Centered on the Arts

Photo provided by Scotty Hall

Photo provided by Scotty Hall

Ally Lanasa

Built on the corner of the public square in Nelsonville, Ohio, in 1879, Stuart’s Opera House had an original mission to house vaudeville, melodrama and minstrel shows. Since its opening, Stuart’s has far exceeded its purpose as a popular showplace in Southeast Ohio. With a rich history combined with an investment in the arts, Stuart’s has become an anchor in the community both culturally and financially.

“We see ourselves as a regional leader in the arts community,” says Brian Koscho, the marketing director of Stuart’s Opera House and the Nelsonville Music Festival. “We see ourselves as an arts center here in Nelsonville, in a place that really can use that.”

Koscho has been working at Stuart’s Opera House since July 2007. His main responsibilities are to attract visitors, promote events and raise awareness about the arts education programs and other opportunities available at Stuart’s.

“Within the last couple of years now, our arts ed program has included us paying for and placing an art teacher in … Nelsonville York Middle School and restarting the Nelsonville York High School drama program and hiring an instructor to work with a teacher to develop a play to get the kids acting or in the art class getting them creating,” Koscho says.

Last summer, Stuart’s hosted Appalachian Music Week. People of all ages and skill levels were invited to sign up to learn about Appalachian culture and to learn how to play the banjo, mandolin, fiddle or guitar. During the academic year, students from ages 13 to 18 can participate in a rock ’n’ roll after-school program. The students form bands and write songs, then perform their gigs at the Nelsonville Music Festival in June. All programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade are currently free.

“We think that the arts are good for people’s wellbeing and for people’s health,” Koscho says. “A healthy arts community that has that kind of programming and things available for it will ultimately be a better community in every other way too.”

Leading the Stuart’s Opera House staff is Tim Peacock. Peacock is an independent music promoter. He has put on shows in venues around Athens, Ohio University’s campus and the Opera House. In 2002, he was offered the Opera House’s executive director position. Peacock works with a staff of seven full-time employees to ensure the wellbeing of the non-profit organization. He also books the events for the Opera House and the Nelsonville Music Festival in June.

The music festival attracts about 7,000 people a day. Visitors from across the country, and even some from across the world, come to Nelsonville for the four-day event, Peacock says. Some of the bigger names who have performed at the festival include Wilco, The Avett Brothers, The Flaming Lips and Willie Nelson. However, Peacock says the beauty of the festival and the Opera House is introducing concertgoers to new artists, especially those who are not famous.

“It’s definitely a much smaller scale of performers, but that doesn’t depreciate their quality,” he says. “It makes them less famous. Famous doesn’t make them better … A lot of people sometimes see a name of someone performing somewhere, be it Stuart’s Opera House or the Casa Cantina in Athens or the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, and they may not know the name and quickly their brain dismisses that person because they are not familiar with them.”

When booking events, Peacock’s general rule is the performer must be able to sell 150 to 200 tickets at a $20 price. The Opera House seats 400 people. Although Peacock has hired a variety of performers from reggae bands and indie rock bands to Mongolian throat singers, the Opera House is known for Americana folk music.

“I would say our core basis of audience who are regular attendees at Stuart’s Opera House, you could loosely put that genre of what they like or what they pay to see as sort of Americana folky,” Peacock says. “However, many of them would never pigeonhole themselves that way as strictly a folk fan and/or an Americana fan, and we would never pigeonhole ourselves in saying that’s what we book.”

The Opera House hosts about 75 entertainment events annually, including concerts and productions by the Athenian Berean Players, the local community theater company.

Bruce Dalzell was first introduced to the Opera House by his father, who acted with the Athenian Berean Players. About 10 years ago, Dalzell, who is affectionately known as the patriarch of the Athens music scene, took the stage himself.

“When I’m playing in Stuart’s, it’s like playing in church,” Dalzell says. “It really is. It’s kind of a rich environment for a performer. Rich is a good word for it. It is what I would imagine performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville feels like, you know?”

Dalzell tunes the piano for performances at the venue and has hosted several benefit shows and open stage nights there as well. Since 1990, he has been hosting open stage nights on Fridays at The Front Room Coffeehouse in Baker Center.

“I think energy imprints on the walls. It does. You can feel it after awhile,” Dalzell says. “Not so much [in The Front Room] yet. Maybe in another 10 years or so, but I do, I think you can walk into that place and feel a 150 years of crazy, excited, entertaining people in there.”

The Opera House was the brainchild of George Stuart, who owned and operated a showboat until it sunk in 1869. Construction for the Opera House began afterward and was completed in 1879. The building served as a cultural center in the town and hosted community events until it closed in 1924 due to a preference for film over live theater.

Stuart’s Opera House remained closed until the 1970s, when it was purchased by the Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History with the intent to restore it as a working theater. Members of the Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History formed a non-profit organization with the initial goal not to do shows, but to renovate the Opera House into a theatrical history museum. It had been well preserved over the 50 years it went unused.

The Opera House required numerous basic updates including a bathroom, wheelchair accessibility, HVAC units and proper electrical engineering, Koscho says. The non-profit organization began raising funds and fixing what it could afford.

Efforts to restore the building were diminished when it was engulfed in flames on March 24, 1980. The fire destroyed most of the theater and stage. After much debate, it was decided that the Opera House would be restored, again. Over the course of 17 years, the non-profit organization raised funds and made repairs. The grand reopening occured on March 8, 1997, with Jack F. Spell’s performance of “Ladies and Gentlemen: Mark Twain.”

The non-profit purchased 30 Public Square, the building next to the Opera House, to be used as an education and community center. In 2015, prior to the renovations, the building experienced a fire, Koscho says.

“We lost that whole building at 30 Public Square, but the theater itself and the downstairs just received smoke and water damage, so it took a lot of cleaning up and then obviously that one building it took a complete rebuild,” he says.

The reasons for both fires are unknown, but the Opera House staff has been reassured that there wasn’t any foul play.

“We’ve been through a couple fires and a couple times of change,” Koscho says. “But it’s been kind of amazing to see the Opera House is pretty strong, a strong building and institution to kind of find its way not just through difficult things that come up, but come out of them better than it was before it seems like, so we’re thankful for that.”

A $4 million campaign funded the most recent expansion and renovations, including the rebuild of 30 Public Square, new offices, a catering kitchen and a grand lobby. Stuart’s Opera House celebrated the grand opening of the new spaces in December 2017.

Stuart’s Opera House has rented space to organizations such as OU, the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, Rural Action and My Sister’s Place. The space may also be rented for weddings and receptions.

“We try to ... do anything that involves bringing the community in and folks into Stuart’s too,” Koscho says.

Joshua Frash and his wife Hayley rented the downstairs area of Stuart’s Opera House for their wedding reception on March 17, 2018. The OU alumni were married at Galbreath Chapel on campus. They chose Stuart’s for their reception because it was an affordable and historic venue. With enough space for up to 250 people, the lobby and reception area were large enough for the couple’s needs and created a “homey” atmosphere, where all the guests could celebrate together.

“Brent Armel, who’s the events coordinator there, he did a fabulous job just fulfilling our needs and being available the day of,” Frash says. “It didn’t feel like we were stressed at all at the actual reception. It flowed really well.”

The intimate, historical venue is a beloved aspect of the community. Since 1879, Stuart’s Opera House has driven people to Nelsonville for productions, concerts and other events, enhancing the area economically and culturally. Those who come to see entertainment buy more than tickets. They buy into the mission of the Opera House and offer support for arts education in Southeast Ohio, Koscho says.

“Nothing is as important as people having a love for a place and knowing how important it is in their community and in their lives,” Koscho says.