In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison caused major flooding in Houston, TX. The downtown area of the city, where many of its cultural organizations are located, is bordered by a bayou. Water backed up into the extensive underground walkways and parking tunnels of the city center and the basements of the Wortham Center, home of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera; the Alley Theatre; and Jones Hall, where the Houston Symphony is housed.
Houston Ballet was in the middle of its spring season when the flood came. "We had just done Gisèle Thursday night, and Friday was dark," recalls Thomas Boyd, Houston Ballet production manager and resident scenic designer. "Saturday morning I got a call from the theatre saying, 'You'd better come down here.' I said, 'I'll be right there,' and two hours later I was still trying to get there."
There was about 3' of water in the basement of the Wortham Center, which houses the costume shops and dressing rooms. "The city mobilized and started pumping water out, but for a while there was no place for it to go," Boyd continues. "Everyone had to wait until the bayou system balanced out. It was a couple of days before you could even think about pumping it out of the building."
The Ballet took costumes, shoes, wigs, fabric bolts, and so on, to its office location, where it has a parking lot, a lawn, and trees, and set everything out to dry. Pat Padilla and her wardrobe crew and volunteers from the Guild took things home and to the dry cleaners for laundering. Each costume has several sets of hooks and eyes for adjustability; many of these had rusted and had to be replaced. Also, the fabric for Peter Pan had recently been shipped in. Jeanne Button, the costume designer for the show, inspected the bolts of fabric and decided that even though some of the dye had run, it wasn't bad and they could use it after all.
Shows for Saturday and Sunday were cancelled; the next performance was the following Friday, so the Ballet had almost a week to salvage what it could, and cobble together usable pieces of several shows. Luckily, the affected shows were classical ballets—Gisèle, Cinderella, Swan Lake—and had similar late-18th-century-style costume designs. "Thank goodness for conventions," Boyd laughs. "Sometimes it comes in handy. Most of the shoes had to be pulled from other shows. And with temporary dressing rooms and the substituted items, we did the second weekend no problem. It was just a weird feeling in the theatre; it felt kind of dank."
Houston Grand Opera, meanwhile, was offering its annual free performances at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. The production of Carmen was underway when the storm hit and had to be shut down. Those sets and costumes were being stored at the Wortham Center, along with those of the productions of Florencia and Carousel, all of which were damaged in the flood.
According to public relations director Kim Pirog, the Opera suffered over $1 million in damage and lost office space, wigs, makeup shops, and dye rooms. "We've been replacing items as production needs arise," she says, "but we weren't able to afford to just go and replace everything." The organization has also lost income from renting out its productions to other companies.
The Alley Theatre has two performance spaces: the main stage on the upper level, and Neuhaus Arena Stage, a smaller space on the lower level. Below that are HVAC and electrical areas, costume, set, and prop shops, rehearsal rooms, and office space, all of which suffered extensive damage. The Alley was denied assistance by FEMA, and the recovery project was funded by private donations.
The new lobby of the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus Arena Stage. Photo: Jim Caldwell.
The theatre took the opportunity to reconfigure the Arena Stage space, expanding the restrooms and increasing the lobby size, making it possible to hold more elaborate functions there. The lighting tension grid was removed and replaced with a catwalk system, which added 9' of height, allowing for larger sets and more versatile lighting positions. A wall behind one of the four seating banks was removed, so the space can now convert from an arena configuration to a thrust stage. After a seven-month, $4-million reconstruction, the Neuhaus reopened January 18 with Of Mice and Men. The sub-basement remains partly vacant; design shops were relocated to an offsite warehouse, and reconstruction continues.
The current production of Alan Ayckbourn's Garden utilizes the new thrust configuration of the Neuhaus Stage. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Perhaps the organization hardest hit was Houston Symphony. Director of public relations Art Kent says, "We lost all our furniture, our offices, our systems, our archives, but the real loss was our music library. We took 1,500 boxes, each one containing approximately a cubic foot of material, out of the basement of Jones Hall. Out of those 1,500 boxes, approximately 800 of them were filled with scores from our music library and material that had been accumulated over the 89-year history of this orchestra."
These scores are historical documents, because they are filled with notations from conductors. "Part of the value of this library is the fact that there were scores in there that had been marked by some of the world's great conductors," Kent says. "While we can retrieve the marks, we can't keep the actual score that was marked by Stokowski, Barbirolli, Andre Previn, and so on."
The Symphony used several document-retrieval processes, including a freeze-drying technique to remove the moisture and gamma-ray irradiation to kill the mold. "It's gone through some other process that tried to get the smell out of it, but that did not succeed," Kent adds. "We have the music back; 90-odd percent of it is readable, but it is unusable." The salvaged scores are being stored in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. Their notations are being painstakingly copied by the librarians, but the original documents will have to be destroyed due to the contamination suffered in the floodwater.
"It was the tragic beginning to a tragic year," Kent comments. "We went from the flood to September 11, and in this city, of course, to a somewhat shaken business economy because of Enron, so it has not been an easy year for us from the business perspective. It's been a wonderful year for us from the artistic perspective. It's the first season with our new music director [Hans Graf]. In the aftermath of September 11, people have been turning to things like music. We've had large and enthusiastic audiences for our concerts."
Since the flooding, "The artistic and administrative staffs of the organizations did some phenomenal work," says Barry Mandel, executive director of Houston's Theatre District Association. "Everybody was back performing four days later. The Alley actually had a world premiere show, Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children; they literally picked up the whole show and moved it to another theatre. They kind of redid the set with what another theatre had. A number of groups have borrowed from other organizations, and everybody continued performing that next week. It was a mammoth undertaking, but everybody was committed to getting the show back on."
Ten months later, the city's arts organizations have moved forward. "Everybody is back in place," Mandel says, "except the Symphony and Society for the Performing Arts in terms of their offices, and we will have them back probably the mid- to end of May. We're just getting ready to open a new performing arts center, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, and Theatre Under the Stars will be moving into it as its home. They are the largest non-profit musical producer in the country. They will office there as well as Broadway in Houston, which is Clear Channel's national Broadway touring company."