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‘I’ve always thought it was the focal point of downtown.’ - Sammy Way, The Sumter Item archivist and Sumter historian

'A little gem of a place': Sumter Opera House, beacon of downtown, celebrates 125 years

Posted 1/14/20

Through downward economic turns and revitalization, fires and modernization, one building has remained, a testament towering above downtown.

The Sumter Opera House is celebrating its 125th …

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‘I’ve always thought it was the focal point of downtown.’ - Sammy Way, The Sumter Item archivist and Sumter historian

'A little gem of a place': Sumter Opera House, beacon of downtown, celebrates 125 years


Through downward economic turns and revitalization, fires and modernization, one building has remained, a testament towering above downtown.

The Sumter Opera House is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and those responsible for both preserving its part and pushing it into a sustainable future have a year of special programming planned, including a birthday party with cake and punch.

“In 1895, the builders said our citizens need this venue as a place to have creative and cultural experiences,” said Seth Reimer, cultural director of the opera house.

Reimer said a focus is being centered in recent years on smaller, more intimate cultural venues as opposed to massive spaces found in major metropolitan areas, and the opera house offers that charm while also bringing a diverse range of programming to Sumter that allows people to learn and communicate in safe creative space.

The kick-off event for the opera house’s 125th year is what Reimer describes as the “quintessential performance” to represent what the opera house is in Sumter.


Festivities at 21 N. Main St. will begin on Friday at 6 p.m. with a birthday party before the main stage show. The birthday party will include cake and punch, and signed posters from previous shows will be available for purchase.

With more than 3,000 shows performed around the world, Artrageous is a one-of-a-kind interactive art and music experience. A team of accomplished, multi-talented artists paint at electric speed, creating giant works of art right before the audience’s eyes.

Formed in the 1980s, Artrageous is a theater arts community based outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This group of “misfit” performers has grown into an international phenomenon, revolutionizing live performance art and interactive entertainment. Their shows are a mix of fine art, live music, singing, dancing, humor and audience participation, driven by their underlying message that arts are an integral and valuable part of human existence.

The performance begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $30-$35. Immediately after the show, the art pieces created on stage during the performance will be auctioned off to highest bidders in the audience.


Reimer’s vision for the opera house he has retained since arriving from New York in 2014 was to become an indispensable cultural asset to the Sumter community.

“When I got here, I saw this date, and it seemed like years away. We set goals along the way. Like to become more than a venue. How do we continue to benefit our community?” he said.

Expanding programming for youth and students was part of that vision. Now, school groups can be seen walking on Main Street during the day on their way in or out of an educational, fun experience inside the opera house doors.

Reimer said he hopes the programming, which he purposely schedules to be not all massive, commercial shows, instead striving for a diverse lineup to encourage discussion and creativity, brings people together and allows them to learn about each other, especially when the other people are different than themselves.


With connection in mind comes the second scheduled concert in a series called Stage Door Concerts and part of the birthday lineup.

Admiral Radio will be featured on stage on Saturday.

A social hour, snacks and a close-up where the audience and the performer are all on stage create a memorable experience.

Admiral Radio comprises the duo of Coty Hoover and Becca Smith. Self-described old souls, just about everything in their house comes with a story. In 2018, Smith was on the hunt for a vintage radio. After a little digging, she found one tucked away in the back of a dusty antique store in Columbia.

As she and her dad loaded it up into the back of his pickup truck, he noticed something. It was an Admiral Radio.

For the duo, the name provides grounding. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. When they think of their ’41 Admiral Radio, they picture the folks of that era gathered around their radios at night, listening to the evening news. They think of the times those people shared as they huddled ’round together. They imagine a different place and time.

As a band, this duo has created a timeless style and classic sound that speaks for itself. In an age where adding mechanized bells and whistles is the norm, Admiral Radio opts for a more natural feel by getting back to the basics of good songwriting and music with heart. Their favorite venues are the quiet coffee shops and intimate spaces where listeners can be still and do what they do best — listen.

Social hour begins at 6 p.m. Admiral Radio begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25.


Reimer said he finds his favorite moments in his role are when people tell him stories of what the venue has meant to them and how much they enjoy having it in the center of downtown.

Their audience may be 40% made up of people traveling to the opera house from outside Sumter, which Reimer said is a good sign and a goal to attract visitors to Sumter, but those who grew up looking up at the clock tower know the impression it has made on them.

“I’ve always thought it was the focal point of downtown,” said Sammy Way, The Sumter Item’s archivist and Sumter historian.

He remembers buying tomatoes from Ducker & Bultman, a grocery store that used to be next to the opera house, as they waited for matinees. He took his future wife to see “The Sound of Music” in 1967.

Way now gives tours of downtown to school, military and visiting groups. The Sumter Opera House is always his first stop.

The building has gone through its share of uses since its first days in 1895. From hosting outparcels that sold groceries to hosting a speech with the first woman to ever run for president. From burning in a fire in 1892 to the discovery during renovation in the 1980s of a fourth floor. From a barber shop to a police station to a jail to a theater, the building has remained one thing: a place to gather.

“It touches on our cultural vein,” Way said. “It’s more than just going to work 12 hours a day.”

It’s something meaningful and creative to experience with friends and family.


Imagining a scene that may have well played at the opera house in the 1920s, the final show to kick off its birthday year will take place on Friday, Jan. 24, and feature the Buster Keaton movie “One Week” with a live orchestra.

If you think silent movies are boring, this is the experience to change your mind.

The Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra is the “premier American ragtime ensemble” as hailed by The Washington Post and is becoming the leading professional ragtime orchestra in the U.S.

Formed by pianist and scholar Andrew Greene at the University of Maryland in 2010, the orchestra recreates the stylings of a bygone era while underscoring classic silent films using his collection of more than 15,000 musical selections.

PRSO has appeared at leading venues including The Kennedy center, The Library of Congress, The American Film Institute and at concert halls across the U.S.

They will take the stage in Sumter at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $25.

More programming will be announced throughout the year as contractual timelines allow for it, though one to look forward to is the rescreening of the first movie ever aired at what was then the Sumter Theater: Earworm Tractors.

No matter the show, Reimer wants people to feel comfortable coming to any performance.

“We’re slowly gaining an identity not just in South Carolina, but across the Southeast as a little gem of a place where there’s this really cool community that’s supporting what’s going on,” Reimer said.

It’s a rebirth, he says. What better way to celebrate a new path forward than on your birthday?