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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #120: The Music Hall, Portsmouth

Party parents in the house!

I don't claim nearly the intimacy or familiarity with the port city's crown cultural jewel that many could more creditably boast. But I do have fond memories of the old place, most of which revolve around the herculean undertaking that was the annual Nutcracker show put on annually there for years by Ballet New England. In 1998, as Executive Director of BNE, I was essentially the producer of the show (shows, actually - nearly a dozen of them counting the afternoon school performances). That involved everything from designing and selling the ads for the programs to negotiating the contracts of dancers and lighting and sound guys to liaising with the box office (much to Trevor Bartlett's chagrin, I am sure). It also involved loading a rental truck with the props and costumes over at the Connie Bean, navigating the narrow streets of Portsmouth to the stage door, and unloading it all. How I put on so much weight in those days, I'll never know. It was a stressful and delightful time, with hundreds of student and adult dancers and actors alongside pros like George Hosker-Bouley, Angela Fiandaca Avery, and Jamie McFerran Halcom. I practically lived there for two weeks that December - the following year, returning as a mere character actor, was like a trip to the spa.

The Music Hall itself is a grand old lady, built in 1878 following a fire which consumed the previous tenants of the block bounded by Congress and Chestnut Streets. The theater was home to vaudeville acts and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and a variety of other spectacles, including Portsmouth's first public display of moving pictures in 1898. Local brewer Frank Jones helped renovate the Music Hall in 1901 and continued to host Broadway shows and films, though it suffered from several closures. In 1945 it became The Civic and was a downtown movie theater into the 1980s. I can remember seeing movies there as a kid - including, I believe, Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the first movie I remember seeing in the theater.

In 1987, following a brief leasing agreement with theater-house magnate EM Loew (yeah, like Loew's), the community rallied to preserve the Music Hall and reinvent the space as a non-profit venue for the performing arts. It's a model of how it can be done, and one we tried - and failed - to emulate in efforts to save the IOKA in Exeter a few years back. (That still hurts). I haven't been there for a while - a wedding, maybe? - but I still have a lot of affection for the gorgeous interior, the historic fixtures, the tiny dressing rooms. I don't think there are any more Nutcrackers in my future, but when we get back to NH next year, I look forward to ballets and musicals and concerts. Portsmouth is a better place because it has such a vibrant artistic community. The Music Hall, along with the Seacoast Rep, the Players Ring, and all the rest are treasures beyond price - and we only enjoy them because of the endless labors of professionals, the work of volunteers, and the generosity of donors. If you're among one or more of those groups - thanks. You're part of what's right with New Hampshire.

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