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Hurricane Harvey Flooded Houston's Theater District, But It Won't Stop The Shows

Dec 9, 2017
Originally published on December 9, 2017 10:27 am

One of the casualties of Hurricane Harvey has been parts of Houston's thriving arts and culture community. Four days of torrential rainfall nearly drowned the city's opera, ballet, and theater companies, along with a revered mural. But they're drying out and starting over.

On Aug. 28, as engorged Buffalo Bayou crept into Houston's Theater District, Perryn Leech and Dean Gladden pulled on slickers and rubber boots and headed downtown for a look.

Leech is the managing director of the Houston Grand Opera and Gladden heads the Alley Theater, next door.

Their worst fears were confirmed. Dead fish lay in the street. A foul brew of bayou water and sewage had surged into the Theater District — for the first time ever — and gushed into their elegant performance buildings.

"This room was an unholy mess," says Leech. "We do know the water was coming in with some force and it was absolutely filthy water."

In the Wortham Theater — home of the opera — Leech shows where floodwaters destroyed dressing rooms, storage areas, and mechanical and electrical installations. He heads down a corridor that's being dried out by electric blowers on the floor and steps into a large room that has been stripped down to the cinderblock walls. In here, they lost costumes from the production of Julius Caesar, as well as thousands of shoes — from thigh-high boots to brocaded slippers. Then, there were the wigs.

"This will give you an idea of some of the devastation. This was our wig shop. [We lost] 500 to 600 wigs, all made from human hair, each individually knotted, so a huge cash value. A wig can range anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 to $3,000. And wigs are a big part of opera."

Rebuilding the Wortham may cost as much as $60 million. Losses incurred by all six performing companies based in the theater district add up to another $60 million.

The Alley Theater — a nationally renowned resident theater — suffered a similar fate.

"The water was 10 feet high...it just destroyed everything," says Managing Director Dean Gladden, leading the way through the Alley's flooded-out catacombs. Down here are the rooms that housed the theater's irreplaceable prop collection: antique chandeliers, trunks, suitcases, telephones, period magazines.

"We have everything that you would have in your house, this is 70 years of collecting props. All of our prop storage was underwater, 100 percent."

In the performance world, the paramount ethos is: the show must go on. And so it has.

While renovation of the Alley's flooded-out subterranean theater goes on, it is staging A Christmas Carol in its above-ground theater that was not damaged. The Houston Ballet — which also uses the Wortham — has moved its production of The Nutcracker to alternate venues around the city.

The Houston Grand Opera never considered cancelling its season, either — from La Traviata to West Side Story. The company needed a new performance space, too, so they constructed a free-standing theater inside the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center and named it Resilience Theater. It's not the greatest acoustic space, but adequate for the recent premiere of a seasonal opera, The House Without A Christmas Tree.

Managing director Leech had experience constructing a theater in a sports stadium in his native United Kingdom. So he knew he could do it here.

"When we first looked at the convention center it was clear to me, who'd done something similar before, that we could do the show. Most of my colleagues were, like, no freakin' way. And I was like, oh yeah, we can definitely do it."

The mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs has identified 71 arts groups, in all, that were impacted by Harvey. They range from the Wortham and the Alley to the Blue Triangle Community Center. This building, once a segregated YWCA, is home to a historic mural that is important to Houston's black community.

Stepping through a zipper opening to control humidity reveals a large wall painting in a style reminiscent of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It depicts abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, among other figures in African-American history.

"It's perfect for me to teach because I can tell students about the underground railroad," says Charlotte Bryant, director of Blue Triangle.

The artist is John T. Biggers, a noted African-American muralist and educator. The building already had a leaky roof. Harvey's 4 feet of rain penetrated the walls and drenched the painting.

"If you look carefully you see little black spots," Bryant says. "That's where the mold was on."

For the past decade, the Blue Triangle has begged for money to replace the roof, but never had any luck. Now that its famous mural is moldering, there is a sense of urgency. It joins the Alley, the Grand Opera and others in a common fundraising plea — if you value Houston's arts and culture, we need help.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hurricane Harvey was hard on Houston's art and culture community. Four days of torrential rain nearly drowned the city's opera, ballet and theater companies - along with their revered mural. As NPR's John Burnett reports, they're drying out and starting over.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On August 28, as engorged Buffalo Bayou crept into Houston's theater district, Perryn Leech and Dean Gladden pulled on slickers and rubber boots and headed downtown for a look. Leech is the managing director of the Houston Grand Opera, and Gladden heads the Alley Theatre next door. Their worst fears were confirmed. There were dead fish in the street. A foul brew of bayou water and sewage had surged into the theater district - for the first time ever - and gushed into their elegant performance buildings.

PERRYN LEECH: This room was an unholy mess. So we do know that the water was coming in with some force.

BURNETT: In the Wortham Theater, home of the opera, Perryn Leech shows where floodwaters destroyed dressing rooms, storage areas and mechanical and electrical installations. He heads down a corridor that's being dried out by electric blowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWERS RUNNING)

BURNETT: We step into a series of large rooms that have been stripped down to cinder block walls. In here, they lost costumes from the production of "Julius Caesar" as well as thousands of shoes from thigh-high boots to brocaded slippers. Then, there were the wigs.

LEECH: This will give you an idea of some of the devastation. So this is our wig shop.

BURNETT: How many wigs did you lose?

LEECH: Five to 600 wigs, all made from human hair, each individually knotted. So - I mean huge cash value. A wig can range anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500, $3,000.

BURNETT: Wigs are a big part of opera.

LEECH: Absolutely, yeah.

BURNETT: Rebuilding the Wortham may cost as much as $60 million. Losses incurred by all six performing companies based in the theater district add up to another 60 million. The Alley Theatre, a nationally renowned resident theater, suffered a similar fate.

DEAN GLADDEN: The water was 10 feet high, so roughly about up to where this drywall is right here.

BURNETT: Managing director Dean Gladden leads the way through the Alley's flooded-out catacombs. Down here are the rooms that housed the theater's irreplaceable prop collection - antique chandeliers, trunks, suitcases, telephones, period magazines.

GLADDEN: We have everything that you would have in your house. This is 70 years of collecting props. So all of our prop storage was underwater, a hundred percent.

BURNETT: In the performance world, the paramount ethos is the show must go on - and so it did. While renovation of the Alley's flooded-out subterranean theater goes on, it is staging "A Christmas Carol" in its above ground theater that was not damaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Ghost of Christmas Present) I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.

BURNETT: The Houston Ballet, which also uses the Wortham, has moved its production of "The Nutcracker" to alternate venues around the city. The Houston Grand Opera never considered canceling its season either, from "La Traviata" to "West Side Story." It needed a new performance space, too, so the opera company constructed a free-standing theater inside the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center and named it Resilience Theater - not the greatest acoustic space but adequate for the recent premiere of a Christmas-themed opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) A house without a Christmas tree is a crime against the holidays.

BURNETT: Managing director Perryn Leech had experience constructing a theater in a sports stadium in his native U.K., so he knew he could do it here.

LEECH: When we first looked at the convention center, it was clear to me, who'd done something similar before, that we could do the show. And most of my colleagues were like, no [expletive] way. And I was like - oh, yeah. We can definitely do it.

BURNETT: The Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs has identified 71 arts groups in all that were impacted by Harvey. They range from the Wortham and the Alley to the Blue Triangle Community Center. This building, once a segregated YWCA, is home to a historic mural that's important to Houston's black community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER OPENING)

BURNETT: Stepping through a zipper opening - to control humidity - reveals a large painting in a style reminiscent of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It depicts abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley among other figures in African-American history. Charlotte Bryant is director of Blue Triangle.

CHARLOTTE BRYANT: It's perfect for me to teach because I can tell students about the Underground Railroad.

BURNETT: The artist is John T. Biggers, a noted African-American muralist and educator. The building already had a leaky roof. Harvey's 4 feet of rain penetrated the walls and drenched the painting.

BRYANT: If you look carefully, you see little black spots. That's where the mold was on it.

BURNETT: For the past decade, the Blue Triangle has begged for money to replace the roof but never had any luck. Now that its famous mural is moldering, there's a sense of urgency. It joins the Alley, the Grand Opera and others in a common fundraising plea. If you value arts and culture in Houston, we need help.

John Burnett, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.