In 1877, when the railroad finally arrived in San Antonio, the Alamo City was still considered the Wild West. As one century gave way to the next, however, San Antonio slowly modernized and built the attractions and amenities a growing population craved.
New universities, paved roads and growing wealth were all part of the picture. A complex of small buildings sat at the corner of Houston and St. Mary’s Streets that had been a home to the arts since 1879. The site was home to the Turner Opera House, which operated as Riche’s Opera, the Houston Street Theatre, the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire Opera House. Fire, so much more of a threat back then, claimed the old theater.
When construction began on the The Empire Theatre in 1913, it was to be the largest, best equipped theater in the city and a symbol of San Antonio’s modernity. Elegance and opulence were the goals of Thomas Brady, who envisioned the city’s first European-style theater that would attract locals and visitors alike. Electric lighting, ceiling fans and motorized stage equipment were attractions in the day. European craftsmen used 12 pounds of gold dust to apply shimmering gold leaf to the theater’s soaring walls.
Brady’s theater originally was intended to become an important stop on the vaudeville circuit, but as silent films captured the attention of a transfixed nation, the Empire became the city’s home to both traveling vaudeville acts and the latest motion pictures.
The Empire Theatre opened on December 14, 1914, six months after the start of World War I. During the theater’s golden years some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Charlie Chaplin and Mae West, made appearances. As horse and wagon gave way to the automobile, San Antonio widened Houston and Commerce Streets to accommodate automobiles. This required the adjacent Little Brady Building to be moved back approximately 10 feet. The original property line can still be seen in the sidewalk today in front of Starbucks.
The catastrophic flood of 1921 caused nine feet of water to collect inside the Empire, severely damaging the theater and many other downtown buildings even as 51 people were reported killed with dozens more missing and presumed drowned. The gold leaf was covered with a white coat to camouflage water damage and mould.
After World War II, the Empire fell into a period of decline. It was no longer a destination theater by the 1960s. By then the Empire was referred to by some as “The Impure Theater,” an adult film house in a district that became home to other so-called adult businesses on Houston Street.
While there is no shortage of fond memories of The Majestic from friends and family in San Antonio, there is a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the Empire’s early days, said General Manager Mike Rilley. “People don’t usually want to admit that they were seeing movies at the Empire.”
With the advent of expressways, new suburban neighborhoods and shopping centers, downtown San Antonio continued to decline and stagnate. The venerable Empire Theatre, a shell of its former self, closed its doors in 1978.
With both the Empire and Majestic Theatres facing the wrecking ball, arts patron, philanthropist and political mover and shaker Joci Straus came on to the scene. Straus and her husband, Joe, were well-known business owners, Alamo Heights residents well-connected throughout the state, and both eager to build a more ambitious city. Today, their son, Joe Straus Jr. is the Texas Speaker of the House.
Joci Straus and the Las Casas Foundation raised the funds to save and restore both theaters, beginning in 1988. In some ways, restoration of the Empire and Majestic theaters marked a turning point in the history of downtown San Antonio. As the renovations took place, Houston Street and much of downtown received a much-needed facelift. The street’s comeback would be slow and halting; even today storefronts await lasting tenants.
The Majestic’s restoration was completed in 1989, while the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre didn’t open until 1998. The Empire was renamed after Charline McCombs in honor of the $1 million gift that Red and Charline McCombs gave to Las Casas that enabled the foundation to complete the restoration.
Prior to final renovations, “The Phantom of the Opera“ was hosted at the The Municipal Auditorium, a venue with poor acoustics and other technical issues, because the Majestic’s stage was not deep enough to accommodate a Broadway cast. The production company refused to book future shows in the auditorium.
Noting the multi-million dollar impact of the Broadway production on the local economy, the City of San Antonio, the theaters’ owner, approved plans to expand the Majestic stage by reconfiguring the Empire stage. Ever since then, the Majestic has played host to Broadway shows and other extravaganzas. A sound-proof wall separates the two stages; even the performers cannot hear their on-stage neighbors. During Fiesta 2014, to cite one example, Coronation was staged at the Majestic while Cornyation was underway at the Empire. Backstage, a few moonlighting cops kept the two groups apart.
“Sometimes we have to play ‘United Nations’ down here,” Rilley said of backstage confusion.
Today the two theaters share dressing rooms, hydraulic lifts, freight elevators and storage space. A catacomb of tunnel-like hallways that connects the two venues and runs under both stages is filled with decades of art graffiti and scrawled messages left by artists, rock musicians, entertainers, and Broadway hoofers. The remembrances adorn every inch of walls, ceilings and plumbing, and sever as a kind of living program to acts that once graced local stages.
The two theaters operate as a “three-way public /private partnership between the city, Las Casas and ACE Theatrical,” said Rilley, who is general manager of Arts Center Enterprises. ACE Theatrical manages 35 theaters across the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re proud of the fact we operate in San Antonio without public money or philanthropy,” he said.
Rilley said these days there is no “off season,” either for shows or theater maintenance. All the intricate details, including original hardware, are maintained year-round with a facility fee included in the price of tickets. Taxpayers pay nothing toward the theaters’ upkeep.
As the San Antonio Symphony finds a new home at the Tobin Center for Performing Arts in September, ACE Theatrical will have an additional 78 days or so for new and varied bookings. ACE already is increasing the number of of out-of-town acts, adding more live music performances appealing to Millennials.
But Rilley and his team are also reaching out to San Antonio’s non-profit performing arts community and inviting more organizations to step up their game and book a date or two in one of the city’s two downtown crown jewels.
Aziz Ansari, Queens of the Stone Age, and Hall & Oats sold out their Monday night concerts at the Majestic this year. The three capacity crowds were very different, yet all were attracted by the history, elegance and inviting comfort of these downtown stages.
“Houston Street has a real cosmopolitan feel, and the theaters play a critical role in extending the hours of downtown,” Rilley said. Along with the neighboring businesses, hosting the arts and entertainment in a central location helps make everyday life in downtown an attractive proposition.
Las Casas Foundation’s original goals were restoration and preservation of our historic stages, yet current CEO Kaye Lenox is taking Las Casas to another level. With scholarship opportunities and community outreach programs, the local nonprofit is making important investments in our city’s future.
On Friday May 18, The Las Casas Foundation hosts the final competition of the Performing Arts Scholarship program, where 24 student finalists of diverse backgrounds from San Antonio area schools compete for $100,000 in college funds. This year the scholarship program was chosen to participate in the 2014 the National High School Musical Theater Awards or the “Jimmy” Awards, where two winners get a trip to NYC for a chance to receive five days of private coaching and rehearsal with theater professionals and industry experts.
The Las Casas Foundation also introduces San Antonio’s youth to a side of the theater not seen anywhere else with its Behind the Scenes program. Music and arts education has been steadily cut back in Texas public schools over the years and students’ exposure to theater is very limited. By partnering with Say Sí and The San Pedro Playhouse, Las Casas takes high school students on tours of the theater and provides kids with the opportunity to meet stage managers and technicians from Broadway productions.
Students get to experience back-stage operations and consider a career in theater. Las Casas tries to give students a level playing field by helping them apply for scholarships when there has been insufficient direction by schools. This year, three of the finalists in the Performing Arts Scholarship Competition took part in the Behind The Scenes program.
“In our minds it really validated what we were trying to do with the Behind The Scenes program,” Lenox said, adding that it shows that the theaters were not only central in San Antonio’s history, but will play an active role in San Antonio’s future.
On May 21, The Las Casas and Charline McCombs Annual Gala will honor the 100 Year Anniversary of the Empire Theatre with an on-stage dinner at the Majestic followed by a performance at the Empire. The proceeds from the sold-out event go the Performing Arts Scholarship program and to the actors, actresses and playwrights of tomorrow.