Since 1908 ...
At the turn of the last century there were many "road companies" producing shows in New York City. Once the production was assembled, the show traveled throughout the country. One of the more popular tours went from New York to Richmond to Atlanta. For a number of years, Abbeville was an overnight stop for the entire touring company. Several members of the community decided that if this area had a facility, since the traveling theatre companies were coming through here anyway, Abbeville could sponsor some of these touring productions.
At that time, Abbeville was a center of activity for western South Carolina. Many "road companies" began touring from New York to Atlanta, with the Opera House as an overnight stop. Between 1908 and 1913, Abbeville audiences enjoyed approximately 260 live performances on the magnificent 7500 square foot Opera House stage. The theater offered a rich variety of Vaudeville,Minstrel and Burlesque shows - along with touring productions of many of Broadways most popular musicals and plays. From The Great Divide (which opened the theatre on October 10, 1908), and Fagg's Famous Lady Minstrels to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and a musical version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Abbeville Opera House offered an incredible variety of entertainment. Locals attest appearances by legendary performers Fanny Brice and Jimmy Durante - as well as, George White's Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies graced the Opera House stage during its heyday. Beginning with the appearance of moving pictures as early as 1910, Opera House audiences enjoyed a unique companionship between live theater and motion pictures. A partial listing indicates that over 3,250 moving pictures played in the theater from 1914 to 1930. During this time, articles in the local press showed public concern over whether or not these silent films were wholesome and over the manners exhibited by theatre audiences. The local weekly newspaper, The Abbeville Press and Banner, printed several specific suggestions for the theater-goers of the era, such as:
"When a man buys a ticket to a theatre the inference is that he goes to see a play and not to make bright remarks for the benefit of the entire audience."
"It also might be stressed that the people who attend shows here might make an extra effort to arrive before the curtain rises on the first act. It would save a great deal of confusions, unnecessary noise, baleful glares and would help the cast in their introductory lines."
With musicians and full sound effects, silent movies still had some of the glamour of live theater. But beginning with The Jazz Singer, the "talkies" replaced live entertainment with sound track recording, and the magic of show business became the routine of canned entertainment. The Jazz Singer played the historic Abbeville Opera House in 1927 and the road shows began to fade. Vaudeville, Minstrel and Burlesque shows became a thing of the past and as the theater declined, Abbeville's influence as a cultural center also began to fade. The Opera House remained a movie theater until the late fifties, when it joined many other grand "movie houses" that were losing money and were forced to close.
Also in the late 1950's, a group of supporters formed under the leadership of George W. Settles for the purpose of preserving live theater in upstate South Carolina. Organized in 1958 as the Abbeville Community Theater, the group dedicated itself to preserving legitimate theater for Abbeville and the surrounding region, and staged productions in the old Chestnut Street School for the next decade. Ten years later, A.C.T. visualized the potential of the abandoned Opera House and mounted a community-wide campaign as the first step in restoring this grand old theater. To celebrate the return of The Opera House to its original purpose, Thornton Wilder's Our Town was presented on stage in May, 1968.
Soon after its restoration the Opera House once again began to draw attention to Abbeville. In 1970-'71 both the American Community Theatre Association and the American College Theatre Association held the south eastern competitions in the Opera House. These events brought the best of the college and community theaters to perform on Abbeville's stage, as well as famous theatre personages to act as judges and reviewers. Sponsors of the events included such famous names as American Airlines, American Express, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
With the increase in tourism in this region, the Opera House began a Summer Theater Season in 1978. In 1979, a professional touring theater company led by Michael Genevie, established residence at the Opera House - the first since 1917. Michael Genevie has gone on to become the Executive Director of the historic Abbeville Opera House. Under his leadership, the theatre has twice been awarded the South Carolina Governor's Travel Award for Tourism and was designated as the Official State Theatre of South Carolina. Genevie has received numerous awards through the years and continues to direct the majority of the winter and summer theatre season productions on the turn of the century stage.
Today the Opera House is fully restored to its turn-of-the-century condition with two exceptions - the addition of air conditioning and rocking chair seats. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater uses the same rope pulled rigging systems as in 1908, and is the only "hemp house" remaining in South Carolina. Once again, this "Grand Old Theater" is being used for its original purpose - to present live theater as the cultural hub of Abbeville and the Upstate Region of South Carolina. Today the Opera House houses a community theater Winter Season and a repertory theater summer stock company each year performing in the George Settles auditorium on the Michael Genevie Mainstage. Performance information is available from the Box Office at (864) 366-2157.
Gifts to the Opera House are tax exempt and are vital to keep it flourishing. Wouldn't you like to help keep a Grand Old Theater active?