History on Stage
Founded by a deputy sheriff and stable owner in 1901, the Grand Opera House of the South is a venue with a story to tell. A mere $18,000 investment created a beautiful two-story opera house known for entertaining in the small agricultural town of Crowley, known as the Rice Capital of Louisiana. The Grand Opera House of the South featured everything from musical performances to theatrical presentations, 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.
As for why The Grand Opera House lured so many A-list performers to its stage in its early years, consider Crowley’s location, positioned exactly halfway between New Orleans and Houston. It was a convenient stopover point along the rail line, where performers could spend a night or two.
The Grand Opera House of the South was more than a performance venue, too. On the first floor was a saloon, café, mortuary and a pool hall. Until the opera house closed its doors in 1939 — the victim of changing times and the advent of modern movie theaters — it was a thriving part of Crowley’s downtown.
Modern Times for the Grand Opera House of the South
“It was like a mini-mall,” says Kim Gattle, Executive Director of The Grand Opera House of the South. Gattle is the daughter of entrepreneur and philanthropist L.J. Gielen, who bought the building in 1999 and founded a nonprofit organization to oversee its restoration. The Grand Opera House reopened in 2008 after a $4.5 million renovation.
“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,” Gattle adds. 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. A small museum on the second floor features period clothing, props, photos found during the renovation, and the original marquee.
Today, the restored auditorium seats up to 400 guests and offers a schedule of performances that’s guaranteed to entertain. Cajun Country music legends Marc and Ted Broussard have graced its stage, as have other local notables, including 2018 Grammy Award winners The Lost Bayou Ramblers and Grammy nominees The Pine Leaf Boys. Various theatrical performances are also scheduled; check The Grand Opera House’s website for the most up-to-date listings.
The Grand Opera House is one of more than 200 Crowley structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 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, housed inside a restored 1920 Ford Motor Company building, has been restored and features a museum on the city’s history. All are worth checking out when visiting Crowley.