(U.S. Air Force Photo/ Staff Sgt. John Bainter)

The Aztec Theatre has seen its share of grandeur and glory during its 87-year history, but nothing like the new experience that will debut when the epic structure reopens in 2014.

Located at the corner of N. St. Mary’s and Commerce Streets, the Aztec Theatre has been redesigned as a multi-entertainment venue. Sam Panchevre, one of the owners of the new venture, said the Aztec will be a place everyone can use.

The Aztec Theater Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Aztec Theater at 201 E. Commerce. St. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“It’s a very unique space in downtown San Antonio,” he said. “It’s centrally located so there’s easy access for conventions, hotels, and for the local community. Everyone can come down and enjoy this place – from church groups to pep rallies for college football teams to rock concerts to symphonies to spelling bees for schools.”

Upstairs in the Aztec Theatre's lobby, tables and chairs await cocktails and patrons. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Upstairs in the Aztec Theatre’s lobby, tables and chairs await cocktails and patrons. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

But it’s the music that Panchevre feels will be the biggest draw and as owner of the successful venue Sam’s Burger Joint, he knows a thing or two about concerts. One of the best features of the Aztec will be the lounge located in the grand lobby space which will host a soft opening party on Dec. 21.

“We’ll have a beautiful lounge when you walk in so you can come in an hour or two before the show, relax, have some cocktails,” Panchevre said. “Then enjoy the concert, and (afterwards) the lounge is still open, waiting for you to unwind.”

Another aspect of the theater that will set it apart is the new layout of the main floor. The chairs have been removed, and tiered flooring is being installed so people can stand on various levels to enjoy the music. Depending on the entertainment, chairs can be set up theater-style or tables in a cabaret-like setting. The regular seating remains on the balcony level.

Construction of the Aztec's tiered flooring underway. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Construction of the Aztec’s tiered flooring underway. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The square footage of the auditorium is 23,000, with total event space at 41,000.  Capacity crowds are expected to be at 2,000 in attendance.

“We want a place where the fans can have a great experience. We want people to come in and feel good, and dance,” Panchevre said. “We want the artists to love this place. We want them to want to come back.

“We all have friends who say, ‘There’s a great concert in Austin this weekend. We’re all going up there and spend the night.’ Let’s reverse that,” he challenged. “That’s what we’re working toward. Let’s have people come to downtown San Antonio and enjoy a concert and spend the weekend. We want people from Austin, from south Texas, from Houston, to come here and experience this. That’s my vision.”

The Aztec Theatre's iconic Meso-American interior. Photo by Annette Crawford.
The Aztec Theatre’s iconic Meso-American interior. Photo by Annette Crawford.

Buddy Guy has been confirmed for March 6, but negotiations are still underway for the first show sometime in February.

Keith Howerton, one of Panchevre’s partners at the Aztec as well as Sam’s Burger Joint, said the reason the theater will be successful is because of the multi-use vision.

“The bottom line: the Aztec Theatre as a space doesn’t need to be pigeonholed into one particular entertainment. Concerts, both musical and comedy, private, corporate events, smaller theatrical shows – we can put them all in here,” Howerton said.

The Aztec Theatre stage. The back drop on stage, left over from the “San Antonio Rose Live,” a Branson-style classic country music show, will be removed to allow for more space. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Aztec Theatre stage. The back drop on stage, left over from the “San Antonio Rose Live,” a Branson-style classic country music show, will be removed to allow for more space. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“That’s the only business model that has saved historic downtown theaters,” he added. “It makes sense.”

He’s especially proud of the lounge space.

Aztec Theatre lobby.
Aztec Theatre downstairs lounge space and new dance floor. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“That’s the one thing that the Aztec has that the other theaters don’t. That space in and of itself is a great meeting space. It will be a high-end downtown lounge and dancing experience with an upstairs mezzanine,” Howerton said.

The lounge is slated to be open Saturday evenings and First Fridays, in addition to before and after concerts. Howerton said the first big lounge event will be a New Year’s Eve party.

Panchevre first came to San Antonio in 1979 when he arrived for Air Force basic military training. He spent his entire four-year enlistment here, and was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base as a veterinary specialist.

“I was always interested in trading and buying and selling, so when I was at Randolph I got a part-time job at Alamo Heights Coin Shop on Austin Highway,” Panchevre said. “I would work evenings and weekends there, and did very well. I earned more there than I did in my Air Force job.”

Panchevre said he knew he always wanted to be an entrepreneur.

“I decided I never wanted to work for someone,” he said.

After the Air Force he attended school and then went into real estate. When the real estate market crashed, he put his culinary skills to work and bought a fast food place at Ingram Park Mall that he bought and sold. He found he had a knack for turning failing businesses around.

“You have to move forward and the right things happen,” Panchevre said.

Detail of Aztec Theatre's Meso-American styled chandelier. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Detail of Aztec Theatre’s iconic chandelier. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He and his business partners did their homework before taking on the Aztec, a process that took 18 months.

“What we really liked about it is that no one really knew much about the Aztec in San Antonio,” Panchevre said. “Some people would say, ‘Yeah, we used to go there in the ‘70s and ‘80s and see movies.’ That was when it was falling apart. Then millions of dollars were spent to restore it, but still no one was enjoying it. That’s when we had the opportunity to take over to really change the inside and make it more appropriate for events and for concerts, like we do at Sam’s, but on a greater scale.”

Detail of the Aztec Theatre's Meso-American interior designs. Photo by Annette Crawford.
Detail of the Aztec Theatre’s Meso-American interior designs. Photo by Annette Crawford.

The Aztec opened in June 1926, and was designed by the firm of Meyer & Holler. They were best known for their extravagant structures built for Sid Grauman in Hollywood – the Egyptian Theatre and the Chinese Theatre. Like the nearby Majestic and Empire Theatres, the Aztec was built in the Atmospheric style.

Popular for several decades, the Aztec began to decline in the ‘70s and eventually closed in 1989. Thankfully, it was rescued by the San Antonio Conservation Society and added to the National Register of Historic Places, thereby saving it from demolition. After a massive renovation project, it reopened to the public in 2007. It closed soon afterward and was open again from 2009 to mid-2012. The new management is eager to show off the Aztec the way they feel it was meant to be experienced.

“We think we offer a very competitive rate for use of a state-of-the-art historic venue that’s beautiful. It’s jaw-dropping when you walk in,” Panchevre said. “It’s really going to change the way people experience concerts.”

Annette Crawford is a public affairs officer at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. She is also the house photographer for the Majestic Theatre and Sam’s Burger Joint & Music Hall. You can read her music and travel blog at www.thegroovygringa.com or follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @thegroovygringa.

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Annette Crawford is an Air Force veteran and has spent more than 30 years as a writer, editor, and public affairs officer. She is the house photographer at Sam’s Burger Joint & Music Hall.