The Granbury Opera House has served as a sentinel to the passage of time in Granbury’s courthouse square. She is prettied up and ready to entertain today’s visitors and future generations.
Words by Daniel Haase | Photography by Shad Ramsey Photography
There has always been a need for entertainment in our society, including in early frontier life. Houston was the first Texas city to open an opera house in 1838, and other cities followed suit over the next quarter-century. These might have been opera houses in name, but the entertainment was not traditional opera. By the end of the nineteenth century, many small towns in Texas had opera houses. They were seen as a sign of civility and culture.
Granbury was no exception. Kerr’s Hall (named for owner Henry Kerr) opened on the courthouse square in 1886. Beginning in 1891, Kerr’s Hall offered vaudeville-style songs, dances, and comedy. On rare occasions, a theatrical troupe might arrive and perform a Shakespearean play. Amateurs from the area often had
an opportunity to perform as well, all on a second floor stage above a saddle shop and saloon.
Some of the entertainment offered in those wan- ing days of the Victorian era was considered indecent by some in the Granbury community. Plays based on famous novels of the era were performed, and included actors kissing! The hall’s reputation was also a bit sullied because of the downstairs saloon.
Within a short time, though, Henry Kerr had improved things with artistically painted scenery and proper stage curtains. He also agreed to look a little closer into the character of the performers, so the opera house’s reputation improved.
With the dawn of Hollywood as an entertainment source, movies began to replace live entertainment, and the decline of opera houses began. Kerr’s Hall ceased to exist as an entertainment venue in 1911.
(An alternate version was that the temperance movement had closed the town’s saloons, and the theater “wasn’t much fun anymore,” as one local resident put it). In any event, it closed its doors. Over the next six decades, the building housed a grocery store, a drug store, a bowling alley, an insurance agency, and a title company.
Granbury residents were ahead of their time in recognizing the importance of historic preservation. In 1968, a tornado damaged the courthouse roof and clock tower, and the county commissioners proposed to remove the tower. The overwhelming outcry of local citizens (led by the local newspaper) caused the commissioners to have the tower repaired instead. Now someone needed to save the opera house, which was in bad shape by the early 1970s. Weather, time, and neglect had taken their toll.
But why restore an old opera house in an old, tired town square? Granbury’s square in many ways reflected the same neglect as the Opera House. By the 1970s, many small towns across Texas were in a state of decline as people moved away to the convenience of the big city, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area definitely provided that.
Granbury’s lifeline would be DeCordova Bend Dam. Completed in 1969, the dam created Lake Granbury, which provides flood control, a water supply, and perhaps equally important, recreation. While Dallas-Fort Worth was drawing people away from Granbury and other small towns, Granbury beckoned to those who were tired of big city life or looking for a place to retire. They could move to Granbury and live near a lake. New housing developments began to spring up, breathing new life into the town.
It was early in this phase of Granbury’s existence that Joe and Lou Nutt moved back to Granbury, to a town where Joe’s grandfather and great-uncle had started a wagon yard for weary travelers just after the Civil War. Lou fell in love with the old opera house, and in 1972 the Nutts purchased the building and formed the Granbury Opera Association (later to be known as the Opera Guild of Granbury). Singer-actress Jo Ann Miller became managing director, and the fundraising began.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the townspeople took to the project in a big way. When bids for a new roof came in too high, a local man agreed to do it for cost plus five hundred dollars. Masons, carpenters, cabinet makers, plasterers, electricians, and others from around the area donated their time, material, and talents at low or no cost to make repairs or modernize where appropriate, while respecting the building’s significance to the town. Jo Ann Miller bought the old wood seats from the Palace Theater in Dallas for three hundred dollars, and the townspeople needlepointed designs of the opera house pediment and tragedy-comedy masks into the seat cushions. Even the architect provided services at no charge.
Granbury’s opera house was on its way back, and all of it was done with private donations and blood, sweat, and tears. For the first time the lower floor had seating, and now there was a balcony. The theater reopened in June 1975, and in 1977 the structure was honored with an official historical medallion from the Texas Historical Commission.
Over the following decades, the Granbury Opera House was used to put on productions using students from local schools and a half dozen nearby colleges, in addition to professional actors and crew. In fact, many of these educational institutions expressed a desire to use the facility even before the renovations were complete. In addition to the obvious historical and cultural benefits, educators saw the advantages of a training program where the student’s efforts actually generated box office receipts.
By the twenty-first century, the opera house needed an upgrade and additional back-of-house space. In 2012 the City of Granbury purchased the opera house. A plan was developed and citizens approved a bond election authorizing a $3.5 million renovation of the Granbury Opera House to bring the historic building into the modern era.
The renovation gutted the interior and brought the structure into compliance with current building codes, provided proper handicapped access, and provided state-the-art theatrical lighting and sound. A large addition to accommodate rehearsals, set construction, and other functions replaced the ugly Quonset hut behind the building and doubled the opera house’s size. The old Palace Theater wood seats Jo Ann Miller bought in 1973 were refinished and reupholstered. Through it all, meticulous attention to detail, maintaining the intimacy of the space, and honoring the structure’s history were important.
The Granbury Opera House reopened in December 2013 with a gala and a performance of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Many locals got out on a dicey night of freezing weather for the premier, which included Ruth Buzzi of Laugh-In fame, who lives in the area.
Today the Granbury Theater Company offers Broadway plays, tribute concerts, and other performances nearly every week of the year in the Granbury Opera House. The small theater still evokes the building’s storied history, including the original limestone walls in the audience area and a stunning new lobby with two circular staircases. Its popularity has never been greater, with nearly fifty thousand patrons entertained annually.
The Granbury Opera House is part of the Hood County Courthouse Historic District, which is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. It was the first such designation in Texas. The Opera House is one of the oldest buildings on the square, a space it has occupied for over 130 years. From what was once a common sight in small Texas towns, only a handful of these treasures from the past still exist.