The southwest Louisiana town of Crowley is known for its rice mills and its Cajun accent. But more than a century ago, a young man named Dave Lyons had a vision of making Crowley a center for theater. And with 18-thousand dollars of his own money, he built what he called "the grand opera house of the south", and brought vaudeville, theater and classical music to the Cajun prairie.
"There was performances on this stage from Caruso to Clark Gable. Huey Long spoke on this stage. The Paris opera performed on this stage," says Opera House Donor L.J. Giellen.
The first time L.J. Giellen saw the opera house, it was being used for storage on the second floor of a hardware store.
"So we came up the elevator and it opened facing the balcony and I was just in awe when I saw the balcony because I had no idea what it would be," says Giellen.
Giellen likes to preserve old historic buildings. but another 25 years would pass before the Crowley businessman would buy the old theater.
Giellen adds, "My boy said why do you want to do anything that will not make you money. And I told my sons when you get over 50 you'll understand."
With the help of local civil groups and volunteers, and 4-and-a-half million dollars is fund raising – nearly half of that from the state – the Grand Opera house of the South reopened its doors in late 2008. The grand staircase was rebuilt. And when you step through the theater doors, the view is astounding. The theater looks almost exactly as it did when it first opened in 1901.
"And the best we figure we have it restored as close to its original as possible. Even the colors of the paint, the lights that were in here have been rebuilt," says Giellen.
When it opened, this Grand Opera House billed itself as the biggest theater between New Orleans and Houston. And some of the famous performers who were on this stage, left their mark on the building.
"Joe Lewis, ok he's a comedian, with Effie Moore and the Nehi steppers, Feb 21 and 22 1928, played to a packed house," says Giellen.
Since its opening, performers have signed a wall behind the state…..
"Its Herman George Ruth, The Babe," says Giellen.
From a baseball legend to a 1908 show by the Charbonnet family from New Orleans. And it's a tradition that continues today, more than one hundred years later.
"Of the south rocks. How about that."
The musical duo of Polish sisters Anna and Kasha Karkowska bring their musical talents and charm to the stage.
They've performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Grand National Theater in Poland, and now the Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley.
Kimberly Gattle, the executive director says, "It's unassuming. You don't believe that there's something so beautiful in this old building."
Kimberly Gattle manages the theater.
"Clark Gable stood on that stage and looked out at that audience many years ago. And here we are doing the same thing. It's pretty neat," says Gattle.
It's a hidden treasure that has been lovingly and beautifully restored, that continues to enrich its audiences with great performances.
The Giellen (gee-lan) family, which bought the theater in 1999, donated the building to a non-profit group which restored and now operates this national historic landmark.
The opera house hosts periodic performances from local theater to popular and classical music. For more information, go to fox-8 live dot com and click on the Heart of Louisiana.