‘What do I do?’ says Jo Ann Miller. ‘Everything, honey, everything’
The Last Picture Show was not filmed in Granbury, Texas (pop. 3,060), but a decade ago it could have been. Once a bustling center of banking, cattle and cotton, the town found itself bypassed by the superhighways. Shops were boarded up and weeds poked through cracks in the sidewalks. Just 35 miles southwest of Fort Worth, Granbury was fast becoming another Texas ghost town.
The most visible symbol of the town’s demise was the crumbling Opera House. Constructed in 1886, it had seen duty as a dance hall, saloon, office building and storage house for a feed company. In 1968 the once opulent building was little more than a shell with broken windows and a collapsed roof. Planning consultants recommended its demolition. Fortunately, Joe Nutt, whose great-grandfather founded the town’s major restaurant, the Nutt House, stepped in to buy the building for $15,000 and formed the Granbury Opera Association to save it. Then the town made a second wise decision. It hired Jo Ann Miller as managing director of the Opera House in October 1974.
A singer and actress, she was then appearing with Bob Cummings at a Dallas dinner theater. She went to Granbury to play golf, heard about the Opera House and became fascinated. “Ignorance is bliss,” laughs Miller now. “If I’d known all there was to do, I’m not sure I would have taken it on. When I was hired, they had $3,000 left in the bank for everything, including my salary.”
Granbury got its money’s worth. For eight months Miller begged, borrowed and sometimes came close to stealing. A local electrical contractor told Jo Ann she could pick up whatever equipment was needed at his warehouse. “Sugar, he didn’t know,” she says. “We arrived and the foreman got on the phone to his boss frantically: ‘Hell, they’ve got a semi out there!’ ” From the now defunct Palace Theatre in Dallas, she bought 327 seats, plush red drapes and stage lights for only $300. Townspeople needlepointed the seat cushions. Stonemasons, plumbers, lumbermen and electricians donated their talents. Props and costumes came out of attics. “What Goodwill won’t take,” Miller said, “we will.”
After being turned down for a federal grant, she also displayed a knack for raising funds privately. She had trouble with one rich old man in Fort Worth who said he hated opera and wouldn’t give a dime. Miller tried vainly to explain that “opera” was just the name of the building, then switched tactics. She asked him to name the home of country music. He thought for a minute, remembered Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, grinned and said, “How much ya’ need?”
On June 19, 1975 the refurbished Granbury Opera House reopened after 64 years. It now operates 46 weekends a year, with a different program every three weeks. Miller keeps costs down by using graduate students at $30 to $50 a week. As a result, an under-16 or senior citizen ticket for weekend matinees is only $2. Retirees bus in from all over the state to watch productions ranging from Pal Joey, Godspell and other standards to original works like Miller’s own That Was No Lady, That Was My Husband.
At 46, Miller draws on a long showbiz career. Raised in Arp, Texas (pop. 850), she graduated from Texas State College for Women in 1950. She was working on her master’s degree in archeology at Columbia when Tommy Dorsey heard her sing in summer stock and hired her.
Miller later ran the Cooperstown (N.Y.) Theater for 14 summers. She took some time off in 1960 to get married “for about 15 minutes. Didn’t like it; never tried it again.” Now she and her dogs Birdie and Bogey are settled into a comfortable 77-year-old house four blocks from the office.
On her daily commute by bicycle, Miller proudly surveys the beautifully restored Granbury town square. She won’t hear Granbury compared to places like Williamsburg, Va. “This is no Disneyland,” she protests. “This town is for real.”