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The Shows Must Go On
In the early 1900s, fishermen, sailors, farmers and their families from across New Hampshire and deep into Maine and Massachusetts would descend on Portsmouth for distraction from workday monotony. A dozen theaters thrived along the primly Federal brick streetscapes of America's third oldest city, founded in 1623. The auditoriums were often fantastically Classical, painted and sculpted with flora and goddesses. At Portsmouth's grandest performance venue, the 1878 Music Hall, a hip-roofed brick exterior on a quiet side street belied a domed room with profusions of cupids, palmettes, columns, swags and lyres. When it opened, a local newspaper raved about the "decoration of its interior rivaling any other of its size in New England." And the mayor predicted it would "exert a refining influence upon those who occupy it."
Celebrities trod the stage, including Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, Buffalo Bill Cody and Maude Adams (best known as the original Peter Pan). Shakespeare's plays were performed there, along with sophisticated American works about the lives of Joan of Arc or Thomas Edison. By the 1910s, the Music Hall also offered minstrel and vaudeville shows and movies, but it could not compete with the purpose-built cinemas springing up in the region. Although owners attempted to modernize with boxy seats and thick coats of white paint, the Music Hall was largely unprofitable after the 1920s, and by 1986 it was slated for demolition or condo conversion.
No other vintage theater survives in Portsmouth. Since 1988, the Music Hall has been run as a nonprofit, complete with Victorian stage rigging and 1940s movie projectors, and has undergone steady restoration. The performer roster gets more stellar each year: 100,000 tickets are sold annually for a huge variety of musical, theatrical, literary, cinematic and kid-friendly events, starring the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, Suzanne Vega, Alan Alda and Barbara Walters.
In the past two years, jaw-dropping architectural improvements have been unveiled. Portsmouth-based TMS Architects, with EverGreene Painting Studios of New York, has researched, excavated and replicated ornament that EverGreene founder Jeff Greene calls "one of the most exciting archaeological finds I've ever come across." He adds, "We've worked in over 200 theaters, and this artwork was more exuberant than anything we've uncovered before."
Before the surface treatments began in 2006, TMS had already stabilized the envelope: "The gutters had failed, there were leaks all over the place," recalls principal John W. Merkle. During the first phase of interior restoration, focused on the proscenium, EverGreene found romantic murals under the whitewash; cherubs wrap flowery vines around a moon and an arrow-pierced heart. EverGreene artists replicated the artwork on canvas at its New York workshop and had the plaster planes and reliefs patched — some gouged sections were held together by little more than masking tape.
In early 2007, EverGreene investigated past decorative schemes on the ceiling, where vintage photos showed constellations and zodiac signs. Those celestial scenes turned out to be a second round of decorative painting, while the original was a spectacular Victorian composition: a salmon-covered quatrefoil, on a teal backdrop patterned to resemble damask, bordered in trompe l'oeil moldings and urns sprouting foliage. EverGreene reproduced the arrangement at its workshop in hundreds of canvas sections, then assembled them onsite within a six-week deadline for a debut last September.
"There's a lovely subtle sunniness to the palette on the dome," says Kim Lovejoy, EverGreene's VP for restoration. The interior's overall impact, she adds, "is totally unexpected, hidden away on that side street. It's counterintuitive to everyone's image of Portsmouth as a Federal town."
The Music Hall has remained open throughout its restoration; audiences have happily maneuvered around the scaffolding. "We've just apologized for the dust, and never had to close," says Merkle. "It even stayed open this summer, while the basement was excavated and transformed into a new lobby, restrooms, concession stand and bar.
"We've had a small mining operation there," Merkle adds, only half-joking: earthmoving equipment was brought in to dig out bedrock shale around brick support piers. In the resulting tall spaces, the sound-blocking ceiling hangs from shock absorbers, and Minneapolis-based designer Jason McLean has devised Art Nouveau-flavored décor. Gilded Corinthian columns will be juxtaposed against sinuous vine motifs extending from the seating legs to the box office. Walls will be collaged with Music Hall paper ephemera; fragments of programs, photos, ads, and sheet music will overlap.
"The lobby will be a beautiful fantasy, reflecting our sense of imagination and joy, and showcasing our history in a theatrical way," says Patricia Lynch, executive director of the Music Hall. "It'll be a space with 'wow' impact. For a farm boy from rural New Hampshire in the early 1900s, coming here was a transporting experience, and that should still be the case for the today's harried executive who's turned off his BlackBerry with a thousand messages to be here."
Keeping the theater open during the restoration, she adds, "is a very out-of-the-box approach, I realize. But audiences are what make all things happen for theaters. We didn't want people to get out of the habit of coming here. This is an extraordinary community resource, it has a centrality to people's lives. The work we've done has become everybody's restoration. People cried when we unveiled the murals, like they were at a wedding, and you want to nurture and treasure that kind of affection."
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