall was replaced with a cable railing similar to what would be seen on a ship, improving the view for people seated up top and paying tribute to the boat builders who built the hall in the first place.
Sherrill is proud of the improvements, and doubly so that she and her board have accomplish them for just shy of $1 million.
The opera house has an annual operating budget of about $325,000, with 2½ full-time employees and a large network of volunteers. Since 2007, it has operated in the black, Sherrill said.
She can’t wait to show Browne the changes when he returns July 10.
“When he comes back, maybe he’ll notice the difference,” she said. “I hope he notices it, but if not, I will tell him what a difference he made. He needs to know he started it. Without him and without Mark Knopfler, we would not be where we are today.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: