Today’s is the second column of this holiday series where we are looking at our city through a lens similar to the one through which George Bailey saw his own life in the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” What would Denton look like if certain things we see every day weren’t here?
When I arrived on the Denton scene, the three-story building at the corner of Locust and Oak Streets on the square was already purple. Imagine the controversy that purple paint spurred between historians, city leaders and business owners when it happened in 1998. I’m pretty certain I’m glad I got here after the fact.
The Wright Opera House had a long history before it was purple. According to the Handbook of Texas online, a retired rancher named William Crow Wright built the opera house from bricks reclaimed from the demolished old Denton courthouse after it was struck by lightning in 1894. The Opera House opened in 1901, and served as Denton’s premier venue for the next 12 years showcasing all manner of entertainment including opera, musical shows, dramas and community events. In the years following the Opera House’s closing, the building housed a department store, an office supply store and finally in 1990, current tenant Recycled Books, Records, and CDs moved in.
The purple building has become part of Denton’s funky cultural landscape over the past 20 years. The square would feel shockingly lonesome without it, I think. But the Wright Opera House is not itself the focus of today’s story. The focus is instead the gist of what went on in that venue, that being primarily music.
Just a few short years before Mr. Wright dreamed up the Opera House, what is now the University of North Texas (UNT) was putting down roots on the other side of the square at Elm and Oak Streets in the building that is now J.T. Clothiers. The Handbook of Texas online states that, “from the beginning, music was a part of the UNT curriculum. A Conservatory Music Course was offered as part of the university's initial ‘Nine Full Courses’ in 1890.” In fact, inaugural university president Joshua C. Chilton himself taught the first classes in the history of music and the theory of sound.
UNT’s music program rapidly evolved, and in 1947, the university developed the world’s first jazz studies degree, a key part of which was a lab band, a practice band. That first lab band was actually named the Two O’Clock Lab Band because that is the time when the practice sessions met. A decade later, the Two became the One and, as we all know, the Three, Four, Five and so on have since joined the O’Clock bands, all with global acclaim.
Music studies put UNT and Denton in the musical limelight before the dawn of the 20th century. Musical passion and pursuits have been part of the fabric of Denton life since our beginning. The 120-year old North Texas Fair & Rodeo now includes national musical acts in its offerings. In the early 1980’s, Denton’s longest-running music festival, the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival, began its rise to the gigantic signature event it is today. And literally hundreds more events on Denton’s annual calendar, large and small, showcase some genre of music.
Businesses across the city, especially downtown in the past 25 years, are music-centric. Concert venues, listening rooms, restaurants, recording studios, musical instrument retail and repair stores, music instructors and classes are all aspects of Denton’s music industry. Other artistic pursuits from sculpture and painting to photography and murals often depict music’s integral thread in our city’s tapestry.
Denton is a music city.
Now take an imaginary walk with me. The purple building isn’t on the square because Mr. Wright had no musical dream and never built it. UNT didn’t start with a musical foundation, and Joshua Chilton didn’t teach music history and theory of sound. There is no art reflecting music, no Arts and Jazz Fest to look forward to, no businesses touting live music, instruments or classes.
Listen to the silence. There are no buskers on the sidewalk. There is no plethora of local talent playing Twilight Tunes on the courthouse lawn. When someone opens a door, no music wafts out from inside.
Like George Bailey’s apocalyptic Pottersville that might have occurred had his ordinary life never been lived, I shudder at the conjured image of Denton had thousands of ordinary people never come here to pursue their musical passions.
I love the sounds of our city. Music permeates our original, independent sense of place. It is the soundtrack to our wonderful Denton life.