Founded by a sheriff who wanted to bring some entertainment to the small agricultural town of Crowley, the Grand Opera House of the South featured everything from musical performances to theatrical presentations – even silent theatre – with figures from Clark Gable, Huey Long and Babe Ruth to opera singer Enrico Caruso and Madame de Vilchez-Bisset of the Paris Opera gracing its stage.
Set on the rail line halfway between New Orleans
and Houston, Crowley was a bustling place at the start of the 20th century. The Opera House provided entertainment, and beneath it on the first floor, was a saloon, café, bakery, mortuary and a pool hall. But when owner David Lyons died in 1939, the theatre closed its doors and sat silent.
Local entrepreneur and philanthropist L.J. Gielen and his wife Carol “Chee Chee” bought the building in 1999 and founded a non-profit organization to oversee its restoration. The Grand Opera House reopened in 2008.
“It was very important for us to bring it back, keeping the integrity of the building. Every step of the way, we pieced it together as it would have been in 1901,” says Kim Gattle, the executive director of the opera house. Even the four exclusive box seats were restored to their original form with plush armchairs draped in gold fabric and angel medallions hand-painted by local artist Rhonda Stevens.
Today, the restored auditorium seats up to 400 guests and offers a spring schedule of musical performances and theatrical presentations. A small museum on the second floor features period clothing, props, photos found during the renovation, and the original marquee.
The Grand Opera House is one of more than 200 structures in Crowley that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many homes and buildings date back to the late 1800s. Other buildings of historic interest include the Houssaye House (1887), the Egan Hotel (1914) and the Blue Rose Museum (1848). Next door to the opera house, the Crowley City Hall, Historic Ford Building from 1920 has been restored and features a museum on the city’s history.
Since its founding in 1886, Crowley has been known to have some of the most fertile lands in the South, and over the years, rice became its staple crop. The town eventually got the nickname “Rice Capital of America” because it once had more rice mills than any other city in the nation. In 1927, Crowley held its first Rice Carnival to pay tribute to its heritage. The International Rice Festival now attracts more than 125,000 people every October to enjoy zydeco music, Cajun cuisine and family fun in downtown Crowley.