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MILLER OUTDOOR THEATRE

MILLER OUTDOOR THEATRE. Miller Outdoor Theatre is an open amphitheater located on approximately 7.5 acres of land in Hermann Park in Houston, Texas. The theater can accommodate approximately 6,205 spectators, with 1,705 theater-style seats and space for 4,500 on a grassy hill. The theater hosts a wide variety of professional performances that are free to the public, making the venue a unique and integral component of Houston’s performing arts scene. In its 2013–14 season, more than 400,000 people visited the theater to watch performances such as AD Players’ Godspell, the three-night-long Festival Chicano, and the Houston Symphony. The Miller Theatre Advisory Board is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that coordinates the performances and is appointed by the mayor.

In 1919 the estate of cotton broker and mining engineer Jesse Wright Miller left property to the city of Houston, but the land was deemed unsuitable for the city’s use. The city sold the tract to Miller’s sister, Alma Miller Womack, for $50,000 and used those funds for a concert pavilion in Hermann Park. With the support of Mayor Oscar Holcombe, construction for Miller Outdoor Theatre, then called Miller Memorial Theatre (named for Jesse Wright Miller), began in 1921. The original structure was designed by William Ward Watkin as an amphitheater surrounded by ten Corinthian-style limestone columns on each side. On May 12, 1923, the theater was dedicated with a grand pageant entitled Springtimes of Our Nation and featuring 2,500 performers. On September 22, 1927, KPRC Radio broadcast the boxing rematch between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey at the theater and drew a crowd of more than 12,000 listeners. In 1943 the Houston city council provided $5,000 to initiate the Summer Symphony Series, which has since become an annual event for the theater. In 1948 work crews constructed the venue’s “hill” with dirt obtained from Fannin Street earth excavations. 

On September 1, 1968, an all-new Miller Outdoor Theatre opened. The structure was designed by Eugene Werlin and Associates and consisted of three triangular plates of Corten steel, a 64’ x 41’ stage, and a 110-ton air-conditioning system to cool the stage. Other features included dressing rooms, covered seating, and an orchestra pit that could be raised and lowered.  The design won the 1969 American Iron and Steel Institute’s biannual award, the James E. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Award, and the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Award of Excellence. Shortly after the opening of the new theater, a student named Frank M. Young organized a group of volunteers to perform Bells Are Ringing. The success of the single performance led to the formation of Theatre Under the Stars, now a major performing arts company. In 1975 the annual Shakespeare Festival was launched by Sidney Berger, director of the University of Houston School of Theatre. The festival is put on by members of the School of Theatre and has since become a major city attraction. Beginning in 1978 the Cultural Arts Council of Houston was responsible for distributing a percentage of hotel/motel tax revenue for programming at the theater. 

In 1996 the theater underwent a $6 million renovation and expansion, which included the addition of a small stage at the facility’s east end. The refurbished theater reopened in 1998. Through the 2000s the theater board sought to expand funding and programming. Facility upgrades included increased accessibility for the disabled, new lighting and landscaping, new seating, and a new sound system. The roof was replaced in 2014. Since its construction in 1923, Miller Outdoor Theatre has provided free entertainment to the delight of generations of Houstonians. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Barrie Scardino Bradley, Houston's Hermann Park: A Century of Community (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013). Houston Shakespeare Festival (http://www.houstonfestivalscompany.com/shakespeare/), accessed October 19, 2016. Miller Outdoor Theatre (http://milleroutdoortheatre.com), accessed October 15, 2016. James E. O’Rourke, “History of Miller Outdoor Theater—Hermann Park—Houston, Texas,” Houston Parks and Recreation Reports, Houston History Archives, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

Khalid Sheikh

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Handbook of Texas Online, Khalid Sheikh, "Miller Outdoor Theatre," accessed November 22, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/klm08.

Uploaded on November 22, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.