A single, bare bulb stands onstage each night after the Majestic Theatre closes, faintly illuminating the curtains, seats and balconies of the empty, 2,300-seat auditorium. The “ghost light,” as it is known in the theater business, is an age-old tradition dating back at least to the early days of Broadway productions.

Every theater has at least one resident ghost, it is said, and the light is meant as both a gesture of welcome and a ward against trouble.

Now celebrating its 90th anniversary, the Majestic Theatre itself might have become a ghost if not for the foresight and efforts of a dedicated, visionary consortium of public and private interests.

“This theater closed temporarily [in 1974] and kept closing and reopening and closing and reopening,” said attorney Frank Ruttenberg, “struggling … right up until the time we started the renovation process” in the late 1980s.

With philanthropist Jocelyn L. “Joci” Straus, in 1988 Ruttenberg helped establish Las Casas Foundation to manage the preservation and restoration of the historic theater, along with its downtown twin, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre. Ruttenberg currently serves as the foundation’s chairman.

A Majestic History

An ad for Robert Morton Organ Co. highlights the new Majestic Theatre.

The Greater Majestic Theatre opened to much fanfare in 1929 as the largest theater in Texas and the first public facility in the state to be air-conditioned. Headlines such as “Seats of Latest Design Provide Utmost in Comfort” trumpeted the grand new entertainment venue in a special edition of the San Antonio Light newspaper dated June 9, 1929, five days before the grand opening.

The first mission of the new theater was to show movies and host touring vaudeville acts (spelled “Vode-Vil” in an advertisement for the first show, which featured Jimmy Rodgers the “Yodeling Brakeman” and “Banjo Boy” Don Galvan). The second mission was to create “fantasy worlds into which anyone could escape for a few hours,” with an architecturally elaborate interior designed by John Eberson, as noted in a successful 1992 application for National Register of Historic Places landmark status.

“Every stop is pulled out to enhance the illusion of an exotic outdoor scene,” wrote Mary Margaret McAllen, projects director of Las Casas Foundation who authored the application. McAllen listed the elaborate Spanish Mission and Mediterranean-inflected architectural features Eberson incorporated into his asymmetrical design, which was also unusual for theaters at the time: “towers, turrets, arches, brackets, corbels, twisted columns, straight columns, balconies, oriels, windows, fountains, vine-covered latticework, grillwork, tilework, figurative sculpture, and much more,” concluding that “though the two sidewalls are completely different there is a remarkable coherence to the assemblage of details.”

The Majestic Theatre
The elaborate interior of the Majestic Theatre was designed by John Eberson. Credit: Courtesy / Majestic Theatre – Mike Hume

Known as “Opera House John” for his early theater architecture, Eberson achieved a nationwide reputation for his so-called “atmospheric theater” designs. But from more than 100 Eberson-designed theaters across the country, only 17 remained by the time the Majestic closed, which created an additional sense of urgency for its preservation.

Public-Private Partnership

A history of the theater (available on its website) describes the conditions that forced its closure as “changing entertainment habits,” generally attributed to the rise of suburban malls pulling entertainment patrons away from downtown. Despite that challenge, forces mobilized to save the theater. “Thankfully you had the right people involved in the process of putting this all together,” Ruttenberg said, including Mayor Henry Cisneros and City Manager Lou Fox.

At the time, Cisneros and Fox looked to accomplish several goals. One was to find a home for the struggling San Antonio Symphony, which had moved from auditorium to auditorium for its concerts. Another was to revitalize Houston Street, a once-thriving downtown thoroughfare that had fallen into disuse. Crumbling buildings and vacant storefronts surrounded the failed or failing Alameda, Texas, and Majestic theaters on Houston and the Empire and Aztec theaters just around the corner.

The City bought the Majestic and Empire properties, then enlisted private developers to play a significant role in crafting a redevelopment plan. “Virginia Van Steenberg and Tom Wright … were tenacious and their interest in getting this done,” Ruttenberg said of two real estate developers notable for their interest in a revitalized downtown. Wright was a colleague of impresario and developer Hap Veltman, who knew of Ruttenberg’s interest in historic preservation and recommended him for the project.

Two groups were formed: the private Majestic Development Co., run by Van Steenberg to manage the 18-floor office tower and businesses surrounding the theater, and Las Casas Foundation, run by Straus and Ruttenberg.

The foundation was named for the four remaining downtown theater “houses,” with the Texas Theater having already been redeveloped as the IBC Centre Building, with only its façade intact. (The old ticket booth and marquee remain in place to this day, directly next to the Zócalo Mio restaurant, thanks to the efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society.) The Alameda and Aztec were soon slated for separate projects, leaving the Majestic and Empire as a focus for new residential and commercial development above and around the theaters and restoration of the once-grand entertainment houses.

Compared with today’s numbers, Ruttenberg said, the amount needed to restore the Majestic seems relatively small at $17 million. But the city could only afford to dedicate $5 million, leaving a gap of $12 million for the foundation to cover, Ruttenberg said. He enlisted Straus, and the project began in November 1988 with the ambitious goal of reopening in September 1989 in time for the San Antonio Symphony’s first season in its new dedicated home.

The theater has run successfully ever since, with no subsidies from the City necessary to maintain operations, Ruttenberg said. “So they got something for their money. … They’ve got these great amenities for their city, which has been terrific.”

Updating Tradition

The dedication to tradition and historic preservation remains apparent in the Majestic’s restored and continually maintained exterior and interior.

Arts Center Enterprises, the longtime agency that for years had booked entertainment at the Majestic and its partner the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, eventually gave way to the international Ambassador Theatre Group in 2015, which manages current programming and maintains the building.

“They get the whole concept of how valuable these assets are,” Ruttenberg said. “They don’t think twice about continuing to invest in and keeping these theaters immaculate. … They look as beautiful as they did when we completed the restoration back in 1989.”

Frank Ruttenberg walks near the entrance of the Majestic Theatre.
Frank Ruttenberg walks to the Majestic Theatre’s Houston Street entrance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

During the restoration process, Ruttenberg said, the artisans involved “fell in love with the project” and practically lived at the theater. “It wasn’t just a paycheck to them,” he said, “it was a piece of art that they were getting to restore. To them it was like a Mona Lisa.”

Today, painter John Coutu continually refreshes the many painted surfaces of the interior, including the decorated metal seating plates along the aisles, with colors matched to the original theme. Self-described “stuccoist” Thomas Michael Battersby continues a multigenerational family tradition of maintaining the elaborate painted plasterwork that adorns every surface of the foyer and Eberson’s fantastical proscenium architecture.

The pride of the Majestic Theatre is its grand white peacock, perched high on a proscenium balcony at stage right, overlooking the auditorium. An original detail of Eberson’s fanciful architectural scenario, the peacock oversees a flock of 28 other stuffed birds including doves, woodpeckers, and another peacock of the regular variety. The bird also graced the Majestic and Empire’s 2019 Fiesta medal, attesting to its endurance as a symbol for the two theaters.

Though the current management for the theater remains respectful of its history and traditions, it is also cognizant of keeping up with the times and new technology. “They’re constantly keeping us on the cutting edge of the way performing arts facilities should be working,” Ruttenberg said of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

Emily Smith, general manager of the Majestic and Empire theaters, noted that all of the plentiful architectural lighting has been replaced recently with energy-saving LED lighting, and free public Wi-Fi is available in both theaters. 

“The history of the theater is very important to us, but also [important is] bringing in those modern conveniences to keep what we’re doing here relevant and continue to attract audiences,” Smith said.

Concert attendees cross Houston street before the show begins.
Attendees cross Houston Street to the Majestic Theatre. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Majestic celebrated its “Birthday Bash” on June 21 but continues the celebration through its summer programming, to include actor John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” July 27-28, Grammy-winner Wiz Khalifa on Aug. 4, comedian George Lopez Aug. 9-10, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band on Aug. 19, and The B-52s on their 40th anniversary tour Aug. 21. Details, tickets, and full schedule available here.

A special 90th anniversary Happy Hour Tour will take place Monday, offering a peek into the deep history of the Majestic, including its backstage catacombs decorated by touring performers with autographs and elaborate paintings. Tickets are $25, available here.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...