Grand Pioneers

“Reliving a Grand Idea”

In December 2009, the Grand Gala honored the Grand Pioneers – a group of community leaders of the 1970s, whose shared vision and determination restored “The Grand Old Lady of Market Street” to its original splendor and function, as created by the Masonic Hall Company.

In recognition of their hard work and dedication, we collected personal interviews, historic photos, and previous film footage to create an in-depth portrait of this determined group and their inspirational story.


The Grand Lady of Market Street

The opulent and historic Grand Opera House has been a landmark for the residents of Wilmington and the surrounding region for more than 135 years. Opened in 1871 as a home for the Grand Lodge of the Masons for the lordly sum of $100,000, The Grand has played host to thousands of renowned entertainers and performing artists over the years, including Ethel Barrymore, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.

Designed by Delaware architect Thomas Dixon in the Second Empire style, The Grand features a distinctive façade of cast iron adorned with Masonic images. The first season of operation presented more than seventy performances that included everything from serious dramas to minstrel shows to lectures and exhibitions. Tickets that season cost a dollar for a reserved seat. Boxes were an extravagant $5 but seated four.

In 1909, The Grand was briefly converted into a regular stop on the vaudeville circuit and then transitioned into a movie theater. Eclipsed by the more modernly lavish and larger Aldine next door, The Grand was eventually reduced to screening second-run horror films and Westerns. The building was allowed to fall into decline and sadly closed its doors in 1967.

“To destroy it would be a crime, to restore it would be a triumph”

So said Bill Frank of the Morning News, and other prominent citizens of Wilmington were thinking the same. On December 22, 1971, the hundredth anniversary of its original grand opening, The Grand Opera House was again packed with people and excitement, as plans were unveiled to renovate the theater to its former splendor.

Over the next few years, a thoughtful and complete restoration was undertaken. The Grand was rededicated on February 1, 1973, and began again to present the finest performing artists from around the world. Delaware historian, Carol Hoffecker, described the project as "a Cinderella story, the most spectacularly successful preservation effort in Wilmington's history."

Next door, the Aldine Theater, once The Grand's rival, had fallen on similar hard times. Closed in 1970, most of the building was razed in 1992. With the help of friends and philanthropists, The Grand acquired the lots and opened a companion theater building in 2000. The baby grand, a cozy 300-seat proscenium theater, occupies the first floor, with offices, rehearsal rooms and teaching spaces extending several floors above.

The Grand Today

The Grand and baby grand are beehives of artistic activity. The Grand presents more than 75 shows each season, ranging from symphony orchestras and ballets to the latest rock and comedy stars, with jazz, folk, and family artists as well. The Delaware Symphony, Opera Delaware, and First State Ballet Theatre are all in residence at The Grand, presenting full schedules in each of their disciplines. Between The Grand, its resident performing companies, and rentals, the building hosts more than 300 events a year bringing more than 120,000 people into downtown Wilmington and through its doors.

In addition to the full-time and part-time professional staff, The Grand is ably supported by the Board of Directors, Grand Trustees, and an extensive volunteer corps who usher and perform other ongoing services for The Grand's valued patrons.