Grand Opera

More From Dubuque More From Iowa

The Grand Opera has its own spectral group of volunteer possessive thespians.


The Grand Opera Dubuque is truly a historic treasure that is well loved by its community and others who enjoy a grand historical building.  WOW!  This impressive edifice is five stories tall, and measures 70×128. It has seats for 620 people. There are 408 seats on the main floor, which includes eight wheel chair seats.  There are 212 seats I the balcony

grand-opera-paranormal It was built to last centuries! Described as an “exquisite edifice,” The Grand Opera is a beautiful, massive brick and sandstone building. Inside, there is a basement, a large auditorium, a stage area, an attic, a balcony and a lobby, in the style often found in theaters built around the turn-of-the-century. It is the only Richardsonian Romanesque structure still standing of the great master architect/builder; Willoughbv J. Edbrooke in Iowa.

It is quite impressive in both size and in it’s architecture.  Interestingly, “it mimics an armory of its time period, and it deviates from the stylistic norm in its combination of a Second Empire mansard attic front, which is a common feature found in Dubuque commercial and vernacular architecture.” (National Register f Historic Places)

“Twin square armory towers with steeply pitched pyramid roofs and finials define the sides of the pavilion.” They don’t stand out like most Romannesque buildings because of the massive building they are a part of.

While the front of the Grand Opera does have decorative stone inlay and brick work, it is described by some as being “Spartan-like;” very much like an armory would be I guess. However, there is another reason for this lack of fancy embellishments.

Though plain, “the design was driven by the need to maximize the interior space and particularly the leased offices and storefronts in the front of the plan. Consequently, the facade is starkly vertical and is pushed out to the sidewalk on the lot. The entire facade is perfectly balanced in its fenestration, and the facade is monolithic, lacking recesses.”

Most of the Interior of The Grand Opera Dubuque remains as it has always been, despite many remodels and renovations. Larger room spaces like the auditorium, the fourth floor rehearsal hall and the fifth floor attic storage are well-preserved.

While the third balcony in the auditorium was removed along time ago, the basic form of the auditorium and first balcony and Dubuque’s largest stage remain as envisioned by the builder, Willoughby Edbrooke, and very much used by Dubuque’s arts community for the enjoyment of the people, who dearly love their Grand Opera.

The Grand Opera’s “enormous scale and stage capacity represents an excellent example of a Phase 3 opera house.”

There are three shows in April of 2021 put on by two area schools:Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School, ANNIE; Wahlert Catholic High School: You’re a GOOD MAN Charlie Brown and The Heartland Ballet:A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

The last two shows of the season performed by the in-house Grand Opera Community Theater Company are CURTAIN UP! and EASEL WARS, both in May of 2021.

The Grand Opera House is available for outside rentals for theatrical productions, concerts, recitals, weddings, corporate meetings, and private film screenings.



“The opening of this fine new building should mark an era in Dubuque. It is by far the finest and largest edifice of its character ever erected in the city, and it is not excelled in the state. Its erection has been in progress for over a year. It has been carefully constructed with a view solely to the purposes for which it is to be used. Its exterior is commanding and its interior is superb.” (The Herald, August 10, 1890).

This grand theater opened its doors in 1890, providing the public a truly magnificent place to see operas, ballet, stage plays, & minstrel shows; all productions that were produced on such a high quality level, seldom seen in the upper Midwest part of the United States, during this time period. Their secret was the size of their stage that “allowed for the staging of exceptionally large scale and high quality shows”.

Between 1890 and 1928 the Grand hosted more than 2,600 live performances.

On opening night, August 14,1890, more than 800 patrons paid $5.00 each to see the Hess Opera Company perform Bizet’s Carmen with a cast of 65 plus orchestra.

Just after The Grand Opera was finished, Willoughbv J. Edbrooke became Supervising Architect of the United States, as this building was the cherry on top of his design portfolio.

For 30 years the Grand served the “carriage trade,” offering the best of legitimate theater to the city and surrounding region. Many top notch musicians, singers and composers came to express themselves here. The best traveling theater companies would come to Dubuque to perform on the large stage.

“Touring Broadway shows were always popular. When the producers of No No Nanette decided to do a Midwest preview they selected Dubuque’s Grand Opera House. For several years the Grand Stock Company produced a new play every week. A legendary production of Ben Hur featured live horses and chariots on a treadmill. The Garden of Allah featured a large cast, an Arabian orchestra, plus camels, donkeys and a sandstorm created on stage.”

In 1904, the great composer/performer George M. Cohan came in person to entertain at this opera house. He wrote such musicals such as ‘Tintypes.’ In its glory years, such stars as Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, and Lillian Russell participated in the stage productions.

However, as movies became more and more popular, the interest in live theater began to falter. A new medium had caught the imagination and interest of the public; Silent then Talkie films(1929).”

In 1915, the Grand installed a “fly-in screen” and showed silent films “with a piano, theater organ and=or small orchestra.”

As the popularity of films began to bring more money than the faltering ticket receipts for live shows, it was decided to renovate the Grand into a grand film house, in 1928.

“The second balcony and glamorous box seats and stalls were removed. The fly space for scenery above the stage was closed off and the orchestra area covered over to make room for more seating. A massive air ventilation system filled the rehearsal area and dressing rooms on the lower level. Two large fireproof projection rooms replaced the 2nd floor dressing rooms and hallway to the 2nd balcony. Dubuque’s Grand Opera House became the Grand Theater and a new era began.” (Grand Opera website)

The Grand Opera became a movie theater and remained so for the next 58 years. It must of been a struggle to maintain this gigantic structure through the eras, especially in the Depression. Luckily for this massive structure, it was maintained and remodeled faithfully throughout its existence, so it never really became a creaky fixer-upper opportunity.

When modern “Cineplex” theaters opened in the west side of Dubuque, The Grand was forced to show second or third run shows for $1.00. Rather than making The Grand into a multiple theater center, it was decided to close in 1985 and put this grand structure back out into the real estate market, hoping someone would come along with a dream and renovate it; giving it another life.

This beloved structure inspired a local teacher, Sue Riedel and her group, The Barn Community Theater, as well as other folks dedicated to live theater to develop a new business plan, and raise the money needed to buy the theater for a mere 86,000 dollars in 1985.

For several months, hundreds of volunteers worked boatloads of hours to restore the theater’s capacity to once more be usable for live performances. What a night it was on August 14th, 1986, when the new Grand Opera House opened with the musical stage show, Tintypes!

The Grand Opera House Foundation, a non-profit corporation was formed and took over the ownership of this structure.

In 1988, restoration efforts began on a small basis. From 1998-2001, Phase One of restoration process began.”Removal of marquee, facade and roof repair. The porcelain enamel paneling, which covered much of the facade, was removed. The building gained a new slate roof, guttering, downspouts, coping and flashing. The masonry and stonework was cleaned and repointed (Phase I).

More good news was to follow! In 1998, The Board of Directors of the Grand Opera Foundation were on a roll! A new funding campaign was started to receive the
money needed to fully renovate & restore the Grand Opera to “the look of the1890s.”
Hundreds of area residents, companies and corporations donated the funds needed to accomplish this!

During 2002 and the years that followed, the following was accomplished:

Phase II: Public entrances restoration, Lobby, foyer, stage and fly-space restoration

Phase III: Auditorium, rehearsal hall and offices restoration.

The Grand Opera House was restored to a level that inspired the Dubuque Academy of Ballet to move their office and rehearsal space to the 3rd and 4th floor of the Grand in 2010.

In 2014, a generous donation from the Hafeman Estate was used to restore the orchestra pit that had been covered in 1928.

The Grand Opera is now a busy place, offering theater lovers professional productions, produced by the community theatre members, and other outside groups that are able to rent the theatre, when the theatre company members aren’t using the building themselves.

“As 21st century audiences enjoy this beautiful theater it is a living tribute to the heritage and traditions of past generations of actors, musicians, choreographers, costumers, stage hands, set designers, managers and the visionary leaders of 1890 who created Dubuque’s Grand Opera House.” (Grand Opera House website).

The grand Opera House in its restored state has drawn back spirits who loved working and performing here and become involved as they can be in spirit form, which often is the case when a historic structure os renovated and restored.



Spirits often try to be of help to the living; to be an unpaid spectral volunteer.

Kalamazoo Civic Theater, MI (A female spirit who while alive was a props and costume organizer, has been known to still do so, even putting costumes and props out of harms way).

Bolder Theatre, CO (The spectral manager here wears many hats; from security to general inspections to be sure everything is right).

Sacramento Theatre, CA (Spirit or spirits stepped in to save a person’s life).

The Grand Opera, IA (A spirit helped a choreographer find the right music).

When someone else who is living is doing a spirits old job or something they loved to do but can’t do it in a spirit body, it can cause this spirit to have ambivalent feelings/ jump right into teasing/ bossing the living).

Kennebunk Inn, ME (A spirit known was Cyrus who is envious of the living clerks, can be annoying and likes to bother them).

The Curtis House Inn, CT (The workers here are lazy: I need to breathe down their necks).

General Wayne Inn PA (Spirits of Hessian soldiers found ways to entertain themselves at the expense of the living; perhaps envious of the living being able to drink).

The Grand Opera, IA (Let’s mess with the lights because we are not able to work here anymore).



The ghosts of people who truly loved live theatre are still hanging around the building, being drawn back when the Grand Opera house was restored for live performances.performances.

Spectral Theatre

Various cleaning women, who would be working there alone during the ’30s, called the police several times and reported hearing voices coming from the stage area.

Many people, since the theater opened up in 1986, have heard the same thing; voices coming from what looks like an empty stage.

Singing from the stage has also been heard by the living, when the stage looked empty.

The community theater pianist, who accompanies the various shows, usually plays her piano in the orchestra pit. With some productions, however, her piano is rolled up onto the stage. During these productions, she feels a strong presence, probably a spectral director, who is standing behind her, watching her play the piano, which makes her feel uncomfortable.

Sudden Cold Arrival

Stage workers/builders know when a spirit has arrived, because they always feel a “blast of cold air.”

One stage worker was busy painting a backdrop for an upcoming production on the stage, with his back to the auditorium. All of a sudden he heard an unseen presence walk across the stage, between him and the auditorium, making a bead clanking sound, as if it was dressed in a costume.

He turned around to look at the area where the sound was coming from, and he felt a cold blast of air, that made every hair on his head and arms stand up. He made a hasty exit, and washed his paint brush at home!

Envious Attention Seekers

Occurrences with the Lights were common during the first year of The Barn Community Theatres.

The very first production that was performed by The Barn Community Theatre Company on the first opening night in 1986, was George Cohan’s “Tintypes,” in front of a packed, enthusiastic audience, excited about the reopening of The Grand Opera as a live, stage theater once again.

As the play began, suddenly all the lights in the place went out, except the lights on stage. The show, of course, went on, while electricians tried to find the problem. Nothing was physically wrong with the wiring. It was unexplainable.

During another play production, the spot lights rose up and down at will, and a spotlight kept falling from its stand.

Light switches have been known to go on and off by themselves. A camera man’s movie camera started to act abnormally, zooming in and out at will.

After viewing the tape filmed with this camera, he was surprised to see an apparition on tape, just before the camera went wacky. Another lady who was taping the show also had the same camera trouble, at the same time he did.

Helpful Assistant

Strange Behavior Exhibited by Technical Equipment-While rehearsing the dance numbers for the production of “Gypsy,” the choreographer used a tape recorder to play the songs used in the dance numbers.

She often had to rewind or fast forward the recorder to find the correct song, as the songs weren’t recorded in order.

Imagine her surprise when the next song needed had already been found for her, by a ghostly helper.

Other Unexplained

Doors in and around the lobby area have been known to open and close by themselves, like someone is going through them.

Shuffling foot steps have been heard in an empty building.

Objects left in one place, have reappeared in various hiding places.

While putting up Christmas decorations in the lobby, one community theatre member witnessed a box of decorations move by itself to the other side of the lobby.

Apparitions Seen

While doing a photo session with a fellow actor, the psychic Mr. Schneider felt a presence standing next to him.

Looking, he saw a male apparition with red hair, about 5’7.” He heard the name, David, in his mind, and felt that he had been an actor when he was alive.

During a rehearsal of the play, “Anything Goes,” Mr. Schneider saw a small group of apparitions, who appeared in flashes, all in the back of the empty theatre, wearing old fashioned clothing from a different era.


People have had a boatload of experiences for many years with these sometime helpful, sometime attention seeking spectral theatre enthusiasts who try to interject themselves into a live production on stage, or behind the scenes.

Transcendent Paranormal Group did an investigation in March of 2020. They captured a boatload of EVP’s of intelligent spirits more than willing to answer questions.



Yes Indeed! The desire to be involved in theatre, something spirits loved while alive has kept them in this world; watching, interacting, helping, sometimes hindering the living as the live actors, stage folks and others work to get a show ready for the stage. Spirits still yearn to perform, be on the stage crew or direct, so they find ways to partially satisfy this need as a spirit.



135 8th Street
Dubuque, IA 52001

The Grand Opera Theater is located in Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque is on the Mississippi River, at Iowa’s border with Illinois and Wisconsin.



Our Haunted Paranormal Stories are Written by Julie Carr



Haunts in Dubuque Haunts in Iowa