RANDOLPH - Albert B. Chandler would have applauded.
The room is filled with a generational mix of graybeards; wool-clad, middle-age types; teenagers, a few with ski passes dangling from their parkas; and toddlers bouncing in laps. Feet tapping, the audience is embracing Bow Thayer and the Holy Plow in the smaller “upper gallery’’ of the Chandler Music Hall on this damp February night, thermometers stuck at 18.
“Feel free to get up and dance and walk or talk, because this is not a formal concert,’’ says the bearded Thayer of Stockbridge, Vt., whose band blends bluegrass, blues, and rock.
The audience knows the drill. In the hallway, at the stairway, are two caterers from Valley Bowl, the bowling alley behind the opera house, who are serving red and white wine, and beer.
The century-old music hall, a landmark in central Vermont, is cheery on this dreary night, and those having fun might have thanked Chandler, local boy who did good, for his generosity and farsightedness. Born in 1840, Chandler left town as a young man, served as a “cipher operator’’ in the White House during the Civil War, eventually became a success in the telegraph industry, and retired to his hometown, grateful for opportunities it had afforded.
On Aug. 20, 1907, before hundreds, under the new brass chandeliers in what was then the only gallery, he dedicated his gift, the beautiful $25,000 music hall that would bear his name for the next 105 years.
The town, he said, referring to the new library, church parish hall, and other town improvements, had made excellent progress in recent years “in acquiring benefits that contribute to health, comfort, and convenience.’’
Chandler Music Hall was an immediate hit. It became a venue for concerts, operas, ballets, many of which were produced by traveling companies. It was the place for poetry readings, political debates, and those big crowd pleasers, vaudeville shows.
Soon, the hall also would show silent movies, running an ideological gamut from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ to “Birth of a Nation.’’
The turn of the 20th century in Vermont was a time of economic promise. The state that Chandler had left for adventure and financial opportunity was beginning to tout itself as a tourist destination, the Board of Agriculture having published “Report on Summer Travel for 1894.’’ Thanks to the railroads, Vermont was exporting more granite, marble, lumber, and cheese. And as expressions of pride, towns had begun holding “Old Home Weeks.’’
To bring culture and entertainment to the hinterland, towns also were building music halls, some nothing more than simple community centers undistinguished in any acoustical sense. But others, like Randolph, built first-rate, ornate opera houses, architecturally significant and historically interesting. Among them:
The Vergennes Opera House, located above town offices in an 1897 Romanesque structure, in a town near Lake Champlain, south of Burlington; the Enosburg Falls Opera House in an 1892 Victorian wood-frame building, a gift from a local manufacturer of liniments and patent medicine, in a farming town in the northwest; the Hyde Park Opera House, built in 1912 as part of the Georgian Revival-style Town Hall, in the north-central part of the state.
Also, the Barre Opera House, located on the second floor of an 1899 Italian-Renaissance structure, in a quarry city of Italian immigrants, near Montpelier; and the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line in a 1904 neoclassical stone building constructed, of all places, directly on the Canada-US border.
Built by a wealthy family in the sawmill business, the Haskell was meant to foster relations between Derby Line and adjoining Stanstead, Quebec. With a line across its floor, the opera house has performers on stage in Quebec and audience seated in Vermont.
Like the other opera houses, the Haskell looks much as it did when it was built: adorned with chandeliers, decorative cherubs around a horseshoe balcony, and a grand drape, with a painted Venetian scene, a work of art.
The building is formal, certainly, but with rustic hints (downstairs, in the library, a moose head graces a wall), and these days in the opera house one is more likely to hear bluegrass melodies from, say, a Vermont group like Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys than a soprano who comes from afar to sing arias.
The Haskell Opera House endures, but most of Vermont’s other turn-of-century examples did not, falling victim over the years to accidental fires or demolition. Others fell into disuse in the ’40s and ’50s and moldered for decades under competition from radio, movies, and television. Even schools took a toll on the historic music halls, their auditoriums serving as noisy though convenient substitutes for local performances.
By the 1960s, the remaining century-old opera houses were homes to bats, squirrels, and pigeons. The comeback came in the 1970s and ’80s largely as a result of federal and state funding for the arts and the rise of local arts councils, says David Schutz, state curator and an actor who has performed throughout Vermont.
“I love them! God, yes,’’ Schutz says of the buildings, mentioning in particular the opera house in Barre, which he helped save. “It was built in an Italian community and was designed to look like an Italian-Renaissance building, and it was meant to play a role in Barre that it would have played in Italy.’’
And that certainly would include opera.
“When you look at the Barre Opera House you see incredible architecture; you see a microcosm of famous theaters in big urban areas.
“You see some of the same amenities and ornamentation: a grand sweeping balcony and row upon row of seats. . . . It is a beautiful place, offering a wonderful sense of history.’’
The opera houses tout their histories in various ways, not least of which is to mention celebrities who have stepped onto their stages over the years. The Vergennes Opera House mentions, for example, President Taft, but also Tiny Tim. The opera house in Barre, a working-class city with socialist traditions, lists Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, but also Helen Keller and cowboy Tom Mix and his horse.
John Philip Sousa and his band, it seems, were everywhere.
Shows these days, as they did a century ago, range from high-brow to the-not-so-high. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra performs in Vergennes, but recently the opera house went irreverent with “Blazing Saddles.’’ The Barre Opera House hosts the Green Mountain Opera Festival, but recently a nearby town group used the stage for its own Vermont rendition of the “Blues Brothers’’ to raise money for a barn roof.
The seating at these opera houses ranges from several hundred to 1,000 (Barre), but musicians say they feel close to the audiences. “There’s a comfortable community feel to it that even people from away pick up on,’’ says Will Lindner, a “Banjo Dan’’ member, who has played with the band since the 1970s, in recent years in the resurrected opera houses.
“We’re just sort of winging it,’’ confesses fiddler Kristina Stykos at the Chandler with Bow Thayer on that recent night. “We played in the big city of Montpelier last week, and it’s not the same. . . . This is a hometown crowd.’’
The audience is reminded that the performers’ CDs will be on sale for $10 in the lobby. “Just drop your money in the box,’’ announces events coordinator Claire Garner, going with the honor system.
If you go...
Prices generally range from $5 to $35.
Barre Opera House 6 North Main St., Barre 802-476-8188 www.barreoperahouse.org Red Horse, March 9; Parisii Quartet with pianist Philippe Bianconi, March 23; Evening with Acoustic Guitarist Leo Kottke, March 24; Ground Hog Opry, March 30.
Hyde Park Opera House 85 Main St., Hyde Park 802-888-4507 www.hydeparkvt.com Comic Rusty Dewees as ‘‘The Logger,’’ March 9-10; Ground Hog Opry, March 23-24; Green Mountain Chorus, March 31.
Haskell Free Library and Opera House 93 Caswell Ave., Derby Line 802-873-3022 www.haskellopera.com Programs resume in spring. Enosburg Falls Opera House 99 Depot St., Enosburg 802-933-6171 www.enosburgoperahouse.org Programs resume in spring. Chandler Music Hall 71-73 Main St.. Randolph 802-728-9878 www.chandler-arts.org Woods Tea Co. (Celtic and French-Canadian music), March 9; pianist Menahem Pressler, March 31.
Vergennes Opera House 120 Main St., Vergennes 802-877-6737 www.vergennesoperahouse.org Friday Night Flick: ‘‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,’’ March 2; Taiko drum performance, March 6; Sweetback Sisters (honky-tonk), March 16.
Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at email@example.com.