2016-03-24 / Around Town

He Made Them Laugh, He Made Them Cry

By Betsy Sherman Walker


A theater is reborn - Randy Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts and State Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed present the first cultural bond grant check, for $1.01 million, to Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center Executive Director Brenda Nienhouse, right, Board Chair Alison Vareika, and Board Vice Chair John Cratin. The check is the first installment of the total of $4.2 million approved by voters in the 2014 election. 
(Photo courtesy of the Opera House) A theater is reborn - Randy Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts and State Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed present the first cultural bond grant check, for $1.01 million, to Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center Executive Director Brenda Nienhouse, right, Board Chair Alison Vareika, and Board Vice Chair John Cratin. The check is the first installment of the total of $4.2 million approved by voters in the 2014 election. (Photo courtesy of the Opera House) Opening night is one step closer for the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center, which this week received a check for $1,016,800, the first infusion of funds under the portioned awarding of an eventual $4.2 million from the Rhode Island Creative and Cultural Economy Bond measure. The grant, one of the largest state investments ever made in an organization on Aquidneck Island, was approved by voters in 2014.

No doubt the promise of future jobs was the salient topic at the groundbreaking late last month in the meticulously stripped-down interior. Yet at least one supporter in the crowd had his thoughts also fixed on the past. Native Newporter Paul Carpender was a projectionist at the Washington Square landmark from 1978 through 1995, back in the day when audiences were drawn in by films such as “Animal House.”

In fact, “Animal House” was Carpender’s first job at the Opera House. But it was not his first movie house job. His reel experience began at the age of 18 when he was hired at the Starlight Drive-In on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown. He soon moved in town, and inside. And, with the 35mm film always at his fingertips (digital was a thing of the future), Carpender was indirectly responsible for nearly 20 years of a theater filled to the rafters with laughter, shrieks, thrills, chills, sobs, and many a tear.

No matter what the theme, Carpender said, the larger the crowd, the larger the reaction. “The more people who were there,” he added, “the reaction was better. It made the mood infectious.

“How many of us, all our lives, have memories as kids at the Opera House and Jane Pickens?” (According to the projectionist, the relationship between the two was cordial. “If we ran out of popcorn,” he said, “we’d walk up the block and borrow a case. And pay them back when our order came in.”)

Of the cultural economy bonds windfall approved by Rhode Island voters at the last election, nine nonprofits from Westerly to Woonsocket to Newport received a portion of the $35 million arts-and-culture pie. The Opera House project came in second, directly below Trinity Rep’s $4.6 million and right above WaterFire Providence’s $3.2 million. The restoration project is expected to bring in more than $15 million supporting more than 180 jobs in Newport County. Once reopened (scheduled for the venue’s 150th anniversary in December 2017), it is predicted the facility will generate $1.6 million per year in new direct and indirect economic activity. For Newport, that represents 54 jobs and an estimated annual payroll of $370,000.

Carpender is all for seeing the Opera House on its track, back to the future. “I loved that theater,” he told Newport This Week. “And I love that some people stepped forward to make [the restoration project] happen.”

When asked about a special takeaway from those two decades, what resonated with Carpender was the sense of community that filled the lobby in those brief hurry up-and-wait windows of time when a movie was about to begin. A notable visitor was the late Sen. Claiborne Pell. Often offered a complimentary pass, “he always said, ‘No thanks.’ He wanted to pay for his ticket,” Carpender said, “and insisted on waiting in line” with everyone else.

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