LACONIA — It was the kind of experience historians dream of: on May 14, on the hot and dusty third floor of an old barn on Pleasant Street, Laconia Historical and Museum Society's Executive Director Brenda Polidoro and board member Warren Huse, joined by Christine Hadsel, dragged out from its hiding place a large roll of fabric, and with bated breath, carefully began to reveal what had been hidden for four decades.
Within a few revolutions of the roll, the trio realized that the rumor was true. The anonymous-looking roll of fabric, stuffed into the eave of the barn and forgotten for decades, was the 125 year-old grand drape that for some 60 years had hung before the curtain at the long-demolished Moulton Opera House. What's more, it was in nearly perfect condition.
"My heart was racing, my hands were shaking," recalled Polidoro. She had heard in January, through resident Dorothy Duffy, that the property on Pleasant Street had recently changed hands and that its barn might contain an artifact from the era when Laconia boasted four ornate theaters. However, Polidoro had resisted the urge to check out the tip for herself, worried that she might inadvertently damage the drape.
"As curious as I was to see what was rolled up, I didn't want to do anything wrong," she said. So, she waited until May, when she could investigate the item under the guidance of Hadsel, executive director of the Vermont-based Curtains Without Borders, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of just such cultural artifacts. What they found was a drape in better condition than what anyone could have hoped for, and equally impressive to their expert guest, reported Polidoro. "She said, 'This is the most exquisite curtain I have ever seen.'"
The Moulton Opera House once stood on Main Street, blocks away from the Colonial and Garden theaters and across town from the Lakeport Opera House. Moulton Opera House, built by bank president John C. Moulton and first opened on August 23, 1887, was located on the second and third floors of a brick building that also housed O'Shea's Department Store. In an era that predated television and the widespread proliferation of automobiles, the city's residents relied upon the grand theaters for entertainment and to whisk them away from their daily troubles. Recalled Duffy, who frequented the Laconia theaters as a girl, "No matter how bad your situation was, you could go to the theater and escape it."
Each of the theaters would have had a grand drape or curtain, an ornately decorated piece of fabric that would hang in front of the stage's main curtain, providing theater goers something to look at while they waited for the production to begin. Often, the drapes were painted in the likeness of well-known works of art, and such was the case of the Moulton Opera House drape. Painted in 1886 by Eugene Cramer of Columbia, S. C., the drape is an homage to "Morning on the Nile," painted by Belgian artist Jacob Jacobs. However, since Cramer was translating the image to a drape that measured 29 feet wide by 19 feet tall, he had some extra space to fill, and so it appeared to Polidoro that he added some of his own flourishes, such as a boat that could be Noah's Ark.
The fabric of the drape, according to Polidoro, is comprised of four foot sections of heavy cotton, perhaps some linen, sewn together. Cramer used water-based distemper paint to create the artwork. Apart from some minor fraying of the seams holding the panels together, and some light dirt on the fabric, Polidoro said the drape is remarkably well preserved. Even so, she'll seek funding, in the way of a state grant, to pay Hadsel's organization to restore the historic item.
Polidoro was grateful to local contractor John Kean, who built a cradle to support the rolled-up drape while it was carefully removed from the barn, and to Boulia-Gorrell Lumber Company, which volunteered a boom truck and operator to lower it from the third-floor bay door.
Sally Veazey, general manager and treasurer for Boulia-Gorrell, said her company agreed without hesitation to assist in the project. "It was such a wonderful item that they found. We were thrilled to be asked, history is an important thing for a town. History is what makes a town what it is. We've been here 141 years in this business, history is very important to us."
The drape was moved on September 14 and is currently in safe storage awaiting its restoration. Polidoro hopes to ultimately find a place where the drape can be mounted and occasionally displayed for public viewing.
If it was fortune that guarded the antique drape for the half-century that it spent in forgotten storage, it was equally lucky that the drape managed to find its way from the theater to the barn. That stroke of luck came in the form of Wayne Fletcher, who 40 years ago was a young man working for Sam Dunn.
Dunn, said Fletcher, owned Pheasant Ridge Country Club and "had more money than he knew what to do with." When it became clear that the building containing Moulton Opera House would be razed in 1970 as part of so-called urban renewal, Dunn successfully bid on the entire contents of the theater and hired Fletcher to lead a crew to clean it out. After lowering the grandiose chandelier, removing the seats and all the other valuable furnishings, they came to the drape.
"I can remember going in there as a kid to the theater, and we used to admire it," said Fletcher, recalling how he and the other workers lowered the drape to the floor of the stage. "I told the guys, I think this is going to be history. Let's roll it up and take care of it."
Fletcher contacted Frank Neal, a banker and member of the Pheasant Ridge club, who lived on Pleasant Street. Neal agreed to allow the drape to be stored in his barn. "We just thought, maybe somebody would like to see it. So we rolled it up, put it in the barn and let's see what happens."
The property changed hands several times, and for all Polidoro knows subsequent owners had no idea that an irreplaceable part of the city's history was stashed in the barn. When Don Houle, an acquaintance of Fletcher's bought the buildings and land recently, Fletcher asked him to see if there was a large roll of fabric in the barn's top floor.
Houle offered to donate whatever was in the roll to the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, and so Polidoro was able to view something that no person had seen since the Moulton Opera House was demolished. "That building has been gone since urban renewal," marveled Polidoro. "Lo and behold, here's the curtain from that building."