History of the Camden Opera House

Laying the foundations, 1893

Built in 1894, the Camden Opera House was once the tallest building in Knox County. The massive building was also home to several businesses and a businessman’s club. Willis Carleton, a lifelong resident of Rockport who painted stage scenery in New York for many years decorated the interior, highlighting in stereo relief gold and white on the arch, balcony front and loge boxes. The auditorium itself, 36 feet by 33 feet and complete with a set of scenery and opera chairs, boasted a kitchen, ticket office and checkroom to the left of the main landing; on the right were individual rooms. A 45 hp steel tubular boiler provided steam heat, and the auditorium, like the rest of the building, was lighted with electricity. The curtains, a delicate shade of brown, matched the decorations furnished by Follansbee and Wood of Camden.

Opening night, June 6, 1894 featured the Boston Opera Company’s performance of “Maritama”, followed by a grand ball with music by the company orchestra topped off by dessert served in the Banquet Hall. W.P. Gould waited in line for three hours to have the honor of buying the first ticket. In the following weeks, the hall was booked by the Justin Adams Co., whose scenery arrived from the firm of L.J. Couch and Co. of Boston, and the Vinalhaven fire station, which presented a demonstration drill, followed by a ball.

Camden’s first town meeting was held here in 1895.


Opera House, Main Street Camden ME

In the early 1900s, three short movies were shown on Saturday evenings with a dance held after the show to the tunes of an orchestra playing from the orchestra pit. Traveling shows arrived, including the 1908 sensational melodrama entitled “How Women Ruin Men”. Gladys Kirk and her entourage appeared in 1919 for one night only; the advertisement for their show read “there is nothing left to the imagination.”

Firemen’s Balls drew big crowds each year. In the 1930s and 1940s the hall hosted many big bands as the foxtrot, waltz and later the Lindy were taught to Camden’s youth. Groups of townspeople took part in minstrel shows and Camden schools held plays, speaking contests and graduations. Also in the 1930s, Mrs. Mary Curtis Bok (later Zimbalist) turned her philanthropic attention to aiding and maintaining the Opera House. The Curtis School of Music, (later Salzedo) directed by Alice Chalifoux and begun by Carlos Salzedo, taught the harp and presented performances for over 30 years, even hosting a performance to raise funds to aid future Opera House events.


Interior shot early 1900s

Traveling shows continued, including appearances by Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Lillian Gish and Edward Everett Horton.

During World War II, a USO dance for Camden’s servicemen at Camp Camden (now Camden Hills State Park) as well as U.S. Coast Guard stationed on Curtis Island and Rockland was held every Wednesday.

In the mid-1950s the previously flat floor of the orchestra level of the auditorium was “raked” (sloped from one end to the other) in order to provide a more professional viewing experience for attendees and allow more theater to be presented.

The Camden Women’s Club was the first community theater group, presenting “The King and I” and “Finian’s Rainbow” to packed houses. The Camden Civic Theatre, the current resident community theater of 35+ years, emerged from this group.

In 1993 (as the 100th birthday approached) the building was in need yet again of attention. Below is a sampling of pre-renovation photos:

With generous gifts from MBNA, the people of Camden, the Camden Civic Theatre and the Friends of Camden Opera House, an ambitious renovation and restoration was undertaken. The result is a strikingly beautiful and elegant facility that provides modern comforts in an historic atmosphere.   At our 120th anniversary we realized how far we had come to remain relevant within our beautiful framework.  State of the art sound, lighting, wifi and digital film screening capabilities are all now seamlessly integrated.

Today the Opera House is home to a variety of events as well as Camden’s municipal offices and police station. Our multi-room facility (auditorium and three conference areas) has enabled us to meet the needs of a variety of productions. Local school children still shine in school plays and concerts.  Our stage has hosted many nationally and internationally known performers, including the Eileen Ivers Band, Johnny Winter, Little Feat, Buckwheat Zydeco, David Hyde Pierce, John Legend,  Wynton Marsalis, Richie Havens, comedian Bob Marley… the list goes on and on.  We act as a host venue for area organizations and also produce a substantial number of  shows ourself.

Annual conferences are also a major focus – the Camden Technology Conference (Pop-Tech), now approaching their  20th year, as well as the Camden Conference on International Affairs, here now for 29 years – that have specialized in utilizing the magnificent scenery, inns and restaurants of Camden as a “campus” with the Opera House it’s gem in the center.  The Camden International Film Festival celebrated their 10th anniversary last year, and continues to grow and attract international attention.    Attendees are easily able to walk from their lodging to the conference and then to lunch, all in a most beautiful and comfortable setting.

Many thanks to local historian Barbara Dyer who provided and wrote much of the information contained herein.

Please enjoy this presentation about the history
of the Camden Opera House by Architect Chris Glass.

Every Friday at 4:45pm from June – September the Camden Opera House offers an historic tour that includes a look at our behind the scenes spaces.