It was 1968. The national press descended on Houston to report on it. English actressMaggie Smith and Broadway producer Roger Stevens flew in to attend, as did leaders ofthe Ford Foundation, the philanthropic organization that donated more than $2 million to build the new theater.
But the woman of the hour was, of course, Nina (pronounced Nine-a) Vance, the high school drama teacher from Yoakum who, 21 years earlier, started an amateur theater company in a leaky dance studio next to an alleyway on Main Street.
Nowadays, the Alley Theatre prides itself as Houston's premier theater company. It is the largest equity theater in Texas, and one of the few in the country with a resident acting company. But before it garnered a Tony in 1996 or had one of its productions win a Pulitzer, it was already a national phenomenon.
Back in 1968, during that famed opening night, the new building for the Alley Theatre opened to national fanfare (quite literally - trumpeter E.C. Holland played the national anthem).
The theater, a New Brutalist castle by architect Ulrich Franzen, was compared to Walt Disney and Frank Lloyd Wright's creations. Its grand lobby, wrapped by a Picasso-esque spiraling staircase, brimmed with celebrity guests, patrons and season subscribers - the Alley had 20,000 season ticket holders at the time - about to see Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo."
That night signaled an already well-regarded theater carving out its place as a leader in the regional theater movement.
The Ford Foundation once called the Alley "the most significant professional theater outside of New York," and it would continue to weave Houston into the national cultural fabric by premiering works by important American playwrights, including Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams, and feature directors such as Edward Albee andVanessa Redgrave.
One Alley premiere, Paul Zindel's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," would go on to win the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Later, the theater would be heralded for its quality with a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1996.
The Alley Theatre's beginnings, by contrast, were humble. Its first location, opened in 1947, was a small dance studio with a tree growing through it. Audiences sitting inside would get wet when it rained. The building was literally next to a dark, narrow service alley - a friend suggested the name to Vance and she agreed. The theater then moved to a former fan factory in 1949.
The current building, at 615 Texas Ave., is tinged with history. Go to the fourth floor, and some say it's haunted by a woman who was murdered there in 1982. Visit the basement, and you'll see, painted on a wall up to close to the ceiling, what the Alley staff call the Allison Line, which signifies how high the water went during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. The flooding of the Alley basement devastated the costume and scene shops, but the theater recovered. Its shops and storage facilities are now perched high above Houston, on the 14th through 18th floors above the parking garage behind the theater.
Many of the Alley's notable premieres - "Jekyll & Hyde," "An American in Paris," "The Carpetbagger's Children" - came under the leadership of artistic director Gregory Boyd, who has led the theater since 1989. Pat Brown led the theater for nine years after Vance's death in 1980.
Boyd has made the Alley's continued relevance his life project. Its commitment to artists is "unique and unmatched," says Boyd, who sees the Alley as an institution that has fostered both veterans and emerging artists. Whereas most theaters hire actors exclusively on a contract-to-contract basis, the Alley has a resident acting company, providing year-round opportunities for actors that allow them to live here and be a part of the community.
And, while the Alley's production history is a who's-who of notable theatermakers, Boyd says don't forget about what's happening right now. It's just as historical.
Last year, the theater premiered its annual new play festival, Alley All New. It's bringing in-development works like "Lover, Beloved," a new musical about novelist Carson McCullers bySuzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik, to Houston.
It also reopened its doors after a $46.5 million renovation, the first major building project since 1968. "It's the most exciting time in the Alley's long history," Boyd says.
Still, you can't forget that historic night in 1968, a night of glamor and celebration that garnered this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: "Houston World Was a Stage - at Alley's Opening."
Though it was one enraptured attendee, interviewed by the Chronicle, who put it best. Admiring both the building and its contents, James Stockton said, "I know that Houston can be proud."