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Encyclopedia Dubuque



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Photo courtesy: Jim Massey
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo source: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

GRAND OPERA HOUSE. The oldest surviving theater in the city of Dubuque. Built at a cost estimated to be $65,000 between 1889 and 1890 by the GRAND OPERA HOUSE, INC., a company in which William L. BRADLEY, Jr. was a principal stockholder, the Grand Opera House had its opening night performance on August 14, 1890. Opening night had been planned for August 15 until it was discovered to be a holy day.

Proposals to purchase the Grand occurred many times. In April and May 1901 representatives of the Henderson Syndicate which owned opera houses in several western cities met with Bradley to discuss an acquisition. (1) The meeting in May resulted an an exchange of proposals which ended up $15,000 apart. (2)

Prominent speakers also appeared to huge crowds. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The largest theater ever built in the city, the Grand had 1,356 seats and a mammoth stage stretching thirty-nine feet from front to back. An eager crowd of eight hundred paid $5.00 each to see a performance of the opera "Carmen" by the Hess Opera Company. Actors made costume changes next door in an old house which was connected to the theater by a tunnel. Originally illuminated by gas, the building was lighted by gas and electricity by 1897.

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
From its opening through 1930, over 2,600 different live theater shows were performed in the Grand. Such well-known actors and actresses as Ethel Barrymore, George M. Cohan, and Lillian Russell added to the excitement on special occasions. Perhaps the Grand's most elaborate production was "Ben Hur" complete with elephants, horses, and chariots-on stage.
1900 Season. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
In its first twenty-eight years, the Grand ran in the red only six times and these were due to expensive improvements. Reservation of seats began at 9:00 a.m. one day in advance of a performance. Telephone reservations were accepted until 6:00 p.m. of the same day. Doors were opened for the evening performance at 7:30 p.m. and for the matinees at 1:30 p.m. Evening performances began at 8:15 p.m. and matinees started at 2:30 p.m. Season programs carried the names of cast members and advertisements from many local companies.

The greatest profits came from movies, first shown in the Grand in 1915. The first year's profits, $15,488, were nearly three times better than the best year using live actors. Legitimate theater profits sank to $4,500 by 1928 while the theater made $69,000 showing such films as The Private Life of Helen of Troy. Until recent years, the last live theatrical performance was a production of the "Merry Wives of Windsor" in 1928.

The Grand was closed in 1930 for three months of remodeling including the removal of the second balcony and the box seats. The orchestra pit was covered and the semi-circular stage front was straightened. With the addition of a big screen and a projector, the age of wide-screen motion pictures had arrived.

The Grand, Dubuque's only surviving downtown movie house, was sold in 1972 to Richard Davis of Des Moines who sold his interest to the Dubinsky Brothers in 1976. With the purchase of the Grand by the BARN COMMUNITY THEATER, live performances returned to the stage with the musical "Tintypes" on August 15, 1986.



1. "Want the Grand," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, May 1, 1901, p. 4

2. "Have Set a Price," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, May 2, 1901, p. 3

Bradley and Diane Chalmers. email--May 22, 2013

Glenn, George, D. and Poole, Richard L. The Opera Houses of Iowa Ames: Iowa State Press, 1993