Imagine it is 1987 – the world’s population had reached 5 billion; gasoline cost just under $0.90 per gallon; Margaret Thatcher was elected as prime minister of the United Kingdom and it was the year nobody put baby in the corner. It also was the year that Houstonians stood together to show their support for the performing arts, as the project to build the Wortham Theater Center came to fruition. In the coming months, the Wortham Center will celebrate 25 years of memorable performances, commemorating the past, and looking towards the future.
At a glance – Wortham Theater Center
Two arts groups in need of a good home
Kathy Whitmire, mayor of Houston from 1982-1992, recalls that early in her administration supporters of the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera drew her attention to the need for a better performance space for the groups.
“The vision of a new home for the opera and ballet on the banks of Buffalo Bayou was shared by many supporters of the arts in both the private and public sector, so it was an easy decision to make it a public/private partnership. The city provided the land, and major local foundations and corporations made leadership gifts to start the fundraising campaign,” Whitmire wrote from her home base in Hawaii.
Those initial leadership gifts were provided by the building’s namesake, Gus S. Wortham, as well as the Brown and Cullen Foundations.
Current president and CEO of Houston First Corporation Dawn Ullrich wasn’t in the driver’s seat when the Wortham was being built, but she was a part of the process from her position in the city’s legal department. Ullrich emphasized that following the Oil Bust of the 1980s, building the Wortham really became a community-driven project. In addition to the leadership gifts, it was the 3,500 small donors who really made the project possible. More than 2,000 donors gave $100 or less. The Wortham is among the many buildings Houston First, a quasi-public entity that represents a consolidation of the City of Houston Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, manages.
“We’re very proud of (the Wortham),” Ullrich said. “We like to think of ourselves as holding that building and our others in a trust for the people that donated money to make it happen. In one of the darkest times economically for the city,” she adds, “it was really a miracle.”
“I felt the community's willingness to raise private money and complete a project of this magnitude in the middle of a major recession made a tremendous statement about Houston's resilience,” Whitmire wrote.
From Marie to Don Carlos, it’s amazing to think of all the beautiful performances that have graced the stage of the Wortham over the years. The two resident companies –Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera – have spent the last 25 years working together to put on the very best for their faithful arts patrons. Houston Ballet opened the center with a run of Romeo and Juliet, and Houston Grand Opera followed with ravishing performances of Aida. Both groups have had to work together over these years to make the space work for each other, and have collaborated to maintain the building, as well as make some changes – such as the orchestra pit renovation in 2005. Ullrich calls both groups “great tenants,” and looks forward to continued collaboration for years to come.
The feeling is mutual, according to former Houston Ballet executive director C.C. Conner. Houston First is attuned to the needs of the two organizations, knowing that the building is their home, he said. Conner said the relationship with Houston Grand Opera has always been one of collaboration and respect.
“(The relationship) works well, because we went to the patron community to build a building as co-partners, giving us equal authority,” Conner said. “From the beginning, it has always been a joint venture to manage all the backstage operations together, so we’ve always managed to do that."
Hasn’t aged a bit
Over the years, the building itself hasn’t changed much. With the exception of new furniture in the green room and Founder’s Salon, touch-ups on paint and the carpet, the Wortham has stood the test of time. Improvements that have stood out in patrons’ minds are the addition of more women’s restrooms, additional wheelchair seating, extra beverage bars as well as monitors in the alcoves for late patrons.
Ullrich said that Houston First is conscious when making any changes, consulting with the administrations of the ballet and opera when a renovation comes up. Most of the work happens behind the scenes, such as new lighting boards or sound equipment. When the Wortham was built, it was at the forefront of technology, and according to Ullrich, it’s a huge priority for them to make sure the building remains on the cutting edge.
Long term, Ullrich said it’s most important to keep the Wortham a place Houston arts lovers enjoy visiting.
“Our plans are mostly to maintain what’s there,” Ullrich said. “It’s important that it continue to be fresh and some place that the arts groups as well as the folks who attend are proud of.”
Celebrations being planned
Last month at the opening night of Houston Ballet’s performance of Made in America, Mayor Annise Parker made a curtain speech commemorating the 25th anniversary. It was a watershed moment in Houston’s cultural life, she said, helping to establish Houston as an international arts center and greatly raising the visibility of the city’s performing and visual arts scene. Her comments kicked off the celebration honoring the center and all that it has done for our city.
Plans are still underway to celebrate the Wortham Center’s 25th anniversary, so stay up-to-date on all the festivities by visiting houstonfirsttheaters.com.
House lights are going down …
What do two star-crossed lovers, a yellow brick road, a warthog & a meerkat all have in common? Absolutely nothing – except they’ll all be a part of the summer 2012 Houston Theater District season. From Oz to Verona and back again, check out what’s in store, and start planning the ways you’ll get your arts fix in the coming months.
This May marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Wortham Theater Center, home to the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera. In the spirit of celebrating the homes to our arts groups, here’s what you can enjoy this summer.
Wortham Theater Center
Houston Ballet is presenting its spring mixed repertory program Made in America, through June 3. Consisting of a world premiere work by Nicolo Fonte, a company premiere by Mark Morris and a revival of George Balanchine’s tribute to the Imperial Russian Ballet, this performance will showcase everything there is to love about ballet – from the classic to the modern. What’s even more interesting is that all three of these choreographers have created works all over the world – but the three on this program were, as the title says, made in America.
If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, what about the classic story of two star-crossed lovers forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to be together? Houston Ballet will close out its season June 7-17 with a revival of Ben Stevenson’s spectacular staging of Romeo and Juliet, the performance that inaugurated the Wortham Theater Center back in 1987.
Society for the Performing Arts brings the three-time Tony Award-winning musical FELA!, to the Jones Hall stage for a limited engagement June 5-10. FELA!, a provocative hybrid of dance, theater and music, explores the extravagant and rebellious life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Nigerian musician and human rights activist. Kuti’s story is one of courage and passion. Inspired by his mother, he defied a corrupt and oppressive military government, devoting his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity.
The Houston Symphony is back with its Summer in the City concert series, kicking off with a doubleheader of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses on July 6-7. For all the gamers and fanatics of The Legend of Zelda series out there, this is the place for you. Featuring dynamic and compelling video on a large screen, this performance will bring 25 years of the world’s most popular video game series to life. Legendary music icons Three Dog Night celebrate their fourth decade in popular music by bringing classic songs like Joy to the World, Mama Told Me (Not To Come), and One, to the symphony on July 13, and on July 21, relive the classic tale of Dorothy and her journey to Oz.
With the backing of a live orchestra and the digitally re-mastered Warner Bros. film The Wizard of Oz showing on the big screen, children and adults alike can experience everything from Munchkinland to the Wicked Witch of the West like never before.
The Houston Symphony’s summer series concludes July 28 with an encore performance of Orbit – An HD Odyssey plus the music of Star Wars and more. Don’t miss this astounding combination of high-resolution images of our planet taken from NASA missions into Earth’s orbit, accompanied by Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
No worries – or should we say Hakuna Matata – about what you’ll find at the Hobby Center, as Gexa Energy Broadway at the Hobby Center is bringing back Disney’s The Lion King for a five-week run, from July 10-Aug. 12. Featuring music from the film’s score, as well as three new songs, you’ll witness more thab 40 actors bring the animals of Pride Rock to life on the stage. The Lion King has won six Tony Awards, and is one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals.
Theatre Under The Stars brings back summer favorite The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas from June 5-15. In addition to enjoying the spirited musical about a real-life brothel in Texas, TUTS is offering special events such as the Texas Size VIP Experience, with stage-side, cabaret-style seating, artisan beer and gourmet snacks.
An exciting collaboration with the New York Baroque Dance Company brings the 400-year-old music of Claudio Monteverdi’s to Ars Lyrica. Monteverdi’s music is known for marking the transition between Renaissance and Baroque, and was considered revolutionary for his time. Heaven and Hell will be performed on June 8 and 10.
The second play in the Alley Theatre’s New Play Initiative Program runs through June 10. What We’re Up Against is being called a brilliant black comedy that deals with sexism in the workplace. Parents, find a babysitter, because this one is recommended for mature audiences only. Later in the summer, the Alley Theater’s Annual ExxonMobil Summer Chills presents Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee from July 6-Aug. 5 on the Hubbard Stage. Black Coffee was Christie’s first play, a murder-mystery centered on Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
While many of our arts organizations are on hiatus from performing this summer, it doesn’t mean they’re any less busy! DaCamera of Houston and artistic director and CEO Sarah Rothenberg are embarking on a recording of Music for Rothko: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Rothko Chapel.
The recording will reflect the unique contemplative environment of the chapel, defined by the artwork of Mark Rothko, and also marks a collaboration with the Houston Chamber Choir.
This recording will kick off a year-long celebration for DaCamera, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the upcoming 2012-2013 season.
After successful spring showings of Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, Houston Grand Opera opens its season in October with Puccini’s La Boheme. In addition, HGO hosts opera camps in June, where children from 3rd-12th grade can tweak their singing and acting skills. For more information on the camps, visit hgoco.org/operacamp.
While you’re looking for a fun way to beat the heat, don’t let the Houston Theater District leave your mind! From dance to plays, and even film combined with live music, there’s something for everyone downtown this summer.
Also, don’t forget to mark your calendars for the 19th Annual Theater District Open House on Sunday, Aug. 26 from noon-4 p.m. It’s your chance to get to know the performing arts in Houston, snag some awesome ticket deals and get a sneak peek of the 2012-2013 season.
For more information or to purchase tickets to any of these performances, visit houstontheaterdistrict.org.