Backstage Pass to the Abbeville Opera House

At the turn of the century, two major transportation improvements in the United States contributed to theater companies touring their productions: The building of concrete highways and the rail system made for smoother, faster traveling around the country. New York City was one of the most active in exporting shows that would travel to Richmond and perform, then on to Atlanta, stopping to spend the night in Abbeville. 

Abbeville was a cultural center in the western part of South Carolina at that time, and it occurred to the powers-that-be that since the road companies made this their overnight stop, they could have them perform, if only they had the proper facility. 

The New York road house company provided Abbeville with the architectural drawings of a New York-style theater—that is, one that is built upward rather than being spread out because of space limitations in New York City. 

So the Abbeville Opera House is a four-story high brick building. Under the stage is full set storage. Over the stage, ropes, sand bags as weights, and pulleys soar four stories high to control the curtains and backdrops.  This old-style system of rigging is rare, and Abbeville is in fact the only “hemphouse” in the State of South Carolina. There are box seats on two levels, and a balcony. 

The road companies always had work mules and horses with them, even if they arrived by railroad.  The company would pull to the rear of the building, and the horses would pull the set pieces up the ramp and on to the stage. There, sets would be unloaded and readied for the production. 

Just off to the left of the stage is the room where livestock were housed during the production. It is used for prop storage now, and it, too, is open four stories upward. 

The brick wall at the back is remarkable in that it is one of the largest free-standing brick walls in the world.  Four bricks thick, stacked one on top of the other, it stands without steel beams or rods.  Standing on the ground and looking up is a quite impressive sight. 

“You can see how cluttered and messy everything is. It’s the end of the season,” apologized Michael Genevie, currently Executive Director of the Opera House and affiliated with it since 1979. He explained that when the play ends on a Saturday night, they will strike the set that night. The city will park a dump truck out back by the famous brick wall. Props and materials will get tossed or stacked into flats and stored.  

“We come back in on Sunday morning at 9,” says Genevie, “and by 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon, the new set will be built and ready to go.”

Whenever there are renovations, the goal is to restore it as accurately as possible—with the exception of heating and air conditioning and the comfortable rocking chair seats. One of the most recent renovations concerned the dressing rooms. A bonus of the four-story plan is four levels of dressing rooms, four dressing rooms per floor, for a total of 16, which can handle as many as 60 cast members. The bigger stars were on the first level, the lowliest stars on the fourth floor. The upper floors had large windows just outside the dressing rooms overlooking the stage so the actors could hear and see the action and not miss their cues for entrances and exits. 

Then along came silent motion pictures, which impacted the traveling road shows. However, some elements of live theater remained in the live music, so it was a mixture of the two for a while. It was when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer came along in 1927 and had a soundtrack with it that the writing was on the wall: The theater was relegated to a movie house, and then finally closed. 

Because a core group of Abbeville residents remained committed to the continuation of community theater in Abbeville, community theater survived, then thrived, and the opera house was finally restored and reopened in 1968, and has remained open since. It now seats approximately 20,000 theater goers a year at its community theater productions in the winter and summer stock productions in the summer, and has re-established Abbeville as a cultural hub. The Opera House is closing out its 108th winter season this year with performances this weekend (May 5th-6th)of Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook, based on the popular children's book series by Barbara Park, and an awards ceremony on May 8th. The 39th summer season opens with Hello, Dolly on June 9th and runs for the following three weekends.

For more information on acting classes or upcoming performances, please check the Abbeville Opera House website

Photos courtesy of the Abbeville Opera House.

Jean Calvert is a freelance writer as well as a jazz and blues singer living in beautiful Greenville, South Carolina. She has written lifestyle articles for the Greenville Journal, covered regional artists for the Greenville News, written for print magazines, created web content, and published articles in online magazines. Combining her music and writing skills, she has also crafted award-winning jingles and songs. If she’s not writing, Jean is singing!    

  5/17 (2/12)