The Opera House
A historic venue in Shepherdstown offers a unique location for performances and movies.
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth
As its name suggests, the Opera House—now a nostalgic, intimate performance venue—was built in 1909 as an opera house. Originally owned by Shepherdstown mayor Upton S. Martin, in 1928, the Opera House became the first motion picture theater in West Virginia with sound, enabling it to show the newfangled “talkies.” The Opera House was closed for several decades before it was purchased by Pam and Rusty Berry in 1992. After an extensive renovation and careful restoration of the historic building, the Berrys reopened the Opera House and began showing independent and foreign films. They later added new lighting and sound systems to accommodate live musical and theatrical performances. The Opera House is now owned by Lawrence and Julie Cumbo. As a filmmaker, Lawrence wanted to preserve the theater's cinematic tradition, but he knew live music was also an important part of Opera House culture.
Under the Cumbos’ direction, the Opera House has grown into one of the area's finest music and film venues. “We’ve grown in live entertainment a lot,” Lawrence says. “We have a wide variety of bands. We’re known for bluegrass, but we also have some country, lots of jam bands, as well as indie rock and reggae.” Many of these bands are local West Virginia acts, but other big names stop at Shepherdstown as a convenient stop in between their Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., shows. The Opera House also shows films, but they aren’t the movies you see at big theaters. “We have film festivals and film events often about social issues. We’ll have the filmmaker come and lead a discussion about the film,” Lawrence says.
Concert-goers and musicians alike appreciate the quality of the sound at the Opera House. “It was built as a proper opera house so the sound is an amazing experience. Everyone talks about it,” Lawrence says. In addition, the smaller size of the venue allows for intimate performances and a lighthearted atmosphere. The musicians can feel the people enjoying themselves, and the crowd feels like they are a part of the show. The Opera House also benefits from its location. Shepherdstown offers a rich history and art culture that traveling musicians love. “It’s a very welcoming culture for artists. That’s something that sets us apart.”
An accomplished filmmaker who has worked for National Geographic, Lawrence brought his work home when he began filming a new series, Rocking the Opera House: Dr. John for the Smithsonian Channel. The show is filmed at the Opera House and throughout the Shepherdstown area. “It’s performance mixed with storytelling. It’s footage of Dr. John performing with beautiful transitions into the history of Shepherdstown.” The show premiered March 7, 2014, on the Smithsonian Channel.operahouselive.com