Lawrence Cumbo’s Labor of Love: The Shepherdstown Opera House

As the newest owner of the Shepherdstown Opera House, Lawrence Cumbo brings the eccentric art and music culture of his hometown of New Orleans into Shepherdstown where he has been living for the past 13 years.

A documentary filmmaker, Cumbo produces, writes and shoots television shows, series and specials and has been doing so for over 20 years.

In 2008, Cumbo took a job in New Zealand but always looked back to the small-town feel of Shepherdstown including the university, the mom and pop shops, and the rare gem known as the Opera House. Cumbo always loved the historic building and the rarity of the venue.

Cumbo told Rusty Berry, the previous owner, “If you ever want to sell this, let me know.”

Upon Cumbo’s return to Shepherdstown in 2010, the “for sale” sign on the Opera House was surprisingly still in place, so Cumbo reached for the opportunity and the rest is history. Local business owners warned Cumbo that he would be married to his job.

Looking back, he laughs and says it’s true. The Shepherdstown Opera House has become Cumbo’s labor of love as he is now celebrating his third year of owning the historic building.

From its infancy, the Shepherdstown Opera House was just that—an opera house. As a venue specifically staged for operas, there was an orchestra pit and a much larger stage within the building. The Opera House went under renovations once silent films became popular.

In fact, Cumbo has the original daily record of the Opera House in its early film days. Cumbo also has a record of how many tickets were sold, who was paid out and even the pianist’s timecard.

According to the timecard, Cumbo notes that the pianist played two shows a day and only earned one dollar a week.

Cumbo also comments on the dark history of the building. He says that the Opera House was not integrated, so African-American patrons were required to use a separate entrance and had to sit in the balcony.

Cumbo also notes that the reason why the Opera House closed its doors in the late ‘50s was because the owner refused to integrate the theater.

From a design standpoint, Cumbo finds the mix of old and new facets of the building work together well.

Cumbo describes the closets and drawers that were full of archives and were just sitting in darkness for years. He began to build shelving units for such archives and proudly sets the trademarks of the Opera House on display.

Cumbo says that the first silent feature, “Birth of a Nation,” played at the Opera House and that he has the original playbill.

Though the old-fashioned elements work to a certain extent, Cumbo had to update the facilities by bringing in a state-of-the-art all-digital sound system as well as a new lighting system. Due to the room’s original parabolic shape, the quality of sound within the building exceeds many venues around the area.

Cumbo remarks how Ralph Stanley described the Opera House as being one of the best sounding rooms he had ever played in. In addition to sound and lighting, Cumbo also installed a new bamboo dance floor and black leather couches.

Cumbo says that he is not done with the renovations but “needs more butts in seats.”

Above all, Cumbo did not want to jeopardize the space.

Cumbo describes some personal obstacles of owning a historic building. The upkeep is a major factor and Cumbo’s most popular complaint among patrons are the original chairs which are widely known for being uncomfortable. Despite complaints, Cumbo has no desire to replace the original chairs. If anything, he would like to put the original chairs on a rail system in order to clear rows more efficiently.

There are also certain things that cannot be changed like the size of the lobby. Cumbo says it just adds to the charm of the place and that essentially people adapt.

Cumbo appropriately describes his ownership of the Opera House as an expensive experiment.

Aside from updating the building from a physical standpoint, once Cumbo purchased the Opera House, many obstacles stood in his way of successfully owning his small-town entertainment business.

First, he took notice of how hard the recession hit and how people were no longer going to the movies, but when they did, they were spending their money on major blockbusters, not independent art-house films.

Cumbo also noted that people were buying 50-inch flat screen televisions and renting one dollar movies through RedBox.

In order to bring patrons into the theater, Cumbo realized that the Opera House needed to be community-based and that there was no way the Opera House could survive on film alone. Cumbo admits that it is the worst business model to buy an expensive historic building and expect success by sticking to the building’s original intentions.

In addition to expanding the Opera House, Cumbo noticed that Berry’s loyal customer base was growing older.

Cumbo remarked how Berry knew that his customers did not like driving at night, so Berry would show films at earlier timeframes. Cumbo, on the other hand, knew he had to appeal to a bigger audience.

Cumbo said, “The trick is that you want your customer base to grow up on what you’re doing. You want to give them the appetite.”

Cumbo is beginning to recognize the wider reach of the Opera House and how diverse his theater is becoming.

In order to remain ahead of the curve, he offers entertainment options outside of the screen.  Currently, the Opera House hosts comedy, live music, film festivals and the Old Time Radio Hour.

In efforts to combine history while creating new history, Cumbo realizes there must be an outreach component. For instance, six months into owning the Opera House, the Young Democrats Club played the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

Cumbo described the house as being packed full of real visionaries with a jaw-dropping discussion that followed the film. Cumbo remarks that the biggest turnouts at the Opera House are the community events that are filled with passionate people who rally around a cause.

As a business owner in his early stages, it comes as no surprise that Cumbo supplements the Opera House’s finances with his day job as a documentary filmmaker. Cumbo admits that there are a lot of financial challenges to owning the Opera House.

First, he says that real estate is expensive on German Street and that it is hard running a small business because of the many fees and taxes. Despite the upkeep of a historic building, Cumbo has a positive outlook and sees the Opera House as turning the corner.

Cumbo recalls an experience at 2 a.m. while he and his crew were happily sweeping the floors at the end of a show saying, “Oh my God, that was so incredible.”

Cumbo also relishes in the opportunity to meet the icons who play in the Opera House’s intimate setting. Cumbo provides artists with a home-cooked meal and a place to do laundry and take showers. He says that artists like playing intimate shows and seeing into the eyes of their fans.

From a business standpoint, Cumbo believes the small size of the Opera House works in its favor. He says bigger venues are having a harder time selling tickets and filling seats, but because the Opera House is more exclusive, he can charge a higher ticket price because fans can see their favorite artists up close and personal.

Cumbo describes Shepherdstown as being at the crossroads of culture and how the Opera House is well-positioned to be a venue that highlights bluegrass as well as the mixing of different genres and cultures. Cumbo says that musicians generally love what they do and get the chance to lay it out on stage in a close venue.

In regards to the live music at the Opera House, Cumbo has noticed that bluegrass and jam bands have the biggest turn out. He also describes his plan of getting bands booked. Cumbo says that he wants to book the main acts first, but also wants to book the bands that he wants to see grow.

When deciding on what films to show at the Opera House, Cumbo says there is no rhyme or reason. He steers clear from blockbusters and will not show films that are playing across major theaters. There are “different buckets” he wants to fill up.

Cumbo says foreign films do okay, French films do very well, romantic comedies do very well and documentaries don’t do well at all. Cumbo turns to NPR and Washington Post reviews on independent films, and he also tries to get films that come out of Sundance and Cannes. Cumbo goes on to say that it is hard to get film from distributors and that studios do not take chances on the films shown at the Opera House.

Cumbo describes himself as being treated like an evil stepson by distributors because he only has one screen in the building. All of the money made from the showing of each film goes directly to the studios.

As a backdrop, Cumbo believes that Shepherdstown sets the Opera House apart from other venues as they are the only gig in town without much competition.

As a creative business owner, Cumbo wants to set his own course.

He says, “One night you can see a Robert Redford film, the next night a burlesque show and the next night have a birthday party. That’s unique. Most venues are either all music venues or only movie theaters.”

Ultimately, Cumbo wants to be accessible to the community. As people visit the Opera House from places outside of Shepherdstown, Cumbo believes it helps the community as a whole.

Overall, Cumbo hopes he is providing an extra footprint when customers come to the Opera House for a show.

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