Uvalde – In the middle of Uvalde sits a lot of history and one big building on this block has a backstory that’s greater than a baritone’s range. Down in Uvalde you’ll find an ol’ opera house built back in the 1890’s, but to this day folks are bring down the house with some sweet music. You just never know what kind of talent you’ll find in it.
“Uvalde has a lot of local talent, a lot of good local talent,” Nancy Bennett said.
Nancy Bennett and Toni Hull have been performing here at the Uvalde Opera House longer than The Phantom of the Opera has been performing on Broadway.
“Yeah, we go way, way back, further than I like to remember right now,” Toni said.
These two local ladies are part of the long story of this long-standing opera house.
“They’re a big part of what we do,” Rosie Whisenant said. “They’re a part of Toni and a part of nearly every show that I do. I’m constantly calling her and I’m like, ‘Can you please come and play the piano?’ She never says no.”
Rosie is the opera house manager, and she runs the show here.
“It sounds fancier than it is,” Rosie said. “There’s a little more janitorial work involved than I like, but it’s all good.”
She was born in Texas but lived in England for over 20 years until the chance to work at her old home town theater opened up.
“I thought I might stay in England for a while but this job came up and it was too good to miss,” Rosie said. “I came back and I’m really glad that I did. I love Texas.”
Rosie didn’t offer us a drink, but she did quench our thirst for knowledge about the second oldest opera house in the state of Texas.
“This was built in 1891 and it was built by six businessmen,” Rosie said. “They were the Real Estate Board here in Uvalde and they decided they wanted a place of entertainment and this town was super tiny so for an opera house this big to be here was very unusual.”
Graduations, balls, and Vaudeville acts were the most common occurrences at the opera house until 1917. Former Vice President of the United States and Uvalde native John Nanae Garner bought the building and worked out of the cupola room, even during his tenure in nation’s capital.
“He had his desk in the window there because he liked to look out at ‘his town,’ as he called it,” Rosie said. “You can see the courthouse, City Hall, the post office, the crossroads and the Market Plaza, so you can see everything from that window.”
After Garner passed away in 1967, his estate took over the building until 1979.
“The Garner heirs sold the building to the city for $10 so it’s a city building now,” Rosie said.
After a major push to restore the building, it was reopened in 1982.
“A lot of the stuff was in disrepair,” Rosie said. “A lot of the theater stuff certainly was gone so in terms of it being a functioning venue, all the original seats were gone. There was a lot of disrepair and the building was open so people would just walk through it. Historically, it’s a huge piece of Uvalde. It is one of the oldest buildings here in town. It’s on everybody’s logo, website, home page, poster of Uvalde. It kind of represents us.”
The most popular part of the place sits perched on a pole, a peculiar piece of art not really pertaining to any kind of Texas history or purpose. It is simply a dragon that architect B.F. Trister might have breathed fire or blown some smoke to create.
“B.F. Trister when he finished designing the building, the myth is that he decided to go out and celebrate once he finished,” Rosie said. “He had a few too many drinks and he scribbled on the plans. When he handed the plans over to the contractor, they decided that the scribbles were a dragon. He’s called the drunken dragon because he was a drunken mistake. He’s not supposed to be there but we like him, so he can stay. He keeps the ghosts away.”
The original dragon rests its’ wearing wings in the lobby after being popular for target practice over the years, but the mythic monster made of metal still likes to sit amongst the sweet sounds of serenade coming from the stage.
“When you’re singing or you’re performing, all you can think about is trying to remember the words and the notes,” Nancy said. “It just takes you away.”
Take some time to see some local Texas talent and take in the history of the second oldest opera house in the Lone Star state at a stop that strikes the right note on The Texas Bucket List.
“When I’m on that stage, hopefully I’m bringing people some joy and taking them away from whatever might be an issue in their life at the time,” Nancy said. “It’s just a win-win deal. If you haven’t been in an opera house and you haven’t been in live theater, you haven’t lived.”