Future Looks Promising for Derry Opera House

The Derry Opera House is ready to take its place in the town’s economic development picture.

While the theater located in the Adams Memorial Building took a hit during the recent recession, rentals are up and more are pending, according to Mark Beland, chairman of the Greater Derry Arts Council, which operates the facility. Last year the Arts Council also took over Derryfest, the town’s September celebration, and the forecast for this year’s festival is sunny, according to Beland.

Beland said in a phone interview that the Council has “considerably increased” its rental groups. It had shows or other events such as the Miss Greater Derry Pageant booked for 155 days last year, he said.

During the recession, several groups that once called the Opera House home closed their doors, Beland explained. But the economy is better now, and he ticked off several regular tenants: Kids Coop, theatre KAPOW, Majestic Theater, STEPS, the New Hampshire Theater Factory, Granite State Gymnastics, Christine Morrison Academy of Celtic Dance, Londonderry High School’s drama program, and Next Charter School for its first-ever graduation ceremony. It was featured on CNN as the site of the Clinton/Sanders Presidential Primary debate this past February, and is the home for the “This Is My Derry” themed movie evenings.

The building was completed in 1904 as a gift from Derry resident Benjamin Adams and is in the Colonial Revival style. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The Opera House portion seats 350.

A previous Town Council had expressed concern about taking over the Opera House, or continuing to maintain it. “They were looking for an uptick in our calendar,” Beland said.

And he has produced it, although Beland is quick to add that the Opera House doesn’t earn a profit.

“I think they were wanting us to be more like Tupelo,” he said, referring to the Tupelo Music Hall nightclub in Londonderry. “But it’s a different dynamic.”

While the Arts Council doesn’t have the money to attract big-name acts, it serves the niche of local dance schools and small theater companies – “And they pay us,” he said.

In a Town Council session Dec. 4, 2012, the Arts Council discussed its situation with the town along with the other three tenants of the building – the Historical Museum, Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and Derry Housing and Redevelopment.

At the time, then-Council Chair Brad Benson observed, the Council “wanted to see it used. We didn’t want it to go two or three weeks without use.” Shows and events at the Opera House bring people into Derry and downtown, Benson said, adding, “They’ll grab a sandwich or a drink while waiting for a show.”

Parking was an issue at the time, with Beland saying that with no dedicated parking lot for Adams Memorial, patrons had to fight for convenient parking, park further away and walk, or park illegally, frequently in the Veterans Memorial Hall parking lot or the lots of local businesses.

“If we were to operate as a major entertainment venue, parking would have to be looked at,” he said at the time.

While parking hasn’t improved, the town has recently done several renovations on the Opera House portion of the building, and Beland said the Arts Council is doing its part. The front row in the balcony is closed off because there is no wall, and he said the Council wants to build a wall at the edge of the balcony. That would free up 22 seats, and those are 22 potential theatergoers, he observed.

“We’re also trying to raise money to change the house lights to LEDs,” he said.

And he will need those 22 seats sooner rather than later. While the theater was occupied for 155 days in 2015, it’s been occupied for 204 so far, and that’s just January through April, he said.

He is currently engaged in forming partnerships with small groups, though he warned that the results might not always be seen onstage. “Our charter says we are to foster the arts, not just open the Opera House,” he said.

But that will happen, he added. “I just met with a group yesterday – they’re looking for a new venue,” Beland said.

The Opera House brings people into Derry’s downtown. Every performing child has siblings, parents, grandparents – and every backup dancer and set builder has an appetite, Beland observed. “More occupancy means more people in the building means more people downtown,” Beland said. “Someone will be here building sets, and they’ll stop for a bite to eat. Where do they go? They go to Rig A’ Tony’s, Sabatino’s, the Halligan,” he said.

Beland is excited about what more shows can do for downtown and economic development in general, and he said he’s planning to attend a meeting of the Economic Development Committee in the near future.

And Derryfest, now sponsored by the Arts Council, is on track for Sept. 17, Beland said.

The festival was taken under the Arts Council umbrella in 2014, after the committee saw a drop in membership due to the retirement of several longtime volunteers. The event faced a challenge when the then-Town Council cut the overtime budget to the Parks and Recreation department, which provides physical support and equipment for the event. The festival was initially cancelled for 2015, but a team of new volunteers stepped up and it went on as planned. The Arts Council eventually worked out a deal with the town where the town will bill it for any Parks and Recreation services.

For 2016, Beland said, his verdict is “So far, so good.” He has seen a number of new faces among the volunteers, he said, “and they are excited.”

Booth rentals are on a par with previous years, with 15 to 20 applications so far, he said. The group expects to begin its sponsorship drive next month.

The Adams Memorial Building is owned by the Town of Derry and charges the following rents: Greater Derry Arts Council, $1,000/ month; Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, $1,050/month; Derry Housing Authority, $500/ month; and Derry Historical Museum, no charge.

Recent renovations by the town included major structural work in the stage, ceiling and roof area in 2014, funded by $130,000 from the Adams Memorial Capital Reserve Fund established by the Town Council earlier that year. The Arts Council received a Moose Plate grant of $20,000, allowing it to repaint and replaster the interior.

The last major renovation was a $1.5 million project in 2000, giving the Adams Building new heating and air conditioning systems, an elevator, sprinkler system and new restrooms.

For more information on Derryfest, renting the Opera House or upcoming productions, call 437-0505 and leave a message; visit the Opera House Facebook page or www.derryarts.org; contact info@derryarts. org; or visit eventful.com.