The bricks and mortar have been in place at Wortham Theater Center for 20 years. During those two decades, a whole new generation of Houston Ballet dancers, a new artistic director and new audiences have come to enjoy Wortham Theater Center. Many of them know little of the need and struggle to mount this massive building, which has become a landmark in Houston's vibrant Theater District.
The need became acutely apparent soon after Houston Ballet was formed in 1969, attempting to squeeze its sets, lighting equipment, costumes and stage rehearsal/performance schedule into Jones Hall between those of the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and the Society for the Performing Arts.
Action was slow in coming, but in December 1977, the Cullen Foundation granted $45,000 to the newly formed Houston Lyric Theater Foundation (LTF), headed by arts philanthropist Harris Masterson, to fund a cost study and preliminary designs for a new opera/ballet theater. Where LTF had a $40-million budget in mind, initial cost estimates ran as high as $120 million, but finally settled at $75 million.
Fundraising began in earnest in 1980, with a $1-million grant from the Shell Oil Company Foundation and soon rose to $16 million in funds and pledges. In September 1981, the Wortham Foundation granted $15 million, quickly followed by $5 million each from the Brown and Cullen Foundations, whereupon the name of the building and its two theaters were settled. In 1983, Houston City Council approved the last of several design plans by the Houston firm of Morris/Aubry to construct the 437,500 sq, ft, building on two city-owned blocks.
But fundraising had stalled at $47,918,000 in advance of Houston's declining oil economy in the mid-1980s. Robert Cizik, then CEO of Cooper Industries, became chairman of the LTF, with R. W. "Rusty" Wortham as co-chair, energizing the campaign with $8.5 million in additional Wortham, Brown and Cullen Foundation challenge grants, ultimately accruing $66 million. Cizik shrewdly invested what had been raised in tax-exempt construction bonds to help bridge the gap, while the ill wind of economic recession reduced construction costs to $70 million. In the end, items slated for deferred construction‹the interior of Cullen Theater, its rehearsal room and office space‹were all finished out and covered by funds raised and reinvested.
Having surmounted all these challenges and completed construction four months ahead of schedule, Houston Ballet joined Houston Grand Opera in a gala celebration on the Brown Theater stage May 9, 1987. It was hosted by comedian and operaphile Tony Randall and produced by George Stevens. Houston Ballet principals Janie Parker and Li Cunxin danced artistic director Ben Stevenson's Esmeralda pas de deux, the full ballet company danced the finale from Harald Lander's Etudes, Houston Grand Opera presented act two of La Bohème, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets saluted with fanfares, and a parade of luminaries danced, sang, played, spoke or joked: comedian Art Buchwald, singers Hildegard Behrens and Diahann Carroll, dancers Gloria Rodolfo Dinzel and Tommy Tune, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and retired dancers Dame Margot Fonteyn and Peter Martins.
Houston Ballet led off the first regular season in Wortham Theater Center with a lavish new production of Prokofiev's full-length Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Stevenson with sets and costumes by David Walker. It was quickly followed that season by the Houston, American or world premieres of Margo Sappington's monumental Rodin, Mis en Vie, Ben Stevenson's joyous new Nutcracker, Ronald Hynd's massive Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth.
Within five years, there were elegant new productions of full-length ballets that had been staples of Houston Ballet's Jones Hall years: Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty and Coppélia followed by premieres of elaborate new additions to the repertoire: Stevenson's. Snow Maiden, Dracula and Cleopatra, James Kudelka's Firebird and Stanton Welch's visually haunting adaptation of Madame Butterfly.
While the audience has feasted its eyes on these opulent new productions, space, time and comfort have been the greatest boon to those who put Houston Ballet's productions onstage and danced in them. Production director Tom Boyd revels in the vast wing space at the two sides and behind the Brown Theater stage. Having two and one-half weeks to mount, rehearse and perform each production on the Wortham Theater Center stage makes all the difference in the world, compared to a frantic eight-day schedule the company endured in Jones Hall.
Former principal dancer Dawn Scannell, now a ballet mistress, remembers all the extra dancing space on the huge, specially cushioned dance stage, specifically built for Houston Ballet. She was thrilled to have a dressing room at stage level, instead of a floor above or below stage. And like all dancers, she greatly appreciated the added space and wider stage-viewing area from the wings, where she could warm up for her cues and enter precisely on time without fear of crashing into another nearby dancer, hidden by a piece of scenery.
Carl R. Cunningham is the program annotator for the Houston Symphony, following 30 years writing about the performing arts for the former Houston Post and San Francisco Chronicle. Over the last decade, he has also written for music, opera and dance organizations across the United States.