The Grand 1894 Opera House is Galveston. And Galveston is The Grand 1894 Opera House. Both are eclectic in their natures, perhaps to the point of even being eccentric.
They have shared opulence and disaster – grand times and despair – and come together in full circle to be what they are today – cultural icons of Texas in art, music, dance and theater.
Long before The Grand 1894 Opera House was established, Galveston had a history, both before and after the Civil War, of theater presentations. However, one man, Henry Greenwall, single-handedly changed the haphazard presentation of shows in Galveston. After the yellow fever epidemic, he purchased and remodeled the Tremont Opera House located at Market and Tremont St. The remodeled theater opened on November 21st, 1867 with a troupe of players from New York City. The first fifteen years were very difficult financially for Henry and his Tremont Opera House, but eventually, interest perked amongst Galvestonians created by a wide variety of presentations especially in the 1879 – 1880 season during which opera, comic opera, troubadours, Buffalo Bill, various plays, and minstrels were presented. By 1882 profits were much improved and over the next few seasons, he could afford to bring first class headliners to Galveston, including Edwin Booth, Fay Templeton, Lily Langtree and Sarah Bernhardt. One of the last plays at Greenwall’s Tremont Opera House before it was shut down was “Charley’s Aunt.”
In 1894 Mr. Greenwall raised $100,000 from fifteen prominent businessmen for construction of The Grand 1894 Opera House. It was located at the site of the first brick building on Postoffice Street in Galveston, known prior to the Civil War as the ‘Old Ice House’. The building, built in the 1850s, in addition to the Old Ice House on the first floor, housed receptions in Morian Hall on its third floor, and a school for boys on the second floor. After the Civil War, it became the Varieties Theater. In order to build The Grand, the building had to be demolished and adjacent lots purchased.
Finally on January 3rd, 1895, The 1894 Grand Opera House, a Frank Cox designed neo-Romanesque style building, was opened. It boasted a carved stone archway and marble tile in the lobby, parquet flooring, oak seats, boxes, yellow-pine wainscoting, gas and electric lighting, heat, air ventilators, a 75 foot wide by 68 foot high by 68 foot deep stage and a drop curtain featuring the Greek lyric poet Sappho and her companions. The building also included a hotel and retail stores.
Opening night was a resplendent event attended by Galveston’s elite, in full dress, and featured Marie Wainwright in the play “Daughters of Eve.” Marie was the daughter of Commander Wainwright, Captain of the Harriet Lane, who died heroically in hand to hand fighting, before losing his ship, during the Battle of Galveston.
The Grand flourished until the Great Storm of 1900 which devastated Galveston, killing over 6000 people, and permanently scarring the city. With many of the buildings destroyed or badly damaged, including The Grand, many businesses moved away to safer locales. The Strand became a warehouse district, deteriorating badly with each passing year. The Grand had to be rebuilt and refurbished, but unlike many others, was able to be re-opened in 1901. With the change in Galveston brought about by the storm, there was an equal change in The Grand and by 1903, in addition to live theater, vaudeville and minstrel shows, movies began to be shown. This continued apace especially when it was acquired by Attillo Martini in 1924, who renamed The Grand 1894 Opera House, The Martini Theater. It remained as a 1200 seat movie house and retained The Martini Theater name until 1937 when the new Martini Theater was built. Once again, The Grand 1894 Opera House received a new name – The State Theater. It served Galveston as a movie theater until its closure in 1971, falling into a state of ruin and disfigured by the long tenure of movies. By this time the downtown area of Galveston had also reached a low point. Many buildings were boarded up, few Galvestonians ventured into the area during the day and only thieves and scallywags were to be found there at night.
It was just after this that George and Cynthia Mitchell bought the 1871 Thomas Jefferson League Building, converting it into shops, offices and a fashionable gourmet restaurant called the Wentletrap. This was the first of the seventeen 19th Century commercial buildings they eventually owned in The Strand District. Their goal was to contribute not only to The Strand itself, but also to re-energize Galveston’s fragile economy as a whole. With painstaking care and research of the buildings’ historical architecture, they slowly restored each of the buildings. Their perseverance and success encouraged others to participate in the revitalization of The Strand, now a National Historic Landmark district.
In 1974 the disbanded State Theater was purchased by the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council and a 12 year-long $8 million restoration of The Grand 1894 Opera House, as it was once again renamed, returned the building to the magnificence of its original design. There were many benefactors from the community including generous support from the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund, The Moody Foundation, and George and Cynthia Mitchell. On the heels of the restoration, The Grand soon began hosting famous names once again, including Gregory Peck, Hal Holbrook, and Harry Belafonte.
The Grand is one of the few remaining theaters of its era in Texas and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1993, the 73rd Texas Legislature proclaimed The Grand “The Official Opera House of Texas.”
Since 1974, the theater has been operated by the not-for-profit 1894 Inc. The grandeur, beauty, and intimacy of the theater lends itself to thoroughly enjoying the acts that grace its stage. Its professional seasons host about 28 productions with over 70 shows.
Matching great names of the past, The Grand in modern times has hosted such names as Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, The Pointer Sisters, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, The Temptations, The Manhattan Transfer, The Four Tops, William Shatner, and Vicki Lawrence.
Along with the general restoration program in the downtown area by the Mitchells, soon followed by others, The Grand led Galveston from its own and the City’s general demise back to the grandeur they both had enjoyed. The Strand and Postoffice St. are vibrant energizers of the city with dozens of boutiques, restaurants, pubs, art galleries, outdoor concerts, and places to stroll.
The Grand 1894 Opera House, relishing in its architectural beauty, wonderful viewing structure and marvelous acoustics, is able to draw the top entertainers and entertainment of our times. And as it was at its grand opening, is once again ‘the place to be’ in our equally reinvigorated and vibrant city. Both have bounded out of disaster and decay, restored to the opulent architecture of their long ago beginnings – coming full circle side by side, once again.
The Grand 1894 Opera House is located at 2020 Postoffice St., downtown Galveston. For tickets and more information call The Grand’s box office at (409)765-1894, (800)821-1894, or visit website at www.thegrand.com.