Making Memories at Miller Outdoor Theatre: A Centennial of the Arts

By Samantha de León

Miller Outdoor Theatre during a summer symphony night. All photos courtesy of Miller Outdoor Theatre.

In February 1969, forty-six years after Miller Outdoor Theatre opened and a year after moving into its new facility, Houston Chronicle fine arts editor Ann Holmes questioned what was next for the outdoor amphitheater. Nestled in the heart of the museum district in Hermann Park, Miller Outdoor Theatre’s future was in question due to limited funding and big ambitions to expand its programming. “What will happen when summer comes? Will Miller Theatre go dark many nights – the stage curtain down like some great slumberous eye, unresponsive of light and entertainment?” Holmes wondered.

Brenda Marshall and Charles Plafkin in duet from Majestic Roof (1983). Photo by Paul Mazzara.

Over fifty years later, as the theatre celebrates its centennial birthday, Miller has surpassed expectations, and certainly Holmes’s questioning. It has cemented itself as an arts powerhouse, operating eight months out of the year with a variety of shows: Shakespeare, jazz, ballet, symphonies, plays, musicals, and cultural performances. While Miller has endured tough times and changed throughout the years, with different names and new construction, what has not changed is the theatre’s distinctiveness, programming, variety, and production quality, all provided to audiences free of charge. The experiences and memories made by guests of all ages demonstrate the magic Miller Outdoor Theatre has created across generations, making it a favorite of Houstonians and visitors from near and far. The hard work and dedication to Miller’s mission of making theatre accessible and available to everyone has made it a Houston treasure and a pillar of excellence in performance.

Broadway actor Ken Ruta as Prospero (left) and David Wald as Caliban in the 2006 production of The Tempest.

Originally known as Miller Memorial Theatre, the facility began as an amphitheater featuring twenty Corinthian-style, Bedford limestone columns, designed by William Ward Watkin in 1922, and constructed by Tom Tellepsen, a founder of Houston’s Tellepsen Builders. Reminiscing about this theatre he knew as a boy, Jim Bernhard, a former Miller advisory board member, Rice University professor, and producer, actor, and writer for Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS), recalled, “It was really more of a bandshell. It was not a fully equipped theatre.”

Miller Outdoor Theatre was dedicated on May 12, 1923, with a plaque that read, “To the Arts of Music, Poetry, Drama, and Oratory, by which the striving spirit of man seeks to inter-pret the words of God. This theatre of the City of Houston is permanently dedicated.” The ceremonies included a pageant, The Springtime of Our Nation, described as Houston’s most “elaborate and pretentious festival ever presented” at the time, which featured approximately 2,500 performers and focused on the United States and Manifest Destiny. The theatre officially opened six days later, on May 18, 1923, to The Rose Maiden, a cantata by English composer Frederic Cowen. W. R. Waghorne, musical director of the Recreation and Community Service Association, directed the performance by the Houston Festival Chorus.

Big Bird performs with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in front of a capacity crowd at Miller Outdoor Theatre on July 21, 1979. Big Bird served as guest conductor, sang, and danced to music from Sesame Street.

In the 1920s, sports like boxing and baseball reigned supreme across the country. Miller hosted broadcasting events, such as the 1925 World Series match between the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) and the Pittsburgh Pirates who went head-to-head in a thrilling seven games. On September 22, 1927, thou-sands gathered again at Miller to hear the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney to experience the momentous match as it happened. Similar broadcasts occurred in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities.

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Check out our 2011 article on Miller Outdoor Theatre’s 87th anniversary

Watch Miller Outdoor Theatre’s video on their centennial celebration, the upcoming season, and more!

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