By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The year is 1988. The scene is Granbury, now brimming with free enterprise, country charm, and overpriced antiques. After the Opera House began playing to sold-out houses, a new merchant class had come to town, snapping up every stone-slab building on the square. This sleepy farming hamlet was suddenly reborn as an authentic slice of small-town Americana.
Tourists come by the busloads--blue-hairs on package tours from retirement communities, church groups who fill up on roast beef and Jesus before Sunday matinŽes. They come because Granbury feels like a genuine piece of their past, not some kitschy prefab theme park. They come because it reminds them of a simpler time, because it feels warm and fuzzy--and cheap. The townies jokingly call these tourists "Quainters." "Gee, Martha, isn't this tea room quaint? Isn't this the quaintest courthouse? Look at that quaint old theater!"
The Quainters attend the Opera House performances with near-religious devotion, booking reservations before Jo Ann has given any thought to her next season. It's an old joke in the box office: A woman calls and wants tickets for a group of 40 for the Saturday matinŽe a year from next April. Before hanging up, she asks, "Now, what's the play going to be about?" The box office manager smiles and says, "It will be about two hours."
With her audience's expectations so low, Jo Ann had little trouble giving them what they wanted. Musical revivals, revues, melodramas, farces--a throwback to days gone by. "If you want a message," Jo Ann likes to say, "go to Western Union. When you come to the Opera House, you check your brains in the lobby." She prefers to keep things funny, entertaining, and clean. Her characters never say "God" and "damn" in the same sentence, never commit adultery onstage, and always get married at plays' end. Explains Miller: "This is the Bible Belt, honey."
Although it is virtually unheard of for a non-profit theater to operate in the black, Jo Ann claims this one has done so consistently since its inception. "We are a totally self-sufficient theater," she says. "About 90 percent of our budget comes from box office receipts." The rest comes from private donations, she says.
In the early days, if Jo Ann needed money, she turned to the big-check-writing good-ol'-boys who made up her board. "Joe Nutt would tell Jo Ann not to worry," says chamber executive Jean Cate. "He would pick up the phone, call the boys, and then the boys would put the bite on their friends. The money would be there."
Jo Ann was nevertheless frugal to a fault, always looking for ways to cut costs without compromising her season. She received no royalties for the many plays she wrote or adapted each year. She received no additional compensation for her month-long concerts, which generally sold faster than any other production.
By the late 1970s, the Opera House had paid off its original mortgage and purchased the old Hood County Hospital, which was then converted into a dormitory for the opera company.
Jo Ann seldom relaxed, was always pushing a deadline, doing whatever it took to get the show up on time. In the process, she enraged a lot of people. She was a character in a town of full of characters, opinionated and headstrong, loved but not always liked. "I'm a bigmouth and this is my baby," she says. "If someone attacks the theater, I absolutely won't have it."
Jo Ann brooked no interference in the management of her theater either, insisting on and getting absolute control from her board. She turned down federal funds rather than take money with strings attached. "That means they can't tell me how many ethnic people I have to hire and can't control the content of our shows," she says. Jo Ann had no hesitancy doing a revival of the Ziegfeld Follies that put white actors in blackface and had Fanny Brice speaking with a Jewish accent. "So call out the NAACP," says Jo Ann. "It may not be politically correct, but it's authentic, and our audiences love it."
Although the Opera House was clearly a commercial success, there was no way to assess the theater's artistic product. Most critics didn't even try. The Hood County News was little more than a publicity vehicle for the Opera House, giving most shows rave notices. Occasionally, Perry Stewart, theater critic for the Star-Telegram, would come to Granbury and brag about a musical that was performed better at the Opera House than by some national touring company he had seen.
Absent serious criticism, actors worked at the Opera House in virtual anonymity--honing the skills necessary to go elsewhere. Jo Ann's early companies were remarkably talented, excited about pioneering a theater, and tireless in their devotion to her. She gave them a place to live and work--a training ground.
Few places in the country could still afford to maintain an old-fashioned stock company. But the Opera House managed to house its own actors, directors, designers, and stage hands and pay them a living wage--not just for a summer, but for year-long seasons.
Stock scenery and costumes were recycled from play to play. Even the actors fit into stock categories--leading man, leading lady, ingŽnue, character man--each actor cast according to type. "Of course, that didn't mean a leading man wouldn't be sweeping the floors after the audience left," says Drenda Lewis, a member of the first company and now a costume designer in Florida. "The resident company does everything, from painting chairs to building flats. It keeps you humble and teaches you to respect all aspects of theater."