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Still Standing: The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston

The Galveston theater has been a witness to Texas history and a center of Island culture for more than a century.

From the center of the block on Galveston’s Post Office Street, the red-brick edifice of The Grand 1894 Opera House stands sentinel over the city, its Victorian ornamentation and Gilded Age interior reminders of the grace and charm of a bygone era. Built in 1894 at a cost of $100,000 raised from the financial support of a handful of the city’s prominent business leaders, it was part of a string of opera houses throughout Texas. Back then, it was Galveston, not Houston, that was the commercial hub of the South. Up and down the Strand, along the Seawall and in warehouses and offices, trade flourished in this bustling center, giving rise to gingerbread Queen Anne homes and a thriving merchant class, and cementing the Island’s reputation as a place of cosmopolitan culture with the gauzy graciousness of Southern hospitality.

The Grand Galveston Opera House
At the turn of the 20th century, The Grand's Victorian architecture reflected Galveston's thriving economy and cultural sophistication. (Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

And then came the Great Storm of 1900, the hurricane that virtually wiped Galveston off the map, leaving tens of thousands dead, millions of dollars in damage, and causing engineers and commerce leaders to look up the road to Houston’s inland locale as safe harbor for the next generation of commerce.

“The Great Storm blew out the back wall of the stage and took the roof off,” says Maureen Patton, executive director of The Grand. “The fact that the place re-opened a year later, in 1901 is fascinating and unbelievable.”

It’s also a testament to what the theater means to the community. When it opened, it was – as it is today – a road house, meant for traveling productions to come into town for two or three shows, before moving on to the next city on the tour. Throughout the early 20th century, The Grand hosted vaudeville acts, which gave way to silent films, which in turn would bow to “talkies.” By the mid-century, downtown Galveston met the same fate as city centers across the country: shops shuttered in the face of competition of suburban shopping malls. After business hours, downtowns were ghost towns. By the 1970s, the Grand closed its doors.

The Grand Galveston Opera House
The Great Storm of 1900 left Galveston in a pile of rubble and claimed thousands of casualties; despite significant damage from the hurricane, The Grand reopened in 1901. (Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

Thanks to the newly formed Galveston Arts Council, with monetary support from the Houston Endowment and the Moody Foundation, among others, $8 million was raised for the restoration of the theatre between 1974 and 1990. The curtain went back up at The Grand in 1974, and a modern era of Island cultural offerings began.

“This was the largest stage in Texas when it was built,” says Patton. “The wings and fly space make it perfect for touring shows. “

Today, between 30 and 40 of them roll into The Grand each year, offering a dizzying array of styles and A-list talent. Traveling Broadway musicals stop at The Grand for a night in between weeks-long stays in larger cities. One-man shows, whether comedians or singers or discussions take the stage. Itzak Perlman has performed at The Grand. So has Hal Holbrook, who marked his 90th birthday on the theater’s stage, presenting his much-acclaimed Mark Twain Tonight. Tommy Tune has danced there. Willie Nelson has sung there. So have Lyle Lovett and Ray Charles and the Vienna Boys Choir.

The Grand 1894 Opera House Galveston
The Grand's original archway as it looks today, located off The Strand. (©Mike Fisher/Flickr, Creative Commons)

“Shows like these are wonderful in here,” says Patton, pointing out that the 1,000-seat theater allows for an intimate space that lets the audience feel close to the action. “This is part of the charm of seeing a performance here.”

They can also tour the space and learn more about its history; tours are offered daily, allowing visitors an up-close look at this historic space, which was the Official Opera House of the State of Texas in 1993. But the value of The Grand is more than historic; it’s responsible for injecting nearly $12 million a year to the local economy. 

“We’ve very much a part of the Island,” says Patton, who’s been at the helm for nearly 35 years. “This theatre helps the cultural life of Galveston thrive.”