How islanders rallied to revive a faded theater
As actress Marie Wainwright took her bows on the evening of Jan. 3, 1895, before exiting the stage of Galveston’s Grand Opera House, a writer for The Daily News hustled around the corner to the paper’s offices to type up his review of the theater’s inaugural performance.
It was a glowing review — albeit for the new theater, not so much for the play.
The critic dismissed “The Daughters of Eve” as “not a drama of much merit,” but extolled the vast, gilded hall, declaring: “The most dramatic event in the history of the city took place last evening when that new and magnificent Thespian temple, the Grand Opera House, was formally thrown open to the public.”
He — at the time all newsroom denizens were men — described it as “rich and gorgeous in every detail … the grandest temple of Thespis to be found in the broad confines of Texas.”
Even in an era when newspaper prose tended to be high-flown, the praise wasn’t exaggerated. The theater indeed was breathtaking, from its three curved tiers of plush seating to its soaring, private boxes, its expansive, electric-lit stage and pitch-perfect acoustics.
Designed by the New Orleans architect Frank Cox and built by the Galveston firm of Barnes & Palliser, the Grand Opera House was vast, seating more than 1,000 patrons, not a one of them farther than 70 feet from the stage.
Cox designed the hall without a single angle or corner that might distort the sounds rising from the stage, the hall’s walls allowing every word and note to flow throughout without perceptible distortion.
“Frank Cox knew that sharp faces and angles were acoustically problematic, even though at the time that was guesswork,” said San Antonio-based architect Killis Almond, who played a pivotal role in restoring the grand hall for its 1986 rebirth. “I’m pleased to say that one of our roles was to not mess up what he accomplished — and we succeeded.”
The Grand Opera House replaced the New Galveston Theatre, which Daily News owner Willard Richardson had founded in 1871 at 23rd and Market, bringing on Henry Greenwall as manager. Greenwall was no stranger to such a role, having built and operated similar houses in Texas and beyond.
As the luster of Richardson’s theater faded — derided a quarter century after it opened as “an old barn” — Greenwall took it upon himself to found the Grand Opera House, putting up $25,000 from his own pocket and soliciting another $75,000 to bring it to fruition.
Construction of the Grand Opera House began in June 1894, and it opened seven months later, presenting, despite its name, vaudevilles more than operas, although Greenwall did from time to time bring in higher-brow entertainment, including such luminaries as Lionel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova.
Still, expenses tended to outrun ticket revenue, and the theater early on often changed hands. Then came such physical threats to its existence as the 1900 Storm and that of 1915.
“What stands out as remarkable about the building is that it has survived such storms despite its vast, open volume without columns to support its roof,” architectural historian Stephen Fox said. “The 1900 Storm leveled a number of big churches with similarly large, open volumes, but not The Grand because of its thick, load-bearing brick walls.”
Yet, hurricanes were one thing; Hollywood was another.
By 1908, the island boasted seven theaters showing the newfangled, awe-inspiring moving pictures. The Grand attempted to meet the threat by imitation and managed to hang on throughout most of the 20th century, if but barely.
In its final iteration, as the State Theatre, its exterior marred by a gaudy marquee and its magnificent interior shrouded by drop ceilings and drywall, the former Grand had stooped to showing the lowest of low-brow entertainment before, in 1974, closing its doors, seemingly forever.
“At that time, The Grand was a triple X movie house,” Almond said. “Yet, if we had not had owners like that doing whatever they could to keep the doors open over the years, we wouldn’t have had anything to renovate. The Grand would have been torn down long ago.”
As it was, providence, in the guise of the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council’s Betty Hilton, arrived.
Hilton, now 91, chanced upon the former Grand Opera House the year it closed.
“I taught theater, and so I always had my eyes open to things like that,” Hilton said. “Nobody had thought about it in a while, and when I came across it, I became very excited.
“Sometimes, things come around at the right time, and this was something the whole community came around to support.”
She proposed a restoration plan to Emily Whiteside, the arts council’s executive director, who took it to the board. Soon after, the council bought the derelict building and began raising funds to restore it.
Large donations from philanthropic organizations, including the Houston Endowment, the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund and the Moody Foundation, and hundreds of smaller gifts poured in.
The cost of restoring the Grand dwarfed the theater’s original $100,000 cost, the equivalent of about $2.7 million in today’s dollars.
“What cost $100,000 and took seven months to build in 1894, took us 12 years and $8 million to restore,” said Maureen Patton, the executive director of The Grand 1894 Opera House, as it was renamed for its revival.
The exhaustive project had stretched from its genesis in 1974 until the theater’s grand reopening in January 1986.
That year, a fund was launched to ensure into perpetuity The Grand 1894 Opera House, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We started the endowment in 1986,” said Patton, who has been at the helm since 1981. “Joe Levy, one of our great benefactors, left us a bequest of $20,000, which has since grown to $2 million.”
Yet, more surely will be needed, she said: “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there’s always something. It never ends.”
Today, The Grand 1894 Opera House is a major draw to the island. Performers there have included Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Itzhak Perlman, Liza Minnelli and many more.