Stuart’s Opera House is the cornerstone of the public square in Nelsonville Ohio and has been a part of this Southeast Ohio town since the boom times of coal mining in the 19th century. During this time, both the building and the region have gone through a great deal of change. Because of this, the history of Stuart’s can teach us about the transformations within Southeast Ohio, and particularly how the local population’s views on entertainment, and how to interact with the greater community, evolved.
The man who would build Stuart’s Opera House, George Stuart, began life in show business as the owner and operator of a showboat, traveling through the canal system of Ohio with a professional minstrel troupe. Stuart’s showboat sank in 1869 with construction of his new opera house beginning soon after.
Workers finished construction of the Opera House in 1879, at the start of Nelsonville’s boom period brought about by the growing rail system which sent coal from the area to the industrialized north. The presence of an Opera House signaled that Nelsonville had thoroughly established itself. The building quickly became a cultural centerpiece of the town, not only as a place of entertainment, but as a gathering place for community events: from benefits for local organizations and high school graduations, to Sunday school classes too large to fit in the local church. The Opera House attracted a high caliber of shows as well, playing host to some of the most successful acts of the era. The Opera House would continue to be deeply connected to Nelsonville until its closure in 1924, which was brought about in part by audiences’ preference for film and the coal boom coming to a halt.
Stuart’s doors would remain closed until the 1970’s when the Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History bought the building with the goal of restoring it to a working theater, as well as a place of learning. The hopes to restore Stuart’s were nearly dashed, however, when the building was enveloped in flames on March 24, 1980. What followed was a great deal of heated debate over whether the building should be torn down, or if the restoration could start from scratch. In the end, it was decided that Stuart’s would be restored, and after an immense amount of money and effort, Stuart’s was finally ready to house an audience once more. The grand reopening on March 8, 1997 was headlined by Jack F. Spell’s performance of Ladies and Gentlemen: Mark Twain, a show written by Mr. Spell twenty years earlier, slated to open at Stuart’s before the fire. And now, Stuart’s has once again prospered from humble beginnings. From a handful of community theater performances per year and a concert here and there, Stuart’s has become the premier performing arts center in Southeast Ohio. For the past 20 years the Opera House has seen growth, prosperity, culture and fun. In addition to a full concert schedule of the best in Americana, folk, and contemporary music, Stuart’s proudly hosts both community and professional theatrical productions, dance, and visual art exhibits. The atmosphere is so welcoming and intimate that you may just feel as if Lucinda Williams has come to your living room and is singing just for you. Volunteers, friends, patrons and donors agree that Stuart’s is where it’s at for music lovers and community.
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