Arts / Performing Arts

The Wortham Theater Makes a Dramatic Comeback, Reopening After 13 Months of Harvey Misery

Remarkable Rebirth Takes Center Stage

BY // 09.25.18

For the arts in Houston, Tuesday morning was a homecoming like no other. After over a year of trials, tribulations and toiling, the Wortham Theater Center reopened. In the span of 13 months and unfathomable Hurricane Harvey devastation, Houston First Corporation revitalized the heart of Space City’s performing arts just in time for the 2018 fall season.

The arts community rolled out the welcome mat for a lucky few. A select group of patrons, stakeholders, media and supporters attended Tuesday’s long-awaited reopening.

The crowd was rewarded with a touching video presented in the intimate Cullen Theater, and warm words from Mayor Sylvester Turner, members of Houston First, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and more. And individuals associated with the Wortham — ballet dancers, opera singers, ushers, concessions workers and more took the stage to be recognized.

The video served as a reminder that the gleaming, lovingly restored theater center was once the site of some waterlogged wreckage, with couches upended by storm water, a dusting of white mold and fallen ceiling tiles on the floor.

The Wortham had suffered more than $100 million in damage, 12 feet of floodwater in the basement and 270 million gallons of water in the underground garages and tunnel connected to the building from Hurricane Harvey. It was no shock when the estimated reopening date of May 2017, first reported in September of that year, came and went.

Every individual who graced the Cullen stage to give thanks to all those who worked tirelessly to restore the Wortham hit on a similar theme.

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The resounding message? “Home is where the art is.”

A Theater Reborn

The celebration was a merry occasion, full of laughter and light. It was as if the entire Wortham had breathed a sigh of relief.  The show must — and finally can — go on.

“I feel like a kid in a candy shop,” Mayor Turner told the crowd assembled in the plush red seats of Cullen theater. “Quite frankly, when they came to me a year ago and described it, it just seemed like an insurmountable task. But the city had to tackle the task, no matter how great.

“Not getting back for this season was not an option. It was just not an option. And quite frankly, if it were not at this day at this moment, it would simply not be Houston.”

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The Houston Grand Opera kicks off the fall season with a performance tomorrow.

While Houston arts lovers waited rapt, Houston First shepherded the Wortham through the painstaking recovery process.

“I’m proud that we are resuming performances. But I don’t think anyone will ever appreciate how much work has taken place here. Even though it’s been 13 months — and that sounds like a long time — in the real world, in the design and construction world, that’s a very quick turnaround,” Houston First’s chief operating officer Sheila Turkiewicz tells PaperCity.

The arts community will tell you that no matter how long the wait, there’s no place like home.

“It creates healing to be back home,” Houston Ballet executive director James Nelson says. The Wortham is absolutely the finest theater in the city. This was built for our needs, built for the opera’s needs. Thankfully there were other stages and our neighbors were so accommodating to bring us in and to let us perform for this last year. But this was built for our needs. The scale of it, the floor that is built into the stage here.

“This was built for a ballet and opera house. There’s nothing like it.”  

Houston Grand Opera will be the first to set foot on the revamped stage with Wednesday night’s sold-out performance by icon Plácido Domingo. The opera singer returns to the Wortham a full 30 years after his last star performance in the Brown Theater.

After the program in the Cullen, Houston Grand Opera managing director Perryn Leech led a group to the Brown Theater. In keeping with the morning’s levity, Houston First chief development officer Peter McStravick took the chance to tease Leech.

“Red roses — that’s pretty audacious,” McStravick laughed, gesturing at the bounty of flowers set up around the stage. Leech chuckled. “It sure is good to be home. It sure is,” he said, smiling as he took in the view.

Now, the stage is set. Houston First, Mayor Turner and so many more choreographed the comeback. But what happens next is up to the people who attend events at the Wortham, as Turner noted.

“I want to thank Houston in advance, for what they will do as we move forward,” the mayor says. “It’s one thing to return to the Wortham. The big question is whether or not people will respond over and above what has happened in the past.”

So, break a leg. You heard him.

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