Grand Design

Galveston's Legendary Grand 1894 Opera House Turns 125

The Romanesque Revival theater on Postoffice Street has been a beacon for the island city’s artistic life since its doors opened in January 1895.

By Chris Gray September 25, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Hurricanes come and go, but “we are still very much a keystone for Galveston,” says Maureen Patton, executive director of the Grand 1894 Opera House. “Some people call it the jewel in the crown.”

Now celebrating its 125th-anniversary season, the Romanesque Revival theater on Postoffice Street has been a beacon for the island city’s artistic life since an enthusiastic newspaperman christened the Grand “the finest temple of Thespis in the country” shortly after its doors opened in January 1895.

Despite being reduced to “shambles” in the infamous 1900 storm that killed 6,000 to 12,000 Galvestonians, the theater reopened barely a year later. And when Ike caused $6.5 million in damages to the building in September 2008, Patton resolved to reopen by the next January’s anniversary show with Jerry Jeff Walker, which had already sold out.

Skeptical contractor be damned, she did just that. “This town has been a survivor for a very long time, and this theater has,” she says. “Part of the celebration of 125 years is that we have come through all this.”

The Grand has been pulling most of its audience from Greater Houston since its northern neighbor was “just a muddy flat up the road,” quips Patton, who estimates that out-of-towners account for 80 percent of the theater’s ticket sales—making the Grand about as economically important to the island as it culturally.

The theater’s 2019–20 offerings include jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet (Oct. 4) and Carole King show Beautiful (Mar. 13–14), plus visits from Irish flautist Sir James Galway (Oct. 26) and Motown legends the Temptations (May 1). With just over 1,000 seats, the Grand’s intimate environment regularly inspires artists who would otherwise fill a much larger venue—such as Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, and Willie Nelson (who returns next month on Nov. 19)—to specifically route their shows here.

Coming through on a solo storytelling tour, Garrison Keillor told Patton, “This is a really, really good room,” she recalls; his April 2016 return for a full Prairie Home Companion show remains the Grand’s fastest sellout. Texas-born singer Larry Gatlin, another regular, once said, “At the Grand, we can feel the heartbeats out there.”

“I couldn’t have written that,” says Patton. “I mean, I wish I had.”

Offstage, this month sees the return of ARTOberFest, a juried festival benefiting the Grand’s educational programs. Founded in 1997, the two-day event has more than quadrupled the number of exhibiting artists to 125, as crowds estimated at up to 8,000 take over three full blocks of Postoffice Street.

“We’ve had metalists, we’ve had jewelry-makers, we’ve had watercolorists, we’ve had sculptors, we’ve had wood-turners,” says Patton. “It’s quite a thing.”

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