America was once a nation of imposing opera houses. “Opera” is a misnomer because most of them did little actual grand opera. They were mostly places where itinerant performers put on a show. Some opera houses became vaudeville theaters and then oversized, downtown movie palaces or burlesque houses. By the end of the 20th century most of them were gone. The ones that were left often became restoration projects. One of the few that are left that still performs real opera is in Central City, Colorado. Built in 1878, it’s now the oldest theater in that state. Ruth & I seek out these community treasures. I’ve done blogs on a couple of them like Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, and we went to a performance in one in Cienfuegos, Cuba. We recently visited another survivor with the same Grand name.
The Grand 1894 Opera House is in downtown Galveston on Postoffice Street. The list of performers who have been on its huge stage is long and impressive. Self-guided Grand tours are always possible. Guided ones are available by appointment, but Ruth and I got lucky. Executive Director Maureen Patton, who clearly loves this theater, was there and willing to show us around. She even took us backstage. She told us that there’s something on its stage 200 days each year between September and May, and she raved about her theater’s perfect acoustics.
There were once 1,600 seats in the Grand 1894 Opera House. Now there are 1,038. Frank Cox’s original design resulted in great sound for everyone in the audience. He insisted on curved surfaces and rounded walls to enhance sound. He eliminated corners and flat walls and designed double curved balconies. No one who attends one or more of its forty or so productions each season is farther than 70 feet from the stage. They might be seeing a Broadway musical, a solo performer, or a children’s entertainment described by the oxymoron “serious fun”.
The Grand is unique in many ways. It’s one of the few historic performance centers from the Greenwall Theatrical circuit still in its original building. It has survived 4 hurricanes including 2 major ones that did lots of damage. The 1900 storm that killed thousands caused the Grand’s roof to collapse. Hurricane Ike in 2008 meant extensive water and wind repairs. It was almost demolished in the mid 1970s. Despite the presence of other opera houses in the state of Texas like the fine one in Granbury, The Grand has been named the official Opera House of the State.
From country and western to intimate cabaret and one-on-one interviews, The Grand does it all. This is truly a 5 Compass Galveston landmark. Since seeing it Ruth and I are on a mission to experience, among others, Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Riley Center in Meridian, Mississippi, the Mabel Tainter Center in Menominee, Wisconsin, etc. We have been in the restored Fox Theater in St. Louis many times but have yet to see The Fox in Hutchison, Kansas.
ps. While in Galveston, also check out the new Bryan Museum.