BRIDGE STREET HISTORIC CENTER
Mary Saltarelli has been a member of the Granbury community for 45 years and has worked to preserve local history and cultural resources. Mary has served as Chair of the Hood County Historical Commission, a member of the Granbury Historic Preservation Commission, and Founder and Executive Director of Preserve Granbury. She served as an historic preservation officer for the city and worked throughout Texas as a historic preservation consultant. She is the author of “Historic Hood County, An Illustrated History”, published in 2009.
Imagine living in Granbury in the late 1880s. Horse-drawn carts full of cotton swarmed near the ginning factories. The place of the courthouse came alive with constructions of limestone buildings. The grandest of all, the Henry Kerr Opera House, opened, ushering in Act I for the venerable theater.
“In the new opera house, the gas lamps flashed on the gorgeous plush red velvet and the gentlemen were asked to remove their spurs for fear of spoiling the set,” Carolyn Ann Kemplin wrote in her thesis “The Story of Granbury Opera House ”.
Opera’s illustrious ancient history inspired its restoration in 1975. The Bridge Street History Center will honor the preservation of opera 46 years ago with the presentation of an original play, “Granbury Follies”, written by Mary Barrel. The piece will premiere at the Granbury Opera House on September 26, October 3 and 10.
THE FIRST YEARS
The late 1800s were a vibrant year for Granbury, booming with the prosperity created by the arrival of the railroad and several rainy seasons that benefited ranchers and farmers. This economic boom brought a more refined culture to Granbury when, in 1886, Kerr built the Granbury Opera House in the middle of the south side of the square. Without a doubt, the Victorian Italian-style opera house is the most architecturally significant building in the town center square, next to the courthouse. Its elaborate pressed pewter cornice and arched hood moldings above its windows reflect the popularity of Italian architecture in late 19th-century Texas. Known as Kerr’s Opera House, the second-floor theater featured top-notch entertainment such as sword-swallowing, acrobatics, touring vaudeville acts, and minstrel performances. In 1892 Billy Kersands performed on stage at the Granbury Opera House in front of a standing crowd, many of whom complained of paying a dollar to see him. Billy’s performance included jazz songs, dancing, and, more surprisingly, the ability to hide a pool ball in one of his cheeks as he recited a monologue.
But the opera also regularly featured Shakespeare. The handwritten diary of a Shakespearean actor relates that he hacked from Walnut Springs to perform in Granbury in 1887. These Shakespearean performances often featured the talents of local bartender John St. Helen, who later claimed to be John Wilkes Booth, the infamous actor and assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1902, residents voted against the sale of alcohol in Hood County. The day before the law came into force, Andy Aston and George Landers sold every drop of alcohol in their saloon on the north side of Granbury Town Square, earning over $ 100. Nine years later, the curtain closed on the first act of the Granbury Opera House. One historian wrote that the ban led to its closure because attending the theater without liquid refreshment just wasn’t fun anymore. In the early and mid-20th century, the Opera building housed a grocery store, bowling alley and, ironically, the “Cowboy Saloon”.
Two droughts, a depression, and the development of booming industrial towns in North Texas resulted in a huge population decline in Hood County. In the 1960s, many buildings in the courthouse square were empty and dilapidated.
“A cannonball could have rolled down Crockett Street at noon and hit no one,” wrote a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor.
Community leaders had few resources, but received federal help during the urban renewal movement and hired a respected design firm. The company’s renewal proposal included the demolition of the entire south side of the square. Fortunately, the community never had the money to implement its recommendations.
But the 1960s brought two watershed beginnings to Hood County: the construction of a dam on the Brazos River, creating Lake Granbury, and the dawn of the Granbury historic preservation movement. Three community leaders – Joe Nutt, Judge Jack Langdon and Dr RN Rawls – signed a $ 25,000 note with the First National Bank of Granbury to purchase the Opera House. By this time, the roof had collapsed and much of the wood was rotten.
These community leaders formed the nonprofit Granbury Opera Association and led the community-wide effort to restore the crown jewel of Hood County Courthouse Square. Professionals such as architects, plumbers, masons, roofers and carpenters donated their time and services. County and city governments helped. A group of 78 charter donors donated $ 1,000 or more for the restoration effort. Residents across the county sewed seat covers for the theater. The total restoration costs were $ 200,000.
Jo Ann Miller, an actress and singer who had performed on Broadway and toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, came to Granbury to visit a friend in the early 1970s. The leaders of the Granbury Opera Association have it. consulted for recommendations on building a sustainable theater. After this initial consultation, the association hired Miller as theater director, a position she held for more than 25 years.
In June 1975, the Opera House reopened for its Act II with the melodrama “Gold in the Hills”. Local talent has performed in shows and plays, and the directors of the Opera Association have sold commercials in theater programs. Fine arts students from Tarleton State University and Texas Christian University have performed in shows and worked with stage crews. The supporters formed the Opera Guild of Granbury to serve the Opera and its performers, and this group is still going strong.
Act II for the Granbury Opera House is an excellent example of historic preservation as economic development. In its first full year of operation, the restored Granbury Opera House earned over $ 130,000. Municipal sales tax rose from $ 19,000 in 1970 to over $ 100,000 after the Opera opened and the appraised value of all properties in the Place du courthouse rose from $ 500,000 to over $ 1.25 million. Over the years, the Opera House has paved the way for the revitalization of the Courthouse Square and the cultivation of heritage and cultural tourism, which is still a leading industry in Granbury.
This extraordinary history and success culminated in 2012 with the second restoration of the Granbury Opera House. Since then, an effective public-private partnership between the City of Granbury and the Granbury Theater Company has created a thriving Act III for opera, with a bright future ahead of it.
To make reservations to see the Bridge Street History Center presentation of “Granbury Follies”, visit Granburytheatrecompany.com.