Photo by Phillip Gould
"First of all, not everyone remembered it was here. They'd forgotten about it."
L. J. Gielen sat with me and his daughter Kim Gattle in one of the back rows of the stunning opera house tucked away in the Mayberry-esque downtown of Crowley, Louisiana. It was built in 1901 by David Lyons, then a 29-year-old livery stable owner and deputy sheriff. The building cost him $18,000 and he used the downstairs as a general mercantile space, boasting over the years a cafe, a mortuary, a pool hall, and a John Deere dealership. Upstairs though, was a gem of a theater for weary railroad travelers on their way between New Orleans and Houston.
For thirty-nine years, the Grand Opera House of the South was host to silent films, vaudeville and minstrel shows, and traveling theatrical productions. Enrico Caruso sang there. Clark Gable took to its stage. Babe Ruth no doubt blew the minds of Crowley Little Leaguers during his whistle stops. Huey Long made the Grand a key stop on the campaign trail. The Grand was the place to be.
In more recent memory, one half of the ground floor was used as Dixie Hardware, the other a gift shop where the young brides of Acadia parish had their bridal registries. The staircase was removed and a freight elevator was installed to get to the upstairs that had been sealed off for storage.
"Around 1984, the business and the building were up for sale and my brother and I wanted to buy it."
At the time the building was owned by Olen Reynolds, who had three sons working here.
"I walked in one Monday morning and said 'Robert [Reynolds], I hear you are selling the business. What am I gonna do for one nut and one bolt when I need one? What are the brides gonna do without the bridal registry?' —and he said to talk to his dad."
The city had planned to eventually take over the building to make city offices which would put members of the Reynolds who'd spent their lives at that store family out of a job.
"The first thing he asked was, 'Would you close the business if you buy the building?' I hesitated and he said, 'It's gotta stay open, and you can't fire anyone.'"
Geilen stood buy his promise to keep the business open until all of the Reynolds family had retired or passed on, always with that opera house upstairs on his mind. In 2004, a non-profit organization was set up to restore the building, and Gielen consulted his family about this venture.
"My daughters were all for it, but my sons asked, 'Why would you invest in something that isn't going to make money?' and I told them, 'Until you are over fifty, you won't understand.' When they came up here a week later, though, they knew. You always have to give back to the community."
The building went through a 4.5 million dollar restoration under the direction of architect Donald Breaux and every penny of it shows. Ascending the grand staircase that Gielen had put back in, is stepping back in time. The majestic red curtain is framed by lush box seats, festooned in robin's egg blue and gold leaf. The seats downstairs feature intricate wrought iron vines on the ends, while the terraced benches in the wraparound balcony offer a panoramic view of its opulence. "This is a gem," Gielen plainly and astutely says of his venture.
Second-story opera houses were once common features of railroad towns, but the Grand is one of the only three percent of them still left standing in the country. Many had their sloped floors removed to make apartments, or the buildings were demolished entirely. Gielen and his architects refused to skimp on any detail to refurbish this piece of history.
"We had ten different patterns in the pressed ceilings," Gielen explains, pointing to the underside of the balcony. “Every pattern was damaged. The company in Houston had to make new plates and he felt bad, saying 'I'll have to charge you for the plates, but I won't charge you for the stamping.'"
Once you get acclimated to the dazzle of the place, it's the peerless acoustics of the room that capture your attention. Since opening for their first season in 2008, performers have fallen in love with playing such a great room. "Zachary Richard said he couldn't believe the sound was so good. Irma Thomas couldn't believe the sound was so good. Chubby Checker had so much fun here, his performance went forty-five minutes over."
This July, the Grand will play host to a different sort of historical revisionism. Donny Edwards, one of the most celebrated Elvis tribute artists in the country will take to this stage. Edwards is not the kitsch act one associates with the phrase "Elvis Impersonator"—choosing to focus his efforts on authentically recreating the various stages of Elvis' career, going so far as to incorporate many of Elvis' closest collaborators in act.
At the Crowley performance, Edwards will share the stage with Louisiana native D. J. Fontana, who started working with Elvis in 1954 as the house drummer for the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Along with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Fontana played in the core Elvis band the Blue Moon Boys. He appeared alongside the future King on Ed Sullivan and stayed as his main drummer through the 1960's. In 2009, Fontana was inducted to both the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Alex V. Cook is an author, music critic and cultural explorer from Baton Rouge. He is currently writing a book about Louisiana juke joints, honky tonks and dancehalls. If you know of a place that deserves to be more widely celebrated, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Details. Details. Details. The Grand Opera House of the South 505 North Parkerson Avenue Crowley, La (337) 785-0440 thegrandoperahouse.org