The Shepherdstown Opera House has a timeless view overlooking the town on West German Street
An “opera house” sounds like a civilized place for entertainment — exactly what towns and cities across the United States were intending when they built these new types of venues to attract the itinerant performers who were criss-crossing the country after the Civil War. The term “vaudeville” would eventually stick as a general term for the popular performance of this era and between the 1870s and 1920s, citizens across the country could attend shows featuring a broad variety of acts — a one-man band, traveling repertoire troops, jugglers, magicians, singers, lecturers — and by the early 20th century, traveling silent film projectionists.
A Nationwide Entertainment Network
Author Anne Satterthwaite chronicles the rise and fall of the main street opera house from the 1870s through the 1920s in her book Local Glories. It was a good run, with some western gold/silver boom towns hosting palatial theaters seating thousands and regular circuits competing for the top performers such as Sara Bernhardt, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, and Mark Twain. Opera houses brought a national culture of popular entertainment to many small towns in an era when railroad travel coast to coast was easy, but getting one town over was still done by horse or on foot.
With the rollout of talking films at the end of the 1920s, opera houses gave way to “movie palaces,” many designed with exotic themes and lavish seating. Fast forward to the present and the number of opera houses still standing and functioning as entertainment venues, once counted in the thousands, could be typed out on a single sheet of paper.
Shepherdstown Gets Its Opera House
Upton Scott Martin purchased the property for Shepherdstown’s Opera House in December 1909; there was a small wood house which he had torn down and the Opera House was ready for shows by June of 1910. There was no plumbing or electricity provided, so construction was a bit simpler back then. Up the street, Jefferson Security Bank still occupied the Billmyer building (today’s Admiral Analog’s record store) and Licklider’s general store was next door (the current Press Room restaurant). Trains stopped at the Norfolk & Western train station and the Volunteer Fire Company still occupied the old market house in the center of King Street. The Entler Hotel was doing a thriving business (and not yet consumed by the 1912 fire).
The first few years saw a rotating cast of performers at the Opera House, including several of the town police officers who purchased a hand-cranked projector to show motion picture shows in the “family theater.” Various local organizations held “chaperoned dances” for youth upstairs. When Clifford S. Musser needed a space for the offices and printing equipment for his new Independent newspaper, he became the first permanent tenant of the Opera House in March 1914. All of his equipment was hand-operated (and hand-carried to the third floor). In May of that year Musser, with his wife Ada, took on the theater operations too. By April 1915, the Mussers had moved into a newly constructed apartment suite on the second floor, ultimately purchasing the entire building in 1926.
The Musser family ran the theater until May of 1957 and the newspaper until 1974 (which had by then expanded into the Licklider building next door). The theater sat, dark and untouched, into the late 1980s until it was refurbished and reopened in the early 1990s by Rusty and Pam Berry. The entire building is currently undergoing renovation with plans to open in the summer of 2022.
Learn more about the Shepherdstown Opera House past and present at the Historic Shepherdstown Museum’s Speaker Series event on May 11 (details at HistoricShepherdstown.com).By Steve Pearson