In uptown Newport, a funky old place called The Ark has always fascinated me. Built in the city’s early-1900s heyday, it started as a theater. When I arrived in 1996, it seemed to be a quirky cult-like youth hangout. Back in ’98, when I worked for the News-Times, I was sent there once to take pictures of the elaborate Christmas decorations. The lights were so dim I couldn’t see what I was doing. Picture a movie theater just before the show starts and then imagine trying to shoot photographs there with a film-type camera. Can you turn up the lights, I asked. No, they said. Needless to say, my photos weren’t great, but we got something printable out of it.
My next experience at The Ark came about two years ago when Fred and I joined some writer friends seeking a new venue for the Nye Beach Writers Series. Under new owners, the building mostly sat dark, but they offered dance classes there occasionally. When we arrived, the place was painfully cold and smelled like mildew. The mother-son team who owned it greeted us warmly enough and led us on a tour. Most of the theater seats had been replaced by cozy groupings of sofas and tables with all kinds of knick-knacks, from a ceramic elephant to an oversized xylophone. The stage held a permanent setting of chairs gathered around an electric fireplace. Cool. However, the owners are highly religious. When they insisted they would have to censor the readings to make sure we had no sex or profanity, well, that wasn’t going to work. Plus if we got a good crowd, there weren’t enough seats. And that smell, ugh. The ultimate deal-killer for me was the rat that ran across the floor right in front of me. Uh, no thank-you, ever so nice to meet you.
I went back to The Ark Friday night for a concert by the local Sweet Adelines chorus, about 30 middle-aged-to-old women in glittery Christmas sweaters. This time, the Ark was warm and smelled of popcorn from a machine in the corner. No rats. The soft lighting reflected off the revolving ball overhead. With all their families and friends, the Addies drew a big crowd, more than fit in the seats. I’m glad I got there early. The ancient theater seat felt comfortable, the acoustics were good, and the music was not bad for very far off Broadway. There’s a bar at the back of room, which is nice, but a shortage of restrooms, which is awkward when all of the performers are female. I used the men’s room. The aisles have been “carpeted” with aqua rope that is supposed to be nautical, but I kept tripping on it. Overall, the Ark is still strange and funky, definitely quirky, but I wouldn’t mind sitting in one of those chairs on the stage and singing my songs.
The Ark is one of the pillars of what Newport is calling its Deco District. In an effort to bring folks uptown and slow the constant turnover of businesses there, they’re trying to make all the buildings, new and old, fit the Deco tradition with pastel paint and faintly Moorish décor. The Ark is showing weekly old-time movies, and people can rent it for various events.