The Day the Music Hall Died

This week, Theatre Under the Stars bids farewell to the Music Hall, its longtime home, and settles in to wait for the construction of its new quarters, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts; the latter's scheduled to open in 2001 on the sites now occupied by the Music Hall and the Coliseum, which will be torn down in early June.

Since the Music Hall's humble beginnings as a WPA project, completed in 1936, the venue has stimulated the local arts community. From its completion date until the 1960s, arts benefactress Edna Saunders shepherded a host of touring performances through the hall; Katharine Hepburn, Martha Graham, Vladimir Horowitz and Tallulah Bankhead ranked among the greats who graced the stage during Saunders's tenure. In 1954, after a major remodeling, the Houston Symphony Orchestra made the hall its home; the Houston Grand Opera followed a year later. Both groups relocated to Jones Hall after its completion in 1966, making room for a then-young TUTS to move into the Music Hall six years later.

The building's design has long prevented the performing ensemble from keeping up with developments in musical theater. For example, explains Susie Works, PR director for TUTS, "With the air conditioning and heat under the stage, no traps or hydraulic lifts are possible."

The Houston Music Hall Foundation, founded four years ago, is responsible for building and operating the city-owned Hobby Center. The new complex will house a 2,650-seat theater, ideal for the needs of TUTS and the "Broadway Series." A 500-seater will nurture smaller organizations and host more modest touring performances. Following in the footsteps of the new generation of ballparks, with multitudes of amenities under one massive roof, the $75 million Hobby Center will also house a restaurant, a lounge and expanded concession facilities. Generous rehearsal space, the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre and offices for TUTS and the Music Hall Foundation will complete the extensive establishment.

Recalling the Music Hall's role in helping Houston make a name for itself in the global arts community, Jim Bernhard, TUTS' director for special projects, acknowledges that he "regrets seeing it destroyed, because it has so much history." But he also looks toward the future, adding that the new facility "will give our company the chance to do first-rate, world-class productions more easily, and will provide theatergoers with thoroughly first-class amenities in terms of comfort and convenience."

-- Melissa Jacobs

"The Wrecking Ball: A Real Blast," slated for 7 p.m. Sunday, May 31, includes dinner, dancing to the Ned Battista Orchestra, a silent auction and a fireworks display. 810 Bagby. Info: 558-2600. $250 and up.


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