One of Houston’s most beloved entertainment venues, Miller Outdoor Theatre celebrates 90 years
For 90 years, Miller Outdoor Theatre has been a place where special memories are made: of squealing with delight while rolling down the hill–over and over again….of first dates and surprise proposals…of the Houston Symphony and fireworks on July 4th…of the first time to experience Shakespeare or an opera or mariachi or the music of Motown…of crowds of thousands simultaneously leaping to their feet to offer a standing ovation …of sharing great performances with friends and family and total strangers…these are Miller memories. The stately oak trees on either side of the stage that flanked the original bandstand built when Miller opened in 1923 still stand sentry today. Miller Memorial Theatre, as it was originally called, looked a bit different back then, but one thing remains the same: audiences have never been charged admission for the quality and quantity of entertainment it provides. Houston can boast that Miller is the only proscenium venue of its kind in the country that presents over 120 performances each season – totally free of charge.
The historical facts below are taken from Houston History, Miller Outdoor Theatre, A Uniquely Houston Experience for 87 Years by Debbie Z. Harwell
(Debbie Z. Harwell was a Ph.D student in history at the University of Houston and managing editor of Houston History when the article was published in the Spring, 2010 issue)
- In 1919, cotton broker and mining engineer Jesse Wright Miller bequeathed property to the city “for municipal purposes,” but the city found that the location of the land made using it impractical.
- The city sold that property to Miller’s sister, Alma Womack, for $50,000 and then used the funds to build the original theatre as a “permanent bandstand” on the current site in Hermann Park.
- The original facility was designed by William Ward Walkin and built by Tom Tellepsen as a classic Doric proscenium structure with a narrow stage flanked by 20 limestone columns and 2 live oak trees. (The original columns form the circular perimeter of the Mecom-Rockwell Colonnade Fountain located across from Hotel Zaza between Fannin and San Jacinto.)
- Miller Memorial Theatre was dedicated “To the Arts of Music, Poetry, Drama and Oratory” on May 12, 1923.
- On Sept. 22, 1927, the rematch for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew 150,000 spectators to Chicago’s Soldier Field, and an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people came to Miller to hear the national broadcast carried locally by KPRC and billed as “the biggest event in the history of radio.”
- In 1940, Houston Post drama critic Hubert Roussel received a letter from former Chicago resident Lewis Brown that asked why Houston could not have outdoor summer symphony concerts as had become popular in other cities.
- On August 21, 1941, thanks to a contribution from N.D.Naman, the Houston Symphony Society first performed at Miller. That day the temperature reached 100 degrees. The audience was estimated at 15,000 by the time the concert began.
- After World War II development began on the Texas Medical Center south of Hermann Park. The city began excavating and widening Fannin Street and the dirt was deposited to form the hill where audiences now sit to enjoy the performances. Throughout the years, an unspoken rule, which continues today, divided the seating-those who bring their lawn chairs on one side and those sitting on the ground, spreading out a blanket, on the other.
- In August 1952, Hugo Koehn, the head of the city Parks and Recreation Department, reported that the city had somehow called Miller Memorial Theatre by the wrong name since its inception, so the venue was renamed Miller Outdoor Theatre.
- By the 1960s the city wanted a more modern venue that could accommodate expanded productions and in 1964, voters approved capital improvement bonds for construction of a new Miller Outdoor Theatre.
- Eugene Werlin and Associates designed the structure that was constructed of Corten steel that rusted to its characteristic redwood color. Orange plastic chairs matching those for patrons were attached upside down on the pitched roof ceiling to improve acoustics.
- To stave off the summer heat for performers, air conditioning was forced up through slits in the stage. (still is!)
- The new theatre opened on Sunday, Sept. 1, 1968, with a performance by 76 members of the Houston Symphony.
- On Sept. 15, 1968, Miller hosted Bells are Ringing, the very first production of Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS).
- The Houston Shakespeare Festival opened at Miller on Aug. 13, 1975, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew.
- Diversity has become a mainstay of Miller programming managing director Cissy Segall Davis points out. “This place speaks to what Houston is all about.” Miller offers the most diverse, highest-quality series of performances possible with this most “extraordinary gift” from the city of Houston to its residents and visitors.
The Miller Outdoor Theatre 2013 Season opens on April 4 at 8 p.m. with Thoroughly Modern Millie,produced by HITS Theatre.
There’s something for everyone on stage at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. From daytime programs especially for young children to family friendly evening performances of music, dance, theatre and more, this is Houston’s best entertainment value. Admission is FREE!
For a complete schedule, visit www.milleroutdoortheatre.com.
Free tickets are available on a first-come first-serve basis (four per person over age 16 while they last) at the Miller Outdoor Theatre box office the day of the performance between the hours of 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. for assigned seating under the canopy. If tickets remain at 1 p.m., the box office will re-open one hour before show time to distribute the remaining tickets. As always, open seating on the hill.