Granbury Opera House hopes to again lure DFW theater patrons

Posted Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The historic Granbury Opera House has become a construction zone.

The lobby, with new curved staircases and a revamped box office, remains a work in progress.

Inside, the stage is bare and a crane sits in one corner where seats, now stored in a warehouse, would normally reside.

While plenty of work remains, officials say the 127-year-old facility should be finished in time for a black-tie gala Dec. 5 and the opening of A Christmas Carol on Dec. 6, an early holiday gift to North Texas theater patrons.

“We’ll be ready to go,” said Andrew Barrus, executive director of the Granbury Theatre Company, which is leasing the opera house from the city. “You should have seen what it looked like a month ago. We’ve made tremendous progress.”

The opera house, which was finished in 1886, has been dark for nearly two years as a much-needed makeover began. Granbury set aside $1.2 million in bond funds, but the cost grew to $3.4 million.

Many of the improvements will be backstage, where rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and places to build and store sets are being added to replace a Quonset hut that has been torn down.

The goal is to keep the opera house’s intimate feel — its capacity grew by only one seat, to 309 — where everyone is close to the stage. Despite state-of-the-art technology, the opera house will retain a rustic feel, with its exposed limestone walls and pressed-tin ceiling.

The cost has generated criticism — some City Council candidates have raised it as an issue in a Hood County News candidate survey — but city officials insist that the renovation will be worth the investment.

“We think the opera house will dramatically help our tourism,” Granbury City Manager Wayne McKethan said. “We see it as a complement to the lake that will bring more people to Granbury.”

‘The square is hopping’

With the opera house’s reopening, Granbury hopes to see history repeat itself.

After closing in 1911 and remaining dark for 64 years, the opera house came back to life in 1975. Jo Ann Miller, who toured with the Tommy Dorsey band and performed on Broadway, led the effort to resurrect the dilapidated theater.

She ran the house for two decades as busloads of theatergoers from across North Texas flocked to Granbury to watch family-friendly productions, taking time to shop and grab a bite on the quaint downtown square.

After Miller was pushed aside by opera house board members in 1995, the theater began to have financial troubles.

In 2006, the city assumed ownership.

“We had a director from New York and incurred a substantial amount of debt,” said Lisa Johnson, a former Granbury City Council member. “To avoid it closing, the city took over the theater.”

Barrus, who started the Granbury Theatre Company in 2011 after working for Cirque Du Soleil in China, has been staging plays at the vacant Granbury Live building, also on the courthouse square. He said there is definitely an audience for live theater in the town about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

“When the shows are going on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, the square is hopping,” Barrus said. “When they aren’t on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, it is not.”

Bringing culture to Texas

While opera houses are now fairly rare in Texas towns, they were once a sign of a shift toward a more cultured society as several hundred sprang up across the state between the late 1800s and World War I.

A Texas historical marker in the Central Texas town of Lampasas sums up the opera house era: “Every major town had one, and opera companies from San Francisco, Chicago, and Cincinnati made annual tours, sometimes playing a town two weeks. Opera houses also helped curb the influence of theaters and music halls, whose public reputation unfortunately matched that of the saloons and gambling houses.”

But opera houses waned in the early 20th century as movies and radio took over as the most popular forms of entertainment.

The Granbury Opera House was originally known as Kerr’s Opera House and occupied only the second floor of the building.

“Vaudeville acts, dramatic productions, and musical programs occupied the top floor until 1911,” according to a state historical marker. “The lower floor housed various businesses, including a saloon, saddle and harness shop, and two grocery stores. Later the roof collapsed, and the building rapidly deteriorated.”

Not happy with costs

Once it reopens, supporters say, the theater will be used for a multitude of purposes. There will be a children’s theater company, and they hope to have a lecture series. Ballet and symphony performances and the occasional live concert haven’t been ruled out.

“It’s going to be an evolution,” Councilman Gary Couch said. “We don’t know today all of the potential. That will build over time.”

Couch, elected in November, believes that he was voted into office to push the stalled renovation forward.

“The people who supported me in the election wanted to see this project come through,” Couch said.

Councilman Tony Allen, who voted for the renovation, said he has heard from residents troubled by the soaring costs.

“I believe a lot of people in Granbury are upset,” he said.

The opera house needed renovations to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and to add more restrooms. The work was designed by Schwarz-Hanson Architects of Fort Worth, and the contractor is Scott Tucker Construction of Fort Worth.

Design changes that added costs included an orchestra pit and a 5,000-square-foot backstage extension. Under the original plans, the extension would have been built but finished out later.

While Allen has cost concerns, he said the venue will be an asset for Granbury.

“It’s going to be the nicest little opera house in Texas for a city of our size,” Allen said. “I’m proud of that, but I’m not proud of the spending.”

A small version of Bass Hall?

Scott Young, president of the Historic Granbury Merchants Association, said the opera house will be a boon to merchants on the square but will also benefit the entire Hood County area.

“We have what Bass Hall has — we just don’t have as many seats,” Young said. “… If you look across the board, generally some governmental entity supports the arts. In the case of the opera house, it’s historic first but secondly it’s significant to our economy.”

The city started a fundraising campaign last week in the hope of securing $1 million in donations to offset some of the cost. McKethan, the city manager, said the city has received pledges of about $150,000.

Parts of the opera house will have naming rights for everything from seats to the hall and the stage. Naming rights will range from $500 for a seat to $500,000 for the performance hall and stage. The support will be there, Couch said, once the renovation is finished.

“Once this is complete and they walk through it, I think they will be on board when they see what we’ve done,” Couch said.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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Granbury Opera House renovation

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