1987: The year that changed Houston
Silver anniversary memories

Rise of the Wortham Theater Center: How it all began


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The bricks and mortar have been in place at the Wortham Theater Center for 25 years. During those two-and-a-half decades, a whole new generation of Houston Ballet dancers and Houston Grand Opera singers, new artistic directors and new audiences have come to enjoy the two-theater complex. Many of them know little of the need and struggle to create this massive building, which has become a landmark in Houston’s vibrant Theater District.


 

The need became acutely apparent soon after Houston Ballet was formed in 1969, attempting to squeeze its sets, lighting equipment, costumes and stage rehearsal/performance schedule into Jones Hall between those of the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and the Society for the Performing Arts.

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An early architectural drawing of the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, which would become home to the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera.

Action was slow in coming, but in December 1977, the Cullen Foundation granted $45,000 to the newly formed Houston Lyric Theater Foundation, headed by arts philanthropist Harris Masterson, to fund a cost study and preliminary designs for a new opera/ballet theater. Where LTF had a $40-million budget in mind, initial cost estimates ran as high as $120 million, but finally settled at $75 million.

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The Wortham started as a big hole in the ground at the corner of Texas and Smith streets in downtown Houston.

Fundraising began in earnest in 1980, with a $1-million grant from the Shell Oil Company foundation and soon rose to $16 million in funds and pledges. In September 1981, the Wortham Foundation granted $15 million, quickly followed by $5 million each from the Brown and Cullen Foundations, whereupon the name of the building and its two theaters were settled. In 1983, Houston City Council approved the last of several design plans by the Houston firm of Morris/Aubry to construct the 437,500-sq.-ft.building on two city-owned blocks.

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As the building rose, it at first looked like a big erector set.

 

 

But fund-raising had stalled at $47,918,000 in advance of Houston’s declining oil economy in the mid-1980s. Robert Cizik, then CEO of Cooper Industries, became chairman of the LTF, with R. W. “Rusty” Wortham as co-chair, energizing the campaign with $8.5 million in additional Wortham, Brown and Cullen foundation challenge grants, ultimately accruing $66 million.

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The exterior of the building with its grand archway entrance takes shape.

 

Cizik shrewdly invested what had been raised in tax-exempt construction bonds to help bridge the gap, while the ill wind of economic recession reduced construction costs to $70 million. In the end, items slated for deferred construction – the interior of Cullen Theatre, rehearsal rooms and office space – were all finished out and covered by funds raised and re-invested.

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Construction continues.

 

The front of the building nears completion.

Houston Grand Opera general director David Gockley, left, and Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson kept close tabs on the building as it was constructed.

One of the building's grand gestures is two grand escalators leading from the street level to the Grand Foyer. Here's how they looked while under construction.

The finished product — enhanced by the Paley Sculptures, decorative, ribbon-like sculptures flowing gracefully on either side of the Wortham Center front entrance escalators.

All together, the sculptures weigh 30 tons; some of individual pieces have as many as 400 pieces of steel. Albert Paley, the American artist, completed the sculpture in 1987.

Having surmounted all these challenges and completed construction four months ahead of schedule, Houston Ballet joined Houston Grand Opera in a gala celebration on the Brown Theater stage May 9, 1987.

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A view of the finished building.

 

The hard-to-get opening night ticket

The gala celebration was hosted by comedian and operaphile Tony Randall and produced by George Stevens. 

Houston Ballet principals Janie Parker and Li Cunxin danced artistic director Ben Stevenson's Esmeralda pas de deux and the full ballet company danced the finale from Harald Lander's Etudes.

Houston Grand Opera presented act two of La bohème; the U. S. Army Herald Trumpets saluted with fanfares, and a parade of luminaries danced, sang, played, spoke or joked: comedian Art Buchwald, singers Hildegard Behrens and Diahann Carroll, dancers Gloria Rodolfo Dinzel and Tommy Tune, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and retired dancers Dame Margot Fonteyn and Peter Martins.

Houston Ballet led off the first regular season in Wortham Center with a lavish new production of Prokofiev's full-length Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Stevenson with sets and costumes by David Walker.

Houston Grand Opera once again turned to Aida just as it had 21 years earlier in opening its former home, Jones Hall. The inaugural 1987 performance featured Mirella Freni, taking on the title role for the first time in eight years, and Placido Domingo.

It was followed by the world premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars. The opera, commissioned by HGO, drew worldwide attention from the international media and proved that Houston is a mecca for the arts.
 
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The Alice and George Brown Theatre, the larger of the two Wortham Center theaters, seats around 2,400.

A view of the Brown Theater from the stage. Recently Lynn Wyatt inteviewed actor George Clooney about his life on the Brown stage as part of the Brilliant Lecture Series.

The smaller Roy and Lillie Cullen Theater has hosted performances by da Camera, which also was founded in 1987, as well as countless dance and theater presentations.

 

Another view of the Cullen Theater

While the audience has feasted its eyes on these opulent new productions, space, time and comfort have been the greatest boon to those who put Houston Ballet's productions onstage and dance in them. Production director Tom Boyd revels in the vast wing space at the two sides and behind the Brown Theater stage. Having two and one-half weeks to mount, rehearse and perform each production on the Wortham Theater Center stage makes all the difference in the world, compared to a frantic eight-day schedule the company endured in Jones Hall.

 

Houston Grand Opera has been showing free, live simulcasts of productions in Fish Plaza, outside the Wortham Center, since 1995, when it screened a production of La Cenerentola starring Cecilia Bartoli (shown in this photo). In 2005, it showed a live simulcast of the Houston Grand Opera's star-studded 50th-anniversary gala headlined by Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade and Bryn Terfel.

Former Houston Ballet principal dancer Dawn Scannell remembers all the extra dancing space on the huge, specially cushioned dance stage, specifically built for the ballet. She was thrilled to have a dressing room at stage level, instead of a floor above or below stage. And like all dancers, she greatly appreciated the added space and wider stage-viewing area from the wings, where she could warm up for her cues and enter precisely on time without fear of crashing into another nearby dancer, hidden by a piece of scenery.

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Dawn Scannell, right, coaching young ballet dancers in 2011.

 

Ben Stevenson, center, with two of his prima ballerinas, Lauren Anderson, left, and Janie Parker, right, in this 2011 photo. The three of them have lots of memories of the Wortham — and so do we.

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Carl R. Cunningham was classical music and dance critic for three decades for The Houston Post. He currently writes program notes for The Houston Symphony and other classical music ensembles.

Reprinted by permission of Playbill magazine. CultureMap provided additional contributions to this article.