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Encyclopedia Dubuque



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Photo: 2015
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. In 1882, only six years following the opening of the DUNCAN-WALLER OPERA HOUSE, a local movement was started to construct a new opera house. (1) The GRAND OPERA HOUSE, INC., a company in which William L. BRADLEY, Jr. was a principal stockholder, was formed and launched a successful public fundraising campaign.

Between 1889 and 1890, the Grand Opera House was built at a cost estimated to be $100,000. Willoughby Edbrooke, designer of many buildings on Ellis Island, the U.S Treasury building, and the old post office in Washington, D.C., was the architect. He chose RICHARDSONIAN ROMANESQUE ARCHITECTURE for the style and red sandstone and brick manufactured in Dubuque for the materials. The interior housed a 1,100 seat auditorium, two balconies, eight boxes and stall, and a stage large enough for major theatrical productions. (2) The proscenium opening was 35-feet wide and 25-feet high. The total stage depth was 42-feet. (3) Gas fixtures were used until a dynamo could be connected to generate electric power. (4)

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. The Dubuque Herald clearly anticipated the opening. On August 10th an article in the newspaper stated

      ...The formal opening of such an edifice should 
      be celebrated in an usual and striking manner, 
      worthy of such an occasion.  It should be made an 
      event in the history of the city. (5)

The first production was George Bizet's "Carmen." The program was watched by an audience estimated in excess of eight hundred who paid $5.00 each to see the cast of sixty-five performers and orchestra. (6) 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. 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.

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. (7) The meeting in May resulted an an exchange of proposals which ended up $15,000 apart. (8)

Prominent speakers also appeared to huge crowds. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Historians of theater claim that in the "Golden Era," Dubuque residents saw more big shows than any other city of comparable size in the United States. (9) From its opening through 1928, 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. Henry Fonda played Hamlet on the Grand's stage in 1923 (10) 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 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. A "fly-in" screen was installed and silent films were shown with piano, theater organ, or small orchestra. (11) 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. Replacing the second floor dressing rooms and hallway to the second floor balcony were two large fireproof projection rooms. (12)

Interior after renovations.
The opening of movie theaters on the westside of Dubuque resulted in the Grand showing second and third run films for one dollar. 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. The theater was closed in 1985 and remained vacant. With the purchase for $86,000 of the Grand by the BARN COMMUNITY THEATER, live performances returned to the stage with the musical "Tintypes" on August 14, 1986. (13)

In 1998 the Board of Directors launched another fundraising campaign to restore the building to its appearance in 1890. Among the major contributors were the Falb Family Foundation, John and Alice Butler, and the Woodward Foundation. A bequest from the estate of Ervin and Alice Hafeman allowed the restoration of the orchestra area that had been closed since 1928. To make the building handicapped accessible a glass elevator was added in 2010. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings since 2001. (14)

In 2015 the facility was owned by the Grand Opera House Foundation. The board of directors provided guidance to the paid staff and volunteers. Funding came principally through ticket sales, and annual campaign, show sponsorships, playbill ad sales and rentals. (15)



1. Sommer, Lawrence J. The Heritage of Dubuque: An Architectural ViewEast Dubuque-Tel Graphics, 1975, p. 131

2. "Our History," Grand Opera House 2015 Season, p. 10

3. Sommer, p. 132

4. Ibid., p. 131

5. McClain Frank. "Grand Opera House Celebrates 125 Years of Entertaining Dubuque," The Golden View, August, 2015, p. 1

6. Ibid.

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

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

9. "Our History"

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 11

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

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