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Lebanon Opera House at 100: A More Welcoming Space For The Community To Gather

Mar 26, 2024 04:36PM ● By Susan b. Apel Photography By Lars Blackmore

LOH Executive Director Joe Clifford has been a leader in the Upper Valley art scene for nearly 25 years.

Inside Lebanon Opera House is an old iron staircase that spirals from the backstage dressing room area to the floor below. It’s been painted several times over the years, evidenced by the multihued chipped handrail and the irregular worn spots on the staircase treads from the friction of decades of shoes. It is an original fixture, initially used when the upper space was a sheriff’s office and the staircase led to prisoner holding cells below. It has been rumored that prisoners could sometimes hear the performances on stage above them; sounds of their applause or disapproval would drift up the stairway. And despite the extensive renovations just completed throughout Lebanon Opera House, the iron staircase is going nowhere and remains untouched, continuing to function and to carry part of the history of the building that anchors downtown Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Lebanon Opera House is celebrating its centennial,100 years of serving the community, with a major reset of this performing arts venue. The changes begin just inside the front door, with a revamped lobby featuring a new floor and a new color scheme. Lighting fixtures have been replaced and a polished new concession stand will be serving refreshments. The stairs that lead from the lobby to the house’s entrance are newly carpeted, handrails gleaming; there’s an Art Deco vibe. Gazing from the lobby upward toward the house doors, Executive Director Joe Clifford, who has been considering LOH’s centennial since he assumed the directorship seven years ago, was rapt for a moment, proclaiming “Now it looks like a real theater.”

Luxury and Comfort

Stepping into the “real theater” is a more welcoming experience with the removal of the old half-wall at the back of the house; the space is now repurposed for small pre- and post-show gatherings. Painted walls, some acoustic panels, and new flooring produce a softer, more luxurious tone. Best of all, when many other establishments are shoehorning ever more seats into smaller spaces, LOH’s new seats, approximately 60 fewer, are wider than before, with more legroom, and in a nod to the lobby concession stand, feature attached cup holders.

Executive Director Joe Clifford is enthusiastic about the stage and backstage areas, which have been revamped with modern equipment that performance venues now require if they are to attract top talent. At least some of the new technology, such as LED stage lighting, will help to reduce costs. All renovations have been fully funded through a capital campaign that is about to reach its 4.2-million-dollar goal.

A Long-Treasured Space

Lebanon Opera House’s history has seen some similarities and differences from the present day, with each era, according to Joe, lasting approximately 25 years. Built in 1924, it began as a vaudeville theater, community gathering spot, and city hall. It became the space in town to catch some newsreels, take in a basketball game, and hobnob with neighbors. Fancy-dress balls were held there for the citizens of Lebanon. Under the auspices of the Lebanon Improvement Society in 1951, it became a movie theater until it closed in 1969. For six years thereafter, LOH was home to some high school musicals, with just a few professional productions that unfortunately pointed out the inadequacies of venue. The next major renovation was in 2001.

Joe sees himself and his team as the current stewards of a long-treasured space. LOH continues in a somewhat symbiotic relationship with City Hall, whose offices remain in the building, but it is now administered by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Lebanon Opera House Improvement Corporation.

Bringing People Together

Under Joe’s direction, LOH sought to become more integrated into the Lebanon and Upper Valley communities. Toward that end, it partners with and hosts a number of local social-service and arts organizations such as the Lebanon Ballet School, North Country Community Theater, and Revels North. The renovations at LOH, according to him, will serve not only LOH audiences, artists, and staff but also contribute to the success—“all boats rising”—of the partner organizations.

Asked about the future of Lebanon Opera House, Joe explains by looking back at the past few years when the COVID pandemic closed all performance venues, including LOH. He moved entertainment from the indoor stage to outdoor venues throughout the downtown, erecting stages, making use of the verdant Colburn Park and the newly completed pedestrian tunnel as alternative venues for the annual Nexus Music and Arts Festival. Joe and his team want to build on the success of Nexus by pursuing LOH on Location to bring more performances out of the LOH building and into other spaces in the Upper Valley.

In addition, the pandemic-imposed inability of people to gather only confirmed the importance and the meaning of humans engaging in a common experience. Joe explains, “We bring people together—hundreds at a time and often several times a week—and that simple act is simply transformative. For a few hours, audience members can let the weight of the world melt away and just revel in beauty and creative expression. I especially love the time between the doors opening and the curtain rising. It’s so much fun to see patrons recognize each other from across the theater. There are lots of smiles, waves, introductions, and awkward hugs across the seats. It’s that series of mini-reunions and new meetups that signals to me I’m surrounded by my people. All of this before the first note of music or piece of dialogue rings out across the theater. It’s electric. It’s exciting.”


Lebanon Opera House

51 North Park Street

Lebanon, NH

(603) 448-0400

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