Built in 1909 by then-Shepherdstown mayor, U.S. Martin, the Shepherdstown Opera House (131 W. German St.) was sold to a local family that same year, and run nightly, often showing as many as three different films a week.
By 1928, the Opera House became the first motion picture theater in West Virginia with sound, which allowed it to show the popular new “talkies.”
For nearly 30 years, the Opera House presented local audiences with the movies and entertainment of the day, until closing in 1956. It sat dark and silent for another 30 years, until Pam and Rusty Berry purchased it in 1989.
The duo worked tirelessly, and finally reopened the Opera House in 1992—showing American independent and foreign films. In 2004, they added new lighting and sound systems to accommodate live musical and theatrical performances onstage.
In October 2010, Pam and Rusty sold the Opera House to Lawrence and Julie Cumbo, who both had a vision to take it to the next level. As a filmmaker, Lawrence wanted to preserve the theater’s cinematic tradition, but he knew music had to be another cornerstone of Opera House culture. Since then, continual light and sound system upgrades, an expanded back stage, and a revamped green room has allowed this vision to grow into one of the area’s finest music and film venues.
“Our original motivation was to turn it into a community-based theater offering live music, performing arts, and fine films,” he said. “We wanted to create a uniquely historic and intimate place to entertain people in Shepherdstown and beyond.”
That initial vision has evolved for Cumbo over the years, beginning with his having to change the focus from being a movie theater—due to the inability of booking newly released films to a single-screen theater. “We’ve evolved to hosting major film festivals throughout the years, including our new film series, Rusty Mondays, which is devoted to Rusty Berry,” he explained.
Cumbo emphasized that, while the evolution did alter the initial theater vision, the adaptation to music has served the Opera House well. “Fortunately, we are also becoming a destination for Grammy-winning and international artists playing weekly on our stage. We’re a live venue in the heart of Shepherdstown, where you’ll find everything from bluegrass to burlesque to big-screen films.”
Cumbo takes great pride in seeing to it that his Opera House has essentially come full-circle. “Ironically the Opera House today is doing what the original owners did in 1910, providing a place for artists to perform live in a building built for live entertainment,” he noted. “We’re proud to carry on the torch in keeping it as an iconic landmark in Shepherdstown. Our team works very hard to make sure our performing artists and audiences experience a memorable night in Shepherdstown.”
For more information, visit the Opera House on Facebook.