NEWPORT, RI (AP).- The stage has been dark and the curtains closed at the Newport Casino Theatre for more than 20 years, but a little imagination can conjure up images of Will Rogers spinning a monologue here or Orson Welles or Oscar Wilde entertaining the crowd.
The building was designed by Stanford White, a New York architect for the rich and glamorous whose murder by a girlfriend's jealous husband became a tabloid sensation, and contributed to the glimmering landscape that made Newport a popular summer resort for affluent industrialists and their families during America's Gilded Age.
Now after years of vacancy and deterioration, the building owned by the International Tennis Hall of Fame and located at the Newport Casino complex is being revived through a $4.6 million facelift that will return it to a functioning theater.
"The theater itself is a gem of its age," said Bill Gale, a theater critic for WRNI, Rhode Island's public radio station, who has reviewed New England performances for about 30 years.
This fall, workers will install heating, air conditioning and new electrical systems, make the building handicapped accessible, restore the exterior and touch up other signs of structural defects that led the building to close in 1987. The theater is expected to reopen as soon as next summer.
It will be managed and maintained by Salve Regina University, a nearby Catholic college whose students will put on plays there during the school year.
"At times we've talked about restoring the theater, but we never had an operating plan," said Mark Stenning, chief executive of the tennis hall of fame. "Now the operating comes via Salve, so it will be a living theater."
The theater, built in 1880, occupies prime Newport real estate on the grounds of the Newport Casino, a National Historic Landmark home to the tennis hall of fame and the traditional venue for the opening night performances of the city's heralded folk and jazz festivals. It lays claim to being the first and last standing of Stanford White's theaters.
An architect responsible for Fifth Avenue mansions, the palatial Rosecliff property in Newport and one of the original incarnations of Madison Square Garden, White also occupied high-society circles around the turn of the 20th century.
Evelyn Nisbet, an actress and model who became one of White's lovers as a teenager, famously recounted swinging nude for him on a red velvet swing he had installed. She went on to marry Harry Thaw, who shot White at close range in 1906 during a rooftop performance at the old Madison Square Garden. Thaw's first trial ended with a hung jury, and he was later acquitted by reason of insanity.
"Many people think that the O.J. Simpson trial was the trial of the 20th century, but in fact if I were asked for my vote, I would say that the Stanford White trial was the trial of the 20th century," said Wayne Craven, a retired art history professor at the University of Delaware and author of "Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and dealer in Antiquities."
The Newport Theater doubled as a ballroom dance hall, hosting recitals, lectures and summer stock performances. By 1927, after a major expansion to accommodate a larger audience, the theater hit its stride putting on Shakespeare and attracting a one-night performance from Will Rogers, among other luminaries.
Big-name acts followed off and on into the 1950s, including Vincent Price, Lillian Gish and Olivia de Havilland. But interest in the theater waned, with only sporadic performances before it closed for good more than 20 years ago.
The theater will serve as Salve's main performing arts space, but will also be available to the Newport community and to the tennis hall of fame for lectures, meetings and other programs.
Newport takes pride in maintaining its historic buildings, but efforts to restore the theater stalled until Salve agreed to take the lead and maintain it.
The building, which will seat roughly 300 people, maintains its original touches, from grand curtains and an orchestra pit beneath the stage to green-fabric chairs with spaces below for men to stow their top hats.
A walk along the theater balcony reveals gold-inflected woven wickerwork on the ivory walls and intricate renderings of scallop shells and flames.
"It's a wonderful thing; it really ought to be done," Gale said. "You can't really have a good theater scene without these small theaters popping up all over the place."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.