History of the Camden Opera House

The Camden Opera House was built in 1894, and 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 decorated the interior, including stereo relief gold and white on the stage arch, balcony front, and loge boxes. The auditorium itself measures 36 feet by 33 feet and boasted a kitchen, ticket office and checkroom to the left of the main landing; on the right were individual rooms.

Opening night, June 6, 1894 featured the Boston Opera Company’s performance of “Maritama”, a grand ball with music by the company orchestra, and dessert in the Banquet Hall. W.P. Gould waited in line for three hours to have the honor of buying the first ticket.

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

Laying the foundations, 1893
Opera House, Main Street Camden ME

In the early 1900s, Saturdays meant a movie and a dance, with the band playing from inside the Opera House orchestra pit. Traveling shows included 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 and later Big Bands filled the Opera House with music and dancing. Townspeople took part in minstrel shows, and Camden schools held plays, speaking contests, and graduations. In the 1930s, Mrs. Mary Curtis Bok turned her philanthropic attention to aiding and maintaining the Opera House.

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

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, emerged from this group and took up residency at the Opera House for more than 35 years.

Old-Camden-Opera-House
Interior shot early 1900s

In 1993 the building was yet again in need of attention.

Main stairwell and lobby previous to 1994 renovations.
Auditorium prior to 1994 interior painting, new curtains, and cushioning on seating.
Original orchestra seating prior to addition of cushioning.

Today the Opera House is home to a variety of events as well as Camden’s municipal offices. Our multi-room facility 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… the list goes on and on.

The Opera House also hosts several area conferences including the Camden Conference and the Camden International Film Festival. Attracting hundreds of people from all over the country, these events employ the magnificent scenery, inns, and restaurants of Camden as a “campus”, and the Camden Opera House its gem in the center.

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.