It was an exciting evening when Jones Hall opened its doors for the first time in 1966, but downtown Houston still had little else to offer in the form of arts and music.
One person who can verify that is Red Pastorek, a double bassist who retired in 2014 after 50 years with the Houston Symphony.
“When I came here, it was just the old Music Hall downtown. That was it,” Pastorek says. “At 6:30 when everybody went home from the offices, they rolled up the sidewalks. There were a couple of little cheap saloons around and nothing else.”
The opening of the Alley Theatre in 1968 brought a little more activity, but hardly any restaurants downtown were open late when performances ended. The symphony’s associate principal bassoonist Eric Arbiter came here in 1974 and has witnessed the transformation over the decades.
“Walking around downtown, what a difference. I mean, there’s so much building and there’s so much activity now,” he says. “But in those days, the old New York Deli, which is where Birraporetti’s is now, was one place that was open.”
Historian Steven Fenberg says that had everything to do with Jones Hall. It catalyzed the performing arts in Houston and encouraged the development of the Theater District.
“The Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet had only been in existence for a little more than ten years and they were just shadows of what they would become,” he explains.
With the building of Jones Hall, the Houston Symphony, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, and the Society for the Performing Arts (SPA) finally had a world-class place to call home. It’s not just the white exterior that’s impressive. Inside are nearly 3,000 velvety, plush red seats and the floors are covered with scarlet-red carpet. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feature is the ceiling.
“It could move in five different patterns to adjust the acoustics and the size of the room to accommodate either the spoken word or music,” Fenberg says.
As the four arts organizations continued to grow and increase the amount of productions, scheduling performances became a juggling act. When the Wortham Center was built in 1987, the opera and ballet relocated.
Then in 2001, something devastating happened.
Tropical Storm Allison brought record flooding to Houston and the Theater District was not spared. Jones Hall’s basement, where all the administrative offices were located, was under water.
“Everything from the beginning of Jones Hall and SPA was washed away,” says Toby Mattox, who was SPA’s executive director at the time. “A major thing was that the Houston Symphony had their music library in the lower level and all of that got lost completely,” he says.
The theater’s traps – that’s the space under the stage – also flooded. Two Steinway pianos were ruined. The list goes on.
Jones Hall had a partial renovation shortly after that. The acoustics were tweaked, some technical improvements were made, and the interior got a bit of a face lift.
But the Theater District’s CEO Kathryn McNiel says demands of a concert hall today are light years from where they were half a century ago.
“When that was built, think about equipment needs, stage needs. So much of that technology has changed. How do you load in a show?” McNiel says.
It’s more complicated than some may realize, as Part Three of the series will illustrate. We’ll learn about some much-needed improvements and hear the talks that are already underway about a major renovation, which could be coming up soon.