February 6, 2013

The Sterling Opera House. Derby, CT.

Built in 1889, the Sterling Opera House, located across Elizabeth Street from the Derby Green, has been deeply rooted in the Valley’s cultural and political traditions for more than 110 years. A veritable “Who’s Who” list of performers and celebrities have appeared at the Sterling: from John Philip Sousa to Red Skelton; Harry Houdini to Donald O’Connor; and Amelia Earhart to Lionel, John, and Ethel Barrymore. The Sterling served as an opera house until 1933; from then until the building’s closing in 1965, its two lower levels housed Derby’s City Hall and Police Station.

Designer H.E. Ficken, one of the creators of Carnegie Hall, combined several architectural styles in the Sterling. The exterior and rooftop and the interior walls and doorways are Italianate Victorian and display the final evolution of the Italian Baroque opera house. The interior-seating plan was influence by German composer Richard Wagner's conception of a triangle seating arrangement, with all the seats enjoying an unobstructed view of the stage. No box seats were used, but two "piano boxes" were located on either side of the stage to accommodate two Sterling Pianos. A proscenium arch frames the 60-by-34 foot stage. Below are 10 dressing rooms. The auditorium boasts an orchestra pit, two gracefully sweeping balconies, and fine examples of bottle glass, keystone arches and wrought iron work. Acoustically, the Sterling has no equal. Even a whisper can be heard clearly from all areas of the auditorium.

Almost as storied as the Sterling itself have been the dedicated groups committed to its restoration and eventual revitalization. From the 1970’s through the mid-90’s the Sterling Opera House Foundation, led initially by the late Vivian Kellams, included current Valley Community Foundation Board Member Alan Tyma. The group began to create awareness of the Sterling’s place in Derby’s and the Valley’s history, and successfully had the Sterling listed as the first structure on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1990's, Paul Lane formed the Old Birmingham Business Association (OBBA) and its subsidiary Save Our Sterling (SOS) took up the charge, drumming up support for the opera house’s restoration. Harvey Bletchman, then artistic director of SOS, along with other members of the group, organized local soirees with a variety of musical themes to raise funds for, and create cultural awareness of, the Sterling.

Those fundraising efforts generated enough to enable the current members to create the Sterling Opera House Endowment Fund at the Valley Community Foundation. “We want people to be able to use and visit the Sterling 100 years from now,” said Association President Beth Colette. “By creating this Endowment, we are setting aside money that has come in from so many caring Valley residents to help the Sterling carry on its rich traditions.” Board member Judy Augusta agreed. “This beautiful building has the opportunity to become a vital component of the revitalization of downtown Derby,” she said. “This Fund will allow other groups who follow in our footsteps to address its needs well into the future and keep its wonderful spirit alive.”

Through the years, the efforts of Congressional and State representatives, along with the Connecticut Dept. of Economic and Community Development, have produced funds to help with this project. Current Derby Mayor Anthony Staffieri, a former member of OBBA, has continued ongoing efforts to restore the Sterling. At present, the exterior has been completely renovated, and the City is moving forward with plans for restoration of the interior. “The City is pursuing additional funding for the Opera House through historic preservation funds and federal and state tax credits,” said Sheila O’Malley, Derby’s Director of Economic and Community Development. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts the Sterling has received, however, is the forward thinking of the dedicated groups whose Endowment will help to ensure the Sterling is here for generations to come. As Board Member Markanthony Izzo so aptly said, “There is no time like the present to plan for the future.”