Urban Theatres

Once upon a time, to see a musical performance, a play or a movie, one had to convene with other people in a large building called a theatre. Now, with the rapid advance of technology, we can get our information and entertainment on televisions, computers, smart phones and even (like Dick Tracy) on wristwatches. But what we have gained in speed and convenience perhaps we have lost in a sense of community and shared purpose. In Washington Square in Newport, we have two grand buildings from the Golden Age of theatre —The Jane Pickens Theatre (JPT) and the Opera House. While these institutions have been greatly challenged by the changing nature of how Americans get the information and entertainment, both have been working hard to transform themselves into organizations that are relevant, important and connected to the way we live today (and will live in the future).

The Jane Pickens Theatre was originally built as the Zion Episcopal Church in 1834, as one of the many civic, religious and commercial structures built around Newport’s traditional center, Washington Square. The building was then the home of St Joseph’s Catholic Church from the late 1890s until their new church was built at its current location on Broadway. Beginning in 1919, the building was used as a live performance theater known as the Lafayette Theater and then transformed into the Strand Theatre around 1923 to become one of the cinema palaces of its day. In 1974 the theatre was renamed for Jane Pickensa singing star of the 1930s and 1940s who was also part of the Newport social scene sand whose name lent glamour to the institution. For thirty-two years the building was owned by Joe Jarvis, who was a dedicated caretaker for and operator of the building. Many Newporters will fondly remember the kindly Mr. Jarvis collecting money at the box office for one of the many art house movies that the Theatre became well known for showing. In a time of small, cut up and miserly movie theatres, the Jane Pickens was a marvel of grandeur and elegance that reminded patrons of how rich an experience “going to the theatre” had once been. The current owner, Kathy Staab, has been working hard to maintain the tradition of the JPT but also to take advantage of new technology and the latent desire of people to come together in groups that has largely been lost in our helter-skelter world. Opera simulcasts from La Scala, benefit showings of great old films like Dr. Zhivago and the Wedding Breakfast for the recent marriage of Prince William are just a few of the recent events. The Theatre was the site for the world premiere of Evening and the stars of the movie, including Clare Danes and Mamie Gummer, were there to help celebrate. A recent gathering of the survivors of the Rambler disaster as a benefit for SailNewport filled the entire theatre with a waiting list of 50 people. Just this week the JPT enjoyed two premieres of new television events (one for ESPN UNGUARDED and another on November 6th: The Weather Channel and Cox Communication’s  new reality show  COAST GUARD ALASKA.  So the current owner is truly finding events and opportunities to fill the building!

Ms. Staab has renamed the building to “The Jane Pickens Theatre & Event Center” to reflect that fact that they do much more there than simply show movies. In 2008 a non-profit group called “Friends of the Jane Pickens” was formed to help support the maintenance and restoration of this great structure. Among recent announcements that have been made is that the theatre is getting a new heating system for the coming winter and that the building was chosen from among many competitors to be the subject of a semester long study by Department of Interior Architecture  program that was recently begun as RISD.

Just down Touro Street from the Jane Pickens is the Opera House Theatre, which was once also a grand theatre and hopefully will be so again soon. Originally built in 1867, the Opera House was Newport’s first great center for the performing arts. Unlike the JPT, the Opera House went through a series of unfortunate renovations. The one great space had been cut into three small and meager theatres: two on the ground level and one from what had been the balcony. In 2003 the plywood and faux stone façade that had ungraciously been applied to the exterior in the 1950’s was removed and the brick façade was returned to a close approximation of its previous condition, even while the three interior theatres continued to show mainstream and popular movie fare. Last year the operator of the movie theatre ceased operations in Newport. With the closure or conversion of other theatres in Newport to other functions, the JPT is now the last movie house in town and this makes the issue of what was to become of the building all the more important to resolve.

Recently the Newport Performing Arts Foundation, which was founded to help guide the institution towards a positive future use,  received a grant to undo these unfortunate renovations and “reveal” the grand space that was hidden behind the poor construction done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The grand  fifty foot proscenium arch and stage has once again been exposed and the magnificence of the space will take a visitor’s breathe away and it seems scarcely possible that the three cramped and dingy screening rooms that were once there and the one grand place visible today could occupy the same location! There is still a great deal of work left to do to return the Opera House to full functionality but a great step in that direction has been made.

In a time of trouble and difficulty when many are afraid of making change, these two theatres have shown that change is inevitable and that responsible citizens must simply step up to try to make positive change or very negative change is otherwise sure to happen.  Washington Square itself is nearing the completion of a long and arduous reconstruction process to renew and improve this important place and a celebration is scheduled for 1pm on November 18th. Please stop by a take a look at the two great theatres that should be an important part of the revival of Newport’s traditional town center!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, November 6, 2011.