BRIDGE STREET HISTORY CENTER
Mary Saltarelli has been a member of the Granbury community for 45 years, and has worked preserving local history and cultural resources. Mary was 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 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 during the late 1880s. Horse-drawn wagons full of cotton teemed near gins. The courthouse square bustled with construction of limestone buildings. The grandest of them all, Henry Kerr’s Opera House, opened its doors, ushering in Act I for the venerable theater.
“In the new opera house, gaslights flickered across the gorgeous red plush velvet and gentlemen were asked to remove their spurs for fear of spoiling the décor,” wrote Carolyn Ann Kemplin in her thesis “The History of Granbury Opera House.”
The illustrious early history of the opera house inspired its restoration in 1975. Bridge Street History Center will honor the preservation of the opera house 46 years ago with the presentation of an original play, “Granbury Follies,” written by Mary Barile. The play will premiere at Granbury Opera House on Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10.
The late 1800s were vibrant years in Granbury, booming with prosperity created by the arrival of the railroad and by 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 question, the Italianate Victorian-style Opera House is the most architecturally significant building on the downtown square besides the courthouse. Its elaborate pressed-tin cornice and arched hood moldings over its windows reflect the popularity of Italianate architecture in late-19th century Texas. Known as Kerr’s Opera House, the second-floor theater presented such high-brow entertainment as sword-swallowing, acrobatics, traveling vaudeville acts, and minstrel shows. In 1892, Billy Kersands performed on stage at the Granbury Opera House to a standing-room-only crowd, many of whom grumbled about paying a dollar to see him. Billy’s performance included singing jazz tunes, dancing, and most amazingly, the ability to hide a billiard ball in one of his cheeks while he recited a monologue.
But the opera house also regularly presented Shakespeare. The handwritten diary of a Shakespearean actor tells of traveling by hack from Walnut Springs to perform in Granbury in 1887. These Shakespearean shows 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, locals voted out the sale of liquor in Hood County. The night before the law took effect, Andy Aston and George Landers sold every drop of liquor in their saloon on the north side of the Granbury town square, making more than $100. Nine years later, the curtain closed on the first act of the Granbury Opera House. One historian wrote that prohibition led to its closing, because attending the theater without liquid refreshment just wasn’t fun anymore. During the early- and mid-20th century, the Opera House building housed a grocery store, a bowling alley, and ironically, the “Cowboy Saloon.”
Two droughts, a depression, and the development of booming industrial cities in North Texas led to a huge population drop in Hood County. By the 1960s, many of the buildings on the courthouse square were empty and dilapidated.
“A cannonball could have rolled down Crockett Street at high noon and not hit a soul,” wrote a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor.
Community leaders had few resources, but they received federal assistance during the urban renewal movement and hired a respected design firm. The firm’s renewal proposal included demolishing the entire south side of the square. Fortunately, the community never had the money to carry out their recommendations.
But the 1960s brought two watershed beginnings to Hood County: the construction of a dam across the Brazos River, creating Lake Granbury, and the dawn of Granbury’s historic preservation movement. Three community leaders — Joe Nutt, Judge Jack Langdon and Dr. R.N. Rawls — signed a note for $25,000 with The First National Bank of Granbury to purchase the Opera House. By then, the roof had caved in and much of the wood was rotted.
These community leaders formed the nonprofit Granbury Opera Association, and led the community-wide effort to restore the crown jewel of the Hood County Courthouse Square. Professionals like architects, plumbers, masons, roofers, and carpenters donated their time and services. The county and city governments helped. A group of 78 charter donors gave $1,000 or more toward the restoration effort. Residents throughout the county stitched needlepoint seat covers for the theater. 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 during the early 1970s. Leaders of the Granbury Opera Association consulted with her for recommendations on building a sustainable theater. After this initial consultation, the association hired Miller as theater director, a job she held for more than 25 years.
In June 1975, the Opera House re-opened its doors for its Act II with the melodrama, “Gold in the Hills.” Local talent performed in the theater’s shows and plays and directors of the Opera Association sold ads in theater programs. Fine Arts students at Tarleton State University and Texas Christian University performed in shows and worked on stage crews. Supporters formed the Opera Guild of Granbury to serve the Opera House and its performers, and this group is still going strong.
Act II for the Granbury Opera House is a great example of historic preservation as economic development. In its first full year of operation, the restored Granbury Opera House earned more than $130,000. City sales tax grew from $19,000 in 1970 to more than $100,000, after the Opera House opened and the appraised value of all of the property on the courthouse square grew from $500,000 to more than $1.25 million. Over the years, the Opera House led the way for 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 Granbury Opera House. Since then, an effective public-private partnership between the city of Granbury and Granbury Theatre Company has created a flourishing Act III for the opera house, with a bright future ahead.
To make reservations to see Bridge Street History Center’s presentation of “Granbury Follies,” visit Granburytheatrecompany.com.