10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Music Hall

In a new book on Portsmouth’s landmark theater, the author learns a thing or two (or 10) about the history-rich city he calls home

Today, The Music Hall in Portsmouth is a familiar sight to many, but it was almost lost to history — more than once. Photo by David J. Murray

George Orwell, my literary hero, got it half-right. “Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”

Tell me about it. But a dozen history books later, I’m still standing. My latest took almost three years and 3,000 hours of research and writing, plus selecting and captioning 288 illustrations. What Orwell forgot to mention are the sporadic flashes of joy that come from connecting the dots as the full story takes shape.

When director Patricia Lynch asked me to write about The Music Hall, I knew the basics. Portsmouth’s landmark theater opened in 1878. I remember when it was the Civic, a dilapidated B-run cinema that we called “Old Stickyfoot.” I knew it was nearly converted to condominiums in the mid-1980s, then saved, failed, auctioned off again and resold. Today the often-endangered Music Hall is artfully restored and more vibrant than ever.What I didn’t know when I started this project would fill a book — and now it does. With a nod to Mr. Orwell, here are a few of the discoveries that made this “horrible, exhausting struggle” wonderfully worthwhile.

The play “Caste” by T. W. Robertson, as performed at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, was the premier event at the opening of the Music Hall in 1878. Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

1. Portsmouth was born to party.

It’s true that a tiny band of English fishermen landed at what is now Rye, New Hampshire, in 1623, but they didn’t last long. The first significant settlers at Portsmouth, formerly called Strawberry Bank, began arriving in 1630 aboard the sailing ships Warwick and the Pied Cow. They were seeking land and wealth, not religious freedom. They brought along a few cannon, lots of ammo, one Bible and a how-to book about mining for gold and silver. Things didn’t go well. The ragtag group of artisans, adventurers, soldiers and indentured men and women also made music. Records show they brought along 15 “hautboys” (medieval oboes pronounced “o-boy”), wooden recorders and a bunch of drums. The city’s reputation as a mecca for performing arts was born that day.

According to an early historian, New Hampshire’s only seaport was a sort of anti-Massachusetts. There was a lot more feasting than fasting here. Early Puritans who, at first, controlled all of New England, viewed the Portsmouth region as a rowdy place that welcomed outlaws, undesirables and godless drunken fishermen. By the mid-1700s, Portsmouth was a key destination for traveling entertainers whose “lewd amusements” drew paying crowds.

Two Portsmouth taverns, both still standing at Strawbery Banke Museum, were the focus of many traveling acts. For a small fee, curious patrons could view a docile moose, a performing elephant, a caged African lion or human dwarves and albinos on display. The city’s grand Assembly House, the site of fancy dress balls and concerts, also hosted slack-wire walkers, jugglers, wax figures, automatons and an “invisible lady” who predicted the future. A “learned pig” could calculate sums by flipping over numbered cards. Richard Potter, who frequently performed in Portsmouth, became a renowned American magician and ventriloquist. Potter has been called “America’s first black celebrity.”

2. The curtain fell on NH’s first theater.

Actors have long been branded as loose and immoral. They earned little respect in puritanical New England. It was John Hancock, the man with the boldest signature on the Declaration of Independence, who helped instigate a Boston ban on theaters in 1750. Most cities followed suit. But prior to the American Revolution, three wealthy New Hampshire governors — all from Portsmouth and all named Wentworth — loved dancing, music and theatre.

It was into this entertainment-loving society that the city’s first theater opened in the final weeks of 1791. After renovating a warehouse on Bow Street, a band of young gentlemen sold subscriptions for eight “moral” performances, including “Miss in Her Teens” and “The Absent Wife.” As was the practice in Shakespeare’s day, the most delicate of men played the female roles.

This rare picture of the British farce “Miss in Her Teens” shows early theatre style, where men played all the roles. It was performed at the short-lived Bow Street Theater, the first theater in Portsmouth, which opened in 1791. Courtesy of the British Museum Collection/Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons

Reviews of the Bow Street Theater were mixed. Unruly patrons without tickets snuck in from behind the scenery. Others tossed chestnuts and apples onto the stage. The actors, according to a letter in the newspaper, “drink spirituous liquors in order to keep up their strength.” Not even the elaborate painted scenery of a ship leaving the harbor or the attack of a sea monster could save the show. The “pious zealots” of the town won out and the theater quickly returned to a warehouse stacked with crates and barrels.

3. Churches make good stages.

Portsmouth peaked as a maritime trading center by 1800. A killer shipping embargo, three devastating downtown fires and the War of 1812 crushed the local economy and depressed residents. Then came what historians call “The Era of Good Feelings,” a healing postwar period marked by optimism. Americans became interested in gaining useful knowledge, in self-improvement and in discovering what united rather than divided them. By the 1830s, a system of public lectures for men and women known as the “Lyceum Movement” flourished in hundreds of New England towns.

The top lyceum venue in Portsmouth was a converted Baptist church on Chestnut Street dubbed the “Temple.” Famous speakers, including utopian writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, took the stage. That wooden structure burned suddenly on Christmas Eve in 1876. The city’s now-thriving Music Hall was built on the same spot the following year.

By the mid-1700s, before The Music Hall existed, Portsmouth was already an entertainment destination. Two taverns — which still stand at the Strawbery Banke Museum — hosted many traveling acts that, among other curiosities, displayed animals, including a “learned” pig, depicted in this engraving from the era. Courtesy of the J. Dennis Robinson collection

Deep research proves, however, that the Portsmouth Lyceum did not begin at the Temple. It began in 1833 at another converted church a block away. Giving things fancy Greek names was all the rage back then, and the little theater was dubbed the “Cameneum.” It was a terrible made-up name, but a lovely venue with the night sky painted on the ceiling. An enclosed art gallery featured scenes of Switzerland, Paris and Italy. An organ, built locally, reportedly contained 600 pipes ranging from 2 inches to 17 feet tall. The Cameneum was later converted to a garage for carriages. It burned and is currently a downtown parking lot.

No image of either building survives. But we can visualize, through newspaper accounts, how their architecture evolved to suit the changing desires of the public. The two church pulpits became podiums, then stages. Their boxy pews were replaced by curved amphitheater seating. Instead of sermons, audiences came to see lively speakers, musicians, acrobats, dancers, magicians and comedians. People wanted to be entertained as well as enlightened. They wanted a theater.

4. Frank Jones supersized The Music Hall.

Before expanding to huge outdoor arenas, a smaller version of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” was performed at the Temple and The Music Hall. Courtesy photo

We know little about the wealthy Peirce family of Portsmouth who bankrolled The Music Hall. It premiered to a full house on January 29, 1878. “A community is known,” the opening night speaker said as if clairvoyant, “by the character and place of its amusements.” It was a fine brick building with colorfully painted frescoes, spacious galleries, a balcony and an enormous gas-powered chandelier that could illuminate the entire auditorium. A crimson velvet curtain bore the image of the New Hampshire state seal.

Music Hall production manager and historian Zhana Morris has uncovered over 750 performances in the theater’s first two decades. The “Buffalo Bill Combination,” featuring the legendary “Wild Bill” Hickok, thrilled the public. The raucous, smoke-filled cowboy shows featured live horses onstage with sharpshooting, romance, outlaws, trick roping, sham battles and an authentic Native American “princess.” In 1883, The Music Hall welcomed Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, and his wife Lavinia. Discovered, exploited and enriched by showman P.T. Barnum, the 3-foot tall entertainer had delighted millions, from Queen Victoria to Abraham Lincoln. But poor Tom was not well. He died of a stroke four months after his Portsmouth show.

The Music Hall is really two buildings. When the Peirce family cashed out in 1899, Portsmouth’s richest resident picked up the deed. Best known for his enormous brewery in the city’s West End, Frank Jones also owned hotels, banks, phone and electric utilities, railroads, insurance companies, a Portsmouth mansion on 1,000 acres, a racing stable and more.

Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb Courtesy of Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons

Jones bought a small slice of land directly behind the theater on what had been a prison, almshouse and stable. It was an inspired move. Jones was able to deepen The Music Hall stage area by almost 40 feet. The towering 75-foot brick addition was so tall it could be seen from the other side of town, and from its roof, on a clear day, one can still view the Isles of Shoals 10 miles away. The enormous new stage doors were wide enough to accommodate a team of elephants.

Reopened in 1901, the interior featured an ornate new proscenium archway, glittering with gold leaf, that frames the stage to this day. Painted cherubs fluttered toward the decorative ceiling. But what happened behind the curtain has made all the difference. Jones’ addition not only extended the depth of the stage, but created an upper “grid and fly rail“ system more than 65 feet above the ground. This allowed scenery and curtains to be stored, hovering above the stage, then dropped quickly for even the most sophisticated productions.

A hand-cranked elevator delivered actors to tiny dressing rooms stacked four levels high at stage left. The fully professionalized backstage rivaled any New England theater outside of Boston. The Music Hall was suddenly attractive to top acts at the height of the vaudeville craze. And it elevated Portsmouth as a destination for tourists, business owners and new residents. The following year, having completed his final act, Jones died. He is buried beneath the city’s tallest tombstone in South Cemetery.

5. Minstrelsy was racist family fare.

White minstrels and comedians who performed in blackface, like George H. Primrose (1852-1919), were among the most frequent acts at The Music Hall. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

We tend to picture the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the delightful days of vaudeville, known as “music hall” in England. For a small fee, audiences could enjoy a showcase of short acts. Slapstick comics, musicians, hypnotists, acrobats, animal acts, freak shows, dancers, speakers and celebrities populated the stage. Like the “lewd amusements” of the 1790s and the speakers at the lyceum, vaudeville acts traveled a circuit from town to town.

But there’s no running from the truth. The most popular form of mass entertainment in America was blackface minstrelsy. White actors and musicians, their faces blackened with burnt cork or greasepaint, were as familiar to audiences as television sitcoms or rock and roll today. During the two decades that the Peirce family owned The Music Hall, at least 30 different minstrel groups were hired. Troupes described themselves as mammoth, mastodon, monster, magatherian or gigantean, and could include up to 100 cast members.

Portsmouth, like all maritime cities north or south, had included black residents from its founding days. At one level, music historians note, minstrelsy was an homage to African music and dancing. It was more rhythmic, more lively, more original, more heartfelt, more tuneful, and therefore more entertaining than what white audiences were used to. But it came freighted with mocking and hurtful stereotypes. After the Civil War, blackface minstrelsy spread into newly built theaters like The Music Hall where, accepted as wholesome family entertainment, its racist stereotypes became embedded in popular culture.

Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain expressed a fondness for the genre, while former slave Frederick Douglass pulled no punches. He called blackface minstrels “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature … to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

For the record, troupes of black minstrels, usually with white managers, also performed at The Music Hall. These black groups were often billed as “true Ethiopian” or “all-colored” or “jubilee” acts. The Original Georgia Minstrels, popular in Portsmouth, were unique in that their founder and manager, Charles B. Hicks, was a light-skinned black. Hicks’ players, however, were sometimes branded as “race traitors” by their peers for pandering to white audiences. The Original Georgia Minstrels were welcomed onto the Portsmouth stage, but still banned from patronizing local hotels and restaurants even into the 20th century.

6. Vaudeville shared a stage with silent films.

In the shorthand of history, a meteor killed the dinosaurs and movies murdered vaudeville. In fact, the two forms of entertainment coexisted for decades. Portsmouth first experienced the modern miracle of moving pictures at The Music Hall early in 1898. Short silent films were still a novelty in 1903 when F.W. Hartford bought the theater from the estate of the late Frank Jones. Hartford would eventually buy up half a dozen local newspapers and condense them into the daily Portsmouth Herald. He was also elected city mayor seven times.

In 1917, the gorgeous Olympia Theatre opened just a block from The Music Hall, followed by the expansive new Colonial Theatre and the small Scenic Temple in nearby Market Square. Although designed to screen silent films, the three competitors also staged live shows. With each theater offering four or five new vaudeville acts and as many films every few days, Portsmouth patrons could choose from as many as 100 short performances each week.

But in a tiny city like Portsmouth, it couldn’t last. The competition was downright “suicidal,” according to John Henry Bartlett, a local lawyer who owned the new Olympia Theatre. With cutthroat ticket prices slashed as low as a nickel, Bartlett suggested a compromise. Why not lump all four downtown theaters under a single management company? Bartlett, who soon became governor of New Hampshire, took charge. His Allied Theatres Company leased the aging Music Hall for the next 20 years.

7. The show went dark in WWII.

As World War II loomed, F.W. Harford died. His son Justin Hartford reluctantly took over the family newspaper and the dilapidated Music Hall. Rejected by Warner Bros. and other cinema chains, the empty hall attracted two types of renters. Justin refused all offers to convert the building into a nightclub or bowling alley. But as the war raged and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard launched record numbers of submarines, he leased the theater to three wide-eyed acting troupes. All three vendors sank within months.

Among the failed entrepreneurs, ironically, was Maude Hartwig, founder of the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Haunted by the decaying beauty of Portsmouth’s Victorian theater, Maude leased the building in 1942. Her troupe quickly abandoned all hope, leaving a spray of unpaid bills in their wake. Many decades and many owners later, however, The Music Hall launched a collaboration with the now-legendary Ogunquit Playhouse. Holiday productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Elf the Musical,” “Annie” and “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” have now become the most popular and financially successful productions in Music Hall history.

8. A white elephant sells for 10 grand.

A candid photo on Chestnut Street of the premiere of “The Love Bug” at the Civic in 1968 Courtesy of the Walter Brooks Family

Enough was enough. The Music Hall was draining the Hartford family finances. It had to go. On May 3, 1945, as WWII drew to a close, Portsmouth’s once grand theater went on the auction block. Twenty minutes later, after only two bids, it was sold for $10,000. The following day Germany surrendered. The new owner, a man named Guy Tott from Kittery, Maine, quickly renamed his property the “Civic.” Over the summer, as work on the former Music Hall continued, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In September 1945, Japan surrendered. Days later, the Civic opened.

Although Mr. Tott’s efforts to bring back vaudeville flopped, the remodeled movie house with its shiny concession stand and state-of-the-art carbon arc film projectors was a hit. Young usherettes in blue uniforms waving flashlights guided patrons to their comfortable new seats. Following the sudden demise of Guy Tott, the Civic survived almost 40 years under the management of movie theater mogul Elias M. Lowe. The Civic outlived all of its competing downtown cinemas. But by 1985, with paint peeling, the ceiling leaking, and mice gnawing at the hemp staging ropes, the crumbling playhouse was up for sale again.

9. We really almost wrecked it.

“Our original idea was to turn the thing into condominiums,” the new owners of The Music Hall told a reporter in 1986, “but we just couldn’t do it. We fell in love with this place.”

But love fades. After a herculean effort to bring The Music Hall back to life as a profitable theater, the new owners were almost a million dollars in debt. “We made a Frankenstein for ourselves,” one of the nearly bankrupt owners told a newspaper. “It took over, and it’s been a nightmare.”

Thankfully, The Music Hall was saved and today hosts an impressive variety of shows from comedy to concerts, like k.d. lang, performing here. Photo by David J. Murray

So it was back to Plan A. But the city zoning board rejected a proposal to convert The Music Hall into 21 luxury condominiums. In return, the owners threatened to sue the city. “This building is really no longer a theater,” a Portsmouth attorney proclaimed during a lively public hearing. “It’s had its chance, and it just didn’t work.” Even the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce agreed that going condo was a “reasonable” solution. When a Nashua businessman bought the theater in what he called “a purchase of the heart,” culture lovers sighed with relief. But by 1988, he too had thrown in the towel and the condo plan was back.

10. The impossible is possible.

a Postmodern Jukebox performance at The Music Hall Photo by David J. Murray

At first, the grassroots protest group called themselves “Don’t Let the Hall Fall.” But they quickly rebranded as Friends of The Music Hall. The last best hope to save the theater, they claimed, was to run it as a nonprofit agency. On September 19, 1988, after tricky negotiations, the Friends announced plans to buy the endangered hall for $650,000. It would take many millions more, they knew, to restore the crumbling brick walls, patch the slate roof, install heating and cooling systems, and keep selling tickets for top-notch events.

Then Fate smiled. A small group of business-savvy individuals grabbed the reins. Major seacoast corporations, attracted to the “renaissance” of Portsmouth arts and culture, began making tax-free contributions. Memberships flooded in. When the bank that held the theater mortgage suddenly failed, the Friends had a rare chance to pay off the building at a fraction of its cost. Jay Smith, the mild-mannered owner of a Portsmouth pub called The Press Room, anonymously loaned the group the money they needed.

It was one thing to pull off a miracle, quite another to sustain it. By the mid-1990s, costs were up and funds were low. “Nonprofits do the Lord’s work,” an early theater director told the media. “They take on tasks that no one else wants to do because they are too hard, too unglamorous or too unprofitable. … Nonprofits don’t make money, they bleed it.”

But the organization that The Boston Globe called “the beating cultural heart of the New Hampshire seacoast” kept on beating. An intimate and immersive fall film festival, “Telluride by the Sea,” put The Music Hall back on the map. The planet’s top authors continue to pack the 900-seat theater for “Writers on a New England Stage.”

The beautiful lobby of The Music Hall Photo by David J. Murray

In recent years, the vast auditorium has been restored to the gold-leafed splendor that Frank Jones created. Over 700 cubic feet of rock ledge were removed to create a mind-bending “beaux arts” lobby. A 10,000-pound metal arch now looms 37 feet above a pedestrian-friendly streetscape lit by a massive new neon marquee. And just a block down the city’s main drag, a 120-seat high-tech sister theater, The Loft, is open for business. The two Music Hall stages now deliver over 600 plays, concerts, comedians, lecturers, films and special events every year.

“The truth is,” a longtime supporter of New Hampshire’s historic theater says, “‘The Music Hall wasn’t saved once. It was saved many, many times.”

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