The Grand Opera House
April 16th, 2010 Investigation
• Theater Manager: Paul Hemmer
• Address: 135 W 8th Street, Dubuque, Iowa 52001
• Telephone: Business Office (563) 588-4356 Fax (563) 588-3497 Box Office (563) 588-1305
History (Copied from http://www.thegrandoperahouse.com/aboutus/index.cfm)
Written and researched by Paul Hemmer (2006)
Dubuque’s historic Grand Opera House is the oldest and most “grand” of more than 16 legitimate theaters which served the community prior to 1900. Theater historians say between 1839 and 1890 Dubuque saw more “big” shows than any other city of comparable size in the United States. Dubuque was on “the biggest circuit” that brought the most famous names in 19th century show business, including the greatest American and European stars.
On August 14, 1890 the opening night audience thrilled to a professional touring company production of Bizet’s “Carmen” with a cast of 65 plus full orchestra. For more than 3 decades tri-state audiences thrilled to shows starring many of the most famous in theater including Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt and a young Henry Fonda.
National touring companies brought the best of the era to the Grand including a legendary production of “Ben Hur” that featured live horses and chariots on a treadmill. A sandstorm was staged for “The Garden of Allah”. The Boston Opera Company came for a week and produced a different opera every night. Legendary pianist Ignace Paderewski thrilled audiences and John Phillip Sousa’s US Marine Band was a major hit.
Touring minstrel shows were always popular, but newspaper reviews and playbills of the day reveal a wide variety of attractions including the legendary “Cherry Sisters” (Effie, Addie and Essie) a notorious trio billed as “The World’s Worst Act”. Their appearance in Mid-May of 1893 filled the theater with mostly male patrons who came to boo, hiss and throw things at the performers. Although theater management placed 7 security officers throughout the auditorium things got out of control when a wash boiler was passed into the balcony from the alley and then hurled onto the stage. Present day audiences who don’t like a performance are considerably more polite. In the early 1900’s the building next to the Grand on the east side (toward Iowa St) was home to The Grand Opera House Cafe and Grille.
During this era, the auditorium included a 2nd balcony and four large theater boxes that created a seating capacity of 1,100.
The Grand installed a “fly-in” screen in 1915 and began showing silent films with piano or small orchestral accompaniment. During the next 13 years movie revenue soared and live theater receipts diminished. When “Ladies of the Jury” closed March 14, 1928 the first era of live theater was over. From opening night to 1928 The Grand hosted more than 2,600 live performances.
In 1930 the theater was “stripped to the frame” and rebuilt as a movie house. The 2nd balcony and four glamorous box seats were removed leaving just 681 of the original 1,100 seats. The orchestra pit was covered over and the semi-circular stage front flattened. The “fly space” for sets above the stage was shut off. A massive air ventilation system filled the rehearsal rooms below the stage. Two large fireproof projection rooms replaced the 2nd floor dressing rooms and hall area that had served the upper balcony. A screen and sound equipment were installed, The Grand Opera House became The Grand Theater and a new era had begun. After 1930 theatrics of another kind continued, however, as live wrestling matches were also presented on stage.
For the next 50 years Dubuque enjoyed the best of Hollywood from the same stage where the greats of live theater once performed. Although popcorn is considered a staple of movie theater “food”, it wasn’t sold at The Grand until 1947 when a new concession stand was added to the lobby.
In 2001 The Grand was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Its architectural style is Richardsonian Romanesque which was becoming stylish at the end of the 18th century. The style is named for Henry Hobson Richardson, whose masterpiece is Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts. The Grand original architect was Willoughby J. Edbrooke, who supervised design of the U.S. Treasury as well as the old US Post Office in Washington, D.C. and the original Ellis Island Buildings. The facade consists of St. Louis brick facing with Bayfield red sandstone trim. Other Dubuque buildings imitating the style include the nearby Security Building at 8th & Main, Stout House at 11th & Locust, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at 12th & Main, Mt. Carmel Motherhouse overlooking the Mississippi on South Grandview, and The Dubuque Brewing and Malting Bldg. at 30th & Jackson.
As 21st century audiences relax and enjoy productions in this beautifully renovated theater, the heritage and traditions of past generations of actors, musicians, choreographers, costumers, stage hands, set designers and managers will live on.
Mississippi Valley Paranormal conducted their first investigation of the Grand Opera house originally in 2009 and wished to return for a second investigation due the activity found at the time.
The following Members attended this investigation :
We had several guest investigators accompanied by regular members
All members met at the Grand Opera House at approximately 6:00PM and we were greeted by Keith from the Grand Opera House who showed us the facility and then left the building leaving the team alone in the building.
The team was equipped with a assortment of Digital voice recorders, cameras (Digital, Film, Infrared, video, still) Various cell and EMF meters, a Thermal Imaging Camera without image recording (On loan from Sandry Fire Supply)
The Grand Opera House is currently being fitted with an elevator and each floor had construction debris and dust, the majority of the floors had plastic covering to protect the carpets
The building was laid out as follows:
Basement dressing rooms and prop storage
Main Floor containing the stage and auditorium seating
Balcony area with office space
Projector and rehearsal floor (being used as general contractor area)
Attic Storage area (Storage of wardrobe)
Due to the number of Guest Investigators present a mini workshop was conducted by Steve in the main seating area as others in the team discussed equipment setup and placement.
The investigation started with all members present in the main seating area and balcony as the lights were turned off and music from the opera Carmen was played in hopes that music would trigger responses.
After this first session the team members were separated into 2 teams of 6 people and assigned to different floors in attempt to reduce cross noise contamination and switched out on a rotating basis
The remainder of this document references personal experiences and evidence captured by individual team members
My personal experiences include, hearing a loud bang when questioning in
the basement later found to be what we thought was a toilet stall door.
Hearing a loud bang on the wall and feeling the counter get pushed into my
back when in the sewing room in the basement. Having my flashlight pulled
from my back pocket when in the basement hallway, losing battery on both my
video camera and illuminator light while asking for sign of presence in the
basement hallway. The basement seemed very active that night.
In the basement, I heard what sounded like a woman’s voice make a brief
yelling sound with my own ears. I heard what to me sounded like a toilet
flushing on the floor above me followed by a loud slamming noise which
sounded like a door. No one was upstairs to do this and no one else could
have done it in the basement. After testing the theory out from one of the
bathrooms in the basement, it sounded the same. On the fifth floor, while
standing in the same spot as Jordan had earlier, I felt my legs being
pushed when asked and only when specifically asked. It is a like a weight
forcing your legs forward.
I saw what looked like a reddish light on the wall in one basement room.
Outside we heard a woman’s voice. I heard a woman scream a few times, at
least 3. I thought the air got misty or something when we were on the
balcony and it got cold.
My experiences were similar to Stephanie’s, The door slamming while we were
in the basement, I was also touched at the same time while Steve was
experiencing battery drains on his camera. I was pushed in the
attic after provoking the supposed female spirit, this only occurring when asked
and felt like my center of gravity was shifted, this happened three times on
In the theatre, I didn’t experience anything. In the basement prop room, we all heard the sound of a toilet flushing
and the slam of a stall door. We were able to recreate it; however the
other teams swear that no one used the restroom. In the dressing room
area, we heard a squeaking noise that couldn’t be explained.
Later on in the basement after team switched, I was walking by the
sewing room door and heard something shuffle behind it, scaring the crap
out of me. Steve, Jordan and myself then entered the room and were
sitting when something hit the wall with enough force to shake the table
that Steve was leaning on. We were unable to recreate it, as the room on
the other side was the prop room and couldn’t get back far enough to
In the attic, I noticed that Bob’s camera kept going out of focus as it
filmed towards the end of the room. When I went down there with Jordan’s
sister, we both saw a small orb of light go from one end of the ceiling
by the stairs towards us and disappear.
I went upstairs with Bob as the training session was being conducted and as
I took pictures my camera went dead in the attic area …no bleed down or
warning, it just shut off (It had a set of fresh batteries before the night
started) . I have owned this camera for several years and have never had
that happened before and it didn’t happen again when more batteries were
placed in it and lasted the remainder of the night.
When we started off my Daughter and I were on the stage near the right wing
with the Thermal Imaging, I kept getting a cold feeling on and off but I am
not sure if it was a ventilation unit cycling or not.
On several occasions I kept seeing something in my peripheral vision near
the door leading to the basement again Right Wing but was never able to see
Heard creaking above us in the staging area on a couple of occasions but
again easily explained away with ropes holding weight settling in there
One thing I could not explain was in the back of the theatre (West end
near the electrical switch and sponsor board)) entrance doorways I
definitely saw a human shape silhouette in the thermal imaging framed in
the door way but walked out and I never saw it again in the other doorways
or on the stairs. I called out asking if anyone was in that area but a head
count I did with the thermal showed everyone where they had been both
upstairs in the balcony and spread out through the lower bowl. The shape
moved so quickly I couldn’t get a temperature reading on it but it was
clearly defined by a lower temperature color.
We then went to the office area where we set up a control experiment with a
paperclip on paper with a inked outline. I snapped pictures of the clip
before the session and after the session and did not detect any movement.
As we were in the office many of us did hear a noise outside the doorway
that sounded like a step on the plastic covered carpet but did not see
anyone in that area.
In the upper balcony I saw nothing unusual but my daughter told me that she
saw something in the seating below us that looked like a slight shadow
change but did not repeat.
A trip to the basement next and I did not experience anything unusual at
As we took a break in the box office lobby I went downstairs to use the
men’s rest room and I was alone when I entered the bathroom I walked in to a
lit room with the furthest most urinal near the stall flushing as I
entered. The water ran for about 30 seconds and shut off normally I
played around with the automatic flushing valve ( Proximity switch
actuated) and could not find anything unusual….I was a bit spooked during
this and didn’t feel that way again for the rest of the evening.
I didn’t have any experiences as we investigated the upper floors
In the attic my daughter was sitting on the floor near the middle of the
room in the main aisle…as Jordan and Stephanie
were provoking and experiencing the loss of balance at the end of the
building I saw my daughter in the thermal reaching behind her and pulling
at her shirt she then told me that she felt like something was poking her
and she thought her shirt was snagged on something but there was nothing
close to her back from my viewpoint.
unexplained squeak in attic This audio was captured by Bob when the camera was left on the 5th floor. Listen for the unexplained squeaking noise.