Suspense! Intrigue! Betrayal!
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 matines. 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 matine 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, ingnue, 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."
Jo Ann warned new company members that they would have to pay their dues. "Honey, it's a tough season. It's a pisser," she would tell them. "We do five shows during the summer alone. You are learning one, you're forgetting one, and you're doing one." She never pretended she was doing art, just commercial "blood-and-guts theater," she says. But if you didn't mind living on hot coffee and no sleep, you would know by the end of the summer if you had the stuff to be an actor.
Jo Ann knew how to motivate young talent. Actors trusted her, knew she had been there herself and believed she would never deliberately make them look foolish onstage--unless, of course, the part called for it. What she had to teach them was technique, style, and comic timing--the mechanics of theater. "She was a big influence in my life," recalls Lewis. "She taught me how to read lines, how to get a laugh, how to be visually interesting onstage. These things aren't written down anyplace. Jo Ann knows them because she has done them so many times herself."
If an actor seemed more interested in process than product, in method than technique, or bent on taking long dramatic pauses, she would say she wanted the performance to be "louder, faster, funnier." If an actor wanted to know what a character's motivation was for a particular scene, Jo Ann would holler, "It's your paycheck, honey."
"No one knows how to build a laugh or pace a show better than Jo Ann Miller," says veteran funnyman David Coffee, who began working at the Opera House at 17. Although Coffee gets comedic roles throughout the country, he returns each year to act at the Opera House out of devotion to Jo Ann. "She does her farces lightning quick," says Coffee. "She orchestrates the laughter until the audience doesn't even know why they are laughing."
Jo Ann, however, managed to offend at some time nearly everyone with whom she came in contact. She was classically temperamental, cheerfully vulgar, and frequently flat-out rude. "She is a funny kind of woman," recalls Teresa Furphy, a former Opera House stage manager, now the stage manager at Casa Maana in Fort Worth. "She can piss you off and really make you angry. But there is something about her and that place that instills loyalty. A lot of people were loyal like dogs."
Jo Ann could wilt a budding actor with a look--or worse, with one of her patented one-liners: "Honey, don't just stand there like an unlit lamp, act a little...Honey, you looked like you just bit into a bad shrimp...That's about as funny as a dead baby's open grave."
During the summers, when she used student interns to swell the size of her big-budget musicals, she often hired five or six more people than she needed. She knew that either her temper or their laziness would cause her to fire several kids within the first week. If she didn't get the performance out of an actor that she wanted, she might fly into a rage, banging her head against the side of the stage.
Still the company was her family--as dysfunctional as it sometimes seemed--with Jo Ann as "mother." Although she might have been hard on her kids--at times even abusive--she was always there for them. She bought an attractive home on Lake Granbury, only a block from the theater, and was on call night and day. If someone was short of funds to pay for a much-needed divorce, abortion, or trip home, Jo Ann dug into her own pockets with no expectation of repayment.
Despite the familial atmosphere, 30 to 40 people living and working in close quarters throughout the long, hot summers generated friction as well as intimacy. "It was neat because there was always someone around," says Teresa Furphy, "but the other side of it was there was always someone around." Actors would mate, marry, and get into fistfights there. Sibling rivalries raged as the children sought mother's approval.
Donna Norton was the chosen one, Jo Ann's favorite child. A music and voice teacher at Fort Worth's Arlington Heights High School, Donna began working at the Opera House part-time in 1978. "I was in awe of Jo Ann from the very beginning," Donna recalls. "It wasn't just her voice, it was the magnitude of her personality." Jo Ann, in turn, respected Donna's talent--her powerful singing voice, her comedic timing, her unfaltering dependability.
Donna was one of the few people who knew how to handle Jo Ann's temper: She waited it out, she acquiesced gracefully, and she did as she was told. Donna was a sweet-talker, often telling Jo Ann exactly what she wanted to hear. Slowly, Donna gained Jo Ann's confidence. Jo Ann called Donna her "spiritual daughter," casting her in most of the same parts Jo Ann had once played herself. Although Donna admits she was not "the typical leading lady" (too short and round), that never stopped Jo Ann from casting her as one.
As early as 1983, Jo Ann began grooming Donna to someday take over. Jo Ann made Donna the music director and then her assistant, and taught her how to direct farce and melodrama in the old-school style. Whether it stemmed from sibling rivalry, artistic egoism, or blatant favoritism, Donna grew increasingly alienated from many in the company. Some complained that Donna acted as though she were the most talented, others that she refused to take direction from anyone but Jo Ann. Still others complained that she never got along with her leading men. Yet Jo Ann cast Donna as the star in so many plays that some mockingly began calling the Opera House "The Donna Norton Theater."
As Donna's power grew, she became a force with which to reckon inside the company. If Donna felt someone was a bad actor, a loafer, or just not working out, Jo Ann would eventually reach the same conclusion. "But if anyone said anything negative about Donna," says former Opera board president Ron Wenner, "Jo Ann would defend her to the point of explosion."
Problems often arose when someone wanted to leave the company. Jo Ann had trouble letting go. Tempers flared. Jo Ann might accuse the person of not wanting to work or would act betrayed. "She behaves that way in order to create closure and justify the separation," says actor David Coffee. "She makes up in her mind that you are the worst person that ever lived. Other company members would feed Jo Ann information that would give her a reason to despise you. Often, Donna Norton served in this capacity."
"If Donna sensed you were getting too close to Jo Ann, she would cause you trouble," says Claudia Humphreys, who spent 10 years at the Opera House. "She has a way of turning Jo Ann against those people she feels threatened by."
Drenda Lewis was an Opera House celebrity, a natural-born comedienne and innovative costume designer. Jo Ann had plucked her out of a Granbury high-school production--"kid, I think you might be funny"--and put her into the company at $35 a week. Some thought she might be the one to succeed Jo Ann someday.
In the summer of 1987, the Opera House was doing George M. Donna was directing, and Drenda was costuming the show. It was tech week, a couple of nights before opening, and Drenda became ill. "I went to the doctor and purposefully took Donna with me," says Drenda. "That way Donna could back me up with Jo Ann. The doctor said I had pneumonia and ordered me to bed."
According to Jo Ann, Donna later told her that Drenda wasn't nearly as sick as she was acting. Jo Ann became enraged. "I never missed a performance in my life," explains Jo Ann. She fired Drenda the next night.
Although Donna claims she had no hand in Drenda's departure, she believes that Drenda might have been jealous of her. "Drenda was one of several people who had plans to succeed Jo Ann before I became her favorite," she says. "I got in the way of some people's dreams, and that hurt some people."
David Coffee offers a different assessment: "Every year I go back to the Opera House and most of the company is new," he says. "It's hard to get anyone of quality to stick around when Donna is running them off."
The scene is Granbury, Texas. The time is June 1995. The mood is one of impending peril. The town square looks like a construction site as bulldozers and jack hammers prey upon old streets to make way for new. The air is dusty and the roads rutted. Piles of asphalt, piping, and cable are strewn everywhere. Tours are canceling by the busloads as retirees refuse to hazard the torn-up square. The merchants are moaning about the loss of business. But no one is moaning louder than Jo Ann Miller.
Jo Ann had known hard times before. But this time things were different.
This time she felt vulnerable and tired. She had lost the support of her board of directors; it seemed as though they were fighting her every decision. Every meeting was a new battle for control, every budget session a shouting match for fiscal restraint. But no one was going to tell her how to run her theater. She would do it her way--or not at all.
Dead and gone was her old board, that amiable bunch of millionaires who had helped her create a living theater from yesterday's ruins. Gone were the deep pockets who could bail her out by slapping a back or passing a hat. Gone were the Joe Nutts and the Judge Langdons who would tolerate her flare-ups because they appreciated the artist at work.
In 1992, a new coalition of board members began to rise to power--a bottom-line board, more corporate in their mind-set, less loyal to Jo Ann. They knew less about theater, and had less appreciation for all she had built.
For years, Jo Ann had controlled who got elected to the board. But these new directors gained control of the nominating committee and amended the bylaws to exclude Jo Ann from the process. They stacked the board with like-minded people who wanted the budgets balanced, the books in order, and management accountable to the board.
Jo Ann didn't like answering to the new board. She figured that "retired bankers and Junior Leaguers from Odessa" had nothing to teach her
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