The Grand Opera House
Spirits of this grand old opera are known to sing and perform for anyone who believes in them
Grand Opera House Ghosts
- Perfume and cigar smoke can be smelled around the stage
- EVPs have been captured on nearly every floor by different paranormal teams
- A woman in white has been spotted pacing in the spotlight/projection booth
- A volunteer witnessed a box move across the lobby on its own
- Phantom singing and music is often heard from the empty stage
- Electrical malfunctions are known to happen without explanation
- A woman's spirit is said to shove other women exploring the fifth floor
- Two female apparitions are often spotted together in theater seats
Dubuque’s Grand Opera House History
In the shadow of the Dubuque County Courthouse’s golden spire, it might seem difficult for another historical structure to stand out. But Iowa’s Grand Opera House succeeds in casting its own shadow of influence and beauty throughout Dubuque’s historic district. But as commanding as the exterior looks, it is rivaled by the valuable elegance of its interior.
Having entertained the people of Dubuque for over 130 years, the Grand Opera House has been restored in recent years to its historic opulence. And for as long as the Grand has been entertaining the city, members of the public have built close connections to the theater and its history. In fact, some proved so connected to the theater’s culture and mission that they stayed nearby even long after death, reportedly haunting every floor of the historic opera house.
Timeline of The Grand Opera House's History
Swipe or use timeline points to see The Grand Opera House through the years
By the late 1880s, Dubuque, Iowa had experienced rapid growth for decades, and numerous small theaters had sprouted up to entertain the citizens. It wasn’t long before someone had the idea to construct one theater large enough for over a thousand people. Not only would it offer a modern venue to the city, it would be large enough to attract bigger shows to Dubuque. And, it wasn’t long before the project found investors. W.L. Bradley and a team of other businessmen raised $100,000 for the construction of this new opera house in 1889.
As investors had more money on hand than they needed, Bradley and friends hired esteemed architect Willoughby Edbrooke to draw up plans for their opera house. With Edbrooke’s grand design in hand, workers labored diligently to bring the design to life in downtown Dubuque. Construction was finished in 1890, and opening night proved to be a city-wide sensation. Over 800 people packed into the 1,100 capacity theater, each paying $5(a princely sum at that time) just to get in to see the new theater and its inaugural performance of Carmen.
Over the next three decades, the Grand Opera House proved to be one of the most popular theaters in Iowa, succeeding in attracting big name acts to its stage. In this early era, the Grand greeted such performers as Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, and John Phillip Sousa. Traveling Broadway shows were a common occurrence at the Grand, and ticket sales remained high into the mid-1920s as many performances ended up sold out.
But, as the magic of moving pictures took the nation by storm, it wouldn’t be long before movie houses started to steal some of the Grand’s attendees. The opera house did what it could to innovate, installing a ‘fly-in’ movie screen. But, as more well-equipped movie houses continued to pull the public away, the opera house soon needed a permanent change in business. The opera house closed for renovations in 1928, and reopened soon after as the Grand Theater movie house, complete with a permanent screen and projection booth.
The Grand Theater remained popular in the early decades of the 1900s, but, as is often the case, time eventually turned unkind to the old opera house. A modernization in the 1960s covered the historic red sandstone exterior with aluminum and tile, a look that did not age as gracefully as the original façade. By the 1980s, not only did the renovated exterior already look dated, but larger theater complexes took needed ticket sales from the Grand Theater. By 1985, the movie house closed its doors and sat in abandonment.
Luckily, the people of Dubuque were not about to let a historic treasure like the Grand sit dormant for long. Just a year after its closure, in 1986, a community theater group raised enough money to buy the old opera house. They, and a team of dedicated volunteers, worked around the clock throughout that summer to refurbish the theater and bring it back to its golden era of live performance. Then, on the 96th anniversary of its grand opening, the Grand Opera House returned with a performance of the musical Tintypes.
Live performances have remained popular at the Grand ever since, and the revitalization of the opera house brought it back to the forefront of Dubuque’s historical buildings. The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, and it keeps a packed schedule of shows and events to this day. But, along with all the actors and theatergoers, the revitalized opera house has proven popular with one other demographic: ghosts.
The Spirit of Sarah in
The Grand Opera House
Despite the reports of several different ghosts, most spirits in the building are known as ‘Sarah,’ who was a young woman who may have died in the opera house in the early 1900s after being left by her lover.
The tale of Sarah seems to match up with ghostly reports on the opera house’s fifth floor. Used as attic storage for costumes, the fifth floor is said to be inhabited by a woman’s spirit who does not like other women. This entity reportedly shoved a woman down the stairs in one instance. Beyond that, a shadowy apparition of a woman has sometimes been seen around the top floor attic space.
The Grand Opera House’s Basement Phantoms
Far from the attic, in the depths of the theater’s basement, numerous other paranormal encounters have been reported. One hallway in the basement is famous amongst workers and actors for frequent sounds of footsteps and the sight of shadow figures moving up and down the hall.
Additionally, visitors to the basement have reported feeling items slide out of their pockets, seeming to be pickpocketed by unseen forces. Items that have been left in certain areas of the basement are known to be moved around without explanation. Many attribute these happenings to spiritual pranks by playful spirits who reside in the basement.
Paranormal Piano Music at The Grand Opera House
In the main theater, the most common report of haunting activity comes from the stage, where singing and line readings are often heard even when the stage is completely empty. Others have heard piano music emanating from the stage, even at times where there is no piano anywhere near the stage.
Performers have also said that they have had props and equipment be moved around or put in odd places by unseen entities, while others have run into sudden and unexplained pockets of odd smells including smoke and perfume.
Apparitions in the Audience at The Grand Opera House
In the seating areas, the specters of two women have often been seen by night watchmen after hours. These dual apparitions have been described as two ladies just waiting patiently for a show to start, but they’re always known to disappear when anyone approaches them.
On the balcony level, a spirit described as an ‘angry man’ is often spotted pacing around the aisles, or judgmentally watching rehearsals take place.
The Grand Opera House’s Electrical Oddities
Further up, the specter of a lady in white has been seen passing by projection booth windows many times by staff and actors. A Ouija Board session once performed in the projection booth stated this spirit is also that of Sarah, who said through the board she was murdered near the opera house in the early 1900s, though no such record of this event has been found.
In the front lobby of the theater, workers have witnessed objects and boxes being pushed across the floor by thin air, and strange electrical malfunctions in that area have also been reported. In one instance, the building’s security alarm went off without cause and could not be turned off for a long period of time.