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Hiding in a Pleasant Street barn: 125-year-old grand drape from Laconia's Moulton Opera House found

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."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 October 2013 02:28

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Save Gale School Committee encouraged after meeting with Shaker board again

BELMONT — The Shaker Regional School Board agreed to allow the Save the Gale School Committee continue exploring possible uses for the historic but now empty building.

Committee member Ken Knowlton said the board seemed interested in preserving the Gale School with an eye to possibly using the relocated school as a public library.

"The didn't say no," Knowlton said, commenting last week on his appearance before the board. "We are interpreting that they like the idea and want to see more."

"They agreed that the research (done by the Save the Gale School Committee) could continue," confirmed Superintendent Maria Dreyer.

Knowlton said one of the School Board's biggest concerns was moving the school — now located on the edge of Bryant Park, behind the Middle School — only to see it abandoned again in a new location.

The Shaker Regional School District owns the Gale School. It also owns the corner lot near the Middle School that borders on Concord Street — the proposed site for any relocation. Knowlton said his initial idea would be for the library to lease the land from the School District.

Knowlton, former School Board member Pret Tuthill, Diane Marden, and Wallace Rhodes are the core of the Save The Gale School Committee. In the past few months, they have taken a two-pronged approach toward saving the 1890's school, with Knowlton and Tuthill working with the School Board and Marden and Rhodes working with the Library Trustees.

Marden and Rhodes made a similar presentation in September to the Belmont Public Library Trustees at the same time Tuthill and Knowlton were meeting with the School Board. Library Trustee Chair Mary Louise Charnley said last week that the trustees listened to their presentation but haven't had a chance to review or discuss it.

She said now that a librarian has been hired, she expects the trustees to have some kind of public discussion regarding the Save the Gale School Committee proposal at one of their upcoming meetings.

In the committee's mind, relocating the school to the corner lot and making it into the Belmont Public Library is a win for both — the Middle School gets better use of the land behind it and the library gets a chance to expand.

When Knowlton was asked if there was a "Plan B" should the library not want to relocate, he said the Save the School Committee "would cast a wide net" for potential users.

Knowlton said the next step is to go before the Board of Selectmen to update them on the committee's work.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 January 2014 12:17

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Plymouth beats Sachems 37-0

PLYMOUTH — The Sachems (2-4) traveled to Plymouth Saturday and only managed seven first downs and 115 total yards in a 37-0 loss.

It was Laconia's second game against an undefeated team in as many weeks. Unlike last week against Mondadnock Regional (Swanzey), the Sachems would not score 37 points.

The Bobcats (6-0), led by senior quarterback Colin Sullivan and running back Jared Kuehl, controlled the tempo from the opening whistle. Kuehl had two scores, one receiving and the other on the ground, while Sullivan threw for two and ran for another.

"We competed well and made them do things that they normally wouldn't have on offense," coach Craig Kozens said of his young Laconia team. "The backbreaker was giving up a touchdown eight seconds before halftime."

Laconia intercepted Sullivan with 23 seconds remain in the half, only to return the favor on the very next play. Eight seconds remained in the half after the pair of picks. The Bobcats would make Laconia pay for the turnover when Sullivan hooked up with Kuehl coming out of the backfield for a 27 yard touchdown. The score increased Plymouth's lead 28 at the half.

Laconia's offense went three and out four times in the first quarter. The second saw Laconia's longest drive of the day, which consisted of nine plays and two first downs. "We could have used Kyle Chiasson" said Kozens. He did not play due to shoulder injury. "He is a key part of the offense and in the secondary."

Laconia would have four possessions on offense in the second half. Plymouth's defense would produce three turnovers.

Laconia will be home on Friday night when they host Lebanon (2-4) in a NHIAA division II North Conference showdown. Game time is at 7 p.m. at Bank of New Hampshire Stadium.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 02:14

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LPD focusing on stopping underage drinking

LACONIA — On a recent weekend, a group of youths gathered at the home of a friend to have a party. All of the usual beverages were served and it's likely that up to a certain point, many thought they were having a good time.

But, according to police, by the time the party ended, one young man was treated in the emergency room of Lakes Region General Hospital for excessive consumption of alcohol, the police had arrived at the party, parents were notified, and three of the older youths, ages 18 and 19, were cited for unlawful possession of alcohol.

The above scenario plays out fairly regularly in Laconia. According to Lt. Al Lessard, 77 people under the age of 21 were charged with unlawful possession of alcohol in 2012. So far this year, 45 have been cited.

For those who are convicted, a mandatory minimum fine of $300 will be paid. It's $600 for a second offense.

Three people in Laconia were charged in 2012 with facilitating a house party while so far this year two have been charged with the same offense. A misdemeanor, those convicted of facilitating a house party where drugs or alcohol is made available to minors, can pay up to a $1,200 fine.

Police have taken a multi-pronged approach toward under-aged drinking. There are grants that the Police Department gets annually that allows extra officers to be on patrol during times of anticipated high need — like graduation, prom, home football games and the upcoming holidays.

A group of officers has adopted under-aged drinking as one of its Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) projects, that was articulated at the most recent Police Commission meeting.

Working with the School District and other civic organizations like Stand Up For Laconia and the Lakes Regional Partnership For Public Health, the police have a goal of education the community on under-age drinking and DWI laws, promote a "chem-free" lifestyle and change the perceptions of those who violate drinking laws, and to improve communications between parents, minors, and parents.

Each POP project is lead by a supervisor, in this case Sgt. Mike Finogle, and a team of police officers, a dispatcher, and a civilian employee. Senior Patrol Officer Steve Orton is also a member of the Underage Drinking team.

Not only can under-aged alcohol abuse cause legal problems for those who imbibe more and more scientific research has shown that early alcohol use can have a detrimental effect on developing brains.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "young adulthood is a period when most people make critical educational, occupational, and social decisions, and impaired cognitive functioning at this time could substantially affect their futures."

The NIAAA conducted its study in 2000 on the neuropsychological performance of young people who were between the ages of 15 and 16 and who were in treatment for alcohol dependence and found that as compared to the control group of student who hadn't consumed alcohol and found they performed worse on a number of verbal and non-verbal memory tests.

A follow up on the same people eight years later indicated that active abusers did worse than the abstainers on with attention tasks and those who had experienced withdrawal symptoms — hangovers or shakes — did worse than those who were light drinkers.

The study also highlighted the development of brain structures and found the hippocampus — which lies deep in the brain and is critical to learning new information and memory — is adversely affected by alcohol use, especially by binge drinking.

"The ... earlier a person developed an (Alcohol Use Disorder) the smaller his or her hippocampi," read the report.

In addition, the NIAAA cited other studies which showed young people may be more susceptible to developing AUDs because the pre-frontal cortex — portion of the brain that controls impulses — continues to develop well into a person's 20s and damage is done in young brains to impulse control leading to poor decision making.

Research showed alcohol had the same effect on adult however the difference in young people was more acute when he or she drank alcohol.

The study also concluded that young people with Alcohol Use Disorders were at a higher risk of other psychiatric disorders including conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorders.

While the lasting physical and psychological effects of the above weekend party cannot be known at this time, the one thing that is guaranteed is the three young men who were charged with unlawful possession of alcohol as a result of the party will have to face a judge in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division.

 

CUTLINE - Laconia Police show their support for Stand Up for Laconia with a sign on their front lawn that they also bring to home football games. From left to right are Det. Jeff Wholley, Senior Patrol Officer Robert Sedgley, Chief Chris Adams, Officer Michelle Cardinal and Officer Kendra Neri. Many of those pictured participated in the recent Problem Oriented Policing project that targets underage drinking. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Gail Ober)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 02:10

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