On the evening of December 4, 1871, carriage after carriage pulled up in front of a rather inconspicuous red brick building in downtown Providence. Well-dressed theatre-goers entered the lobby of the Providence Opera House, the city’s newest performing arts venue. The lobby was stately and elegant, while the auditorium of the theatre, which could seat over 1,400 people, was handsome and comfortable. Mayor Thomas Doyle greeted the audience from the stage before the opening night production of Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion, a drawing-room comedy. One attendee was purported to have said, “The play was not the best that might have been chosen, but it was selected because it gave the ladies an opportunity to show some handsome dresses.”
The opening of the Providence Opera House marked the beginning of a robust era for performing arts in Providence. In the 1870s, the population of the city was around 69,000 and increased to over 250,000 people by the end of the 1920s. Through this period, entertainment was available at every price point, in wide varieties, and in ever-changing modes. The Providence Opera House featured chaste, family-friendly productions of plays, dance, and opera, while other venues in the city hosted bawdier performances that were deemed uncouth.
At the beginning of the Opera House’s existence, it hosted travelling performers and relied on local actors to fill in supporting roles. Popular solo actors had a handful of signature roles that they’d perform. They would arrive in town, rehearse once or twice with a theatre’s resident acting company, perform for a week, and then move onto the next city. The 1873-1874 season ran for 42 weeks and had 136 attractions; while the leading roles were often filled by travelling performers (including Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth), the Opera House’s resident acting company averaged having to learn, rehearse, and perform three new plays each week during that one season. As theatre attendance was the major entertainment opportunity for people in the 19th century, patrons had ample opportunities to see a wide variety of shows.
The Providence Opera House continued on as a touring venue through its whole existence, but later on contracting whole productions, not just solo actors. With a major train depot in the heart of downtown, actors and managers would disembark and train cars would be unloaded of set flats, props, and costume trunks, sent promptly to that stop’s venue. Popular tours would stop multiple times in Providence, usually with the first run at the Opera House, and subsequent productions would be at cheaper, less prestigious venues. This gave the wealthy the advantage of seeing shows before others in society, but productions became available at lower price points for the working class during second and third runs.
By the early 1930s, the Opera House was outdated and property in Providence was at a premium. On March 14, 1931, the patrons filled the auditorium for the last time. Providence-born, nationally recognized star George M. Cohan returned to the city to perform on this final night. He was joined by Eddie Dowling and Rachel “Ray” Dooley, other notable actors with strong Rhode Island connections. The night was a teary-eyed send off for one of the most prestigious venues in Rhode Island. The following Monday, wrecking balls took down the Providence Opera House, leveling it to become a parking lot.