Heart of Louisiana: Grand Opera House

A hundred years ago, many cities and small towns across the country were home to concert halls and vaudeville theaters.  But with the advent of movies, many of those live theaters closed and were torn down and forgotten.

But there is a rare survivor of those glory days of live theaters.  It was called "the Grand Opera House of the South" -- and it was built in an unlikely place, in the heart of Louisiana.

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 $18,000 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," L.J. Giellen says.  "Huey Long spoke on this stage. The Paris Opera performed on this stage."

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."

Giellen likes to preserve old historic buildings.  But another 25 years would pass before the Crowley businessman would buy the old theater.

"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," Giellen says.

With the help of local civil groups and volunteers, and $4.5 million in fundraising – 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," says Giellen.  "Even the colors of the paint, the lights that were in here have been rebuilt."

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, he's a comedian, with Effie Moore and the Nehi Steppers, February 21 and 22, 1928, played to a packed house," Giellen tells us.

Executive director Kimberly Gattle manages the theater.  "It's unassuming," she says.  "You don't believe that there's something so beautiful in this old building.  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."

It's a hidden treasure that has been lovingly and beautifully restored, that continues to enrich its audiences with great performances.

The Giellen 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.