It’s dark in the backstage passages of the shuttered Alameda Theatre, with light from the art-deco marquee out front and the phosphorescent black light murals on the theater’s walls not reaching into the shadowy spaces beyond the storied playhouse.
But walking those corridors, tracing the footsteps of glamorous performers from Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America, leads to a wide-open cavern of concrete floors, steel beams, and loading ramps. What was originally meant to serve as a stage house where set designs could be constructed will in 2020 become the new home of Texas Public Radio.
Now as if stepping from behind the velvet curtains of obscurity onto center stage, the space will honor a national giant of media so humble and yet visionary his name is perhaps less known than the people and causes he championed.
On Tuesday, TPR and Guillermo Nicolas announced a naming-rights gift to the public radio station and introduced the community to the Emilio and Irma Nicolas Media Center, which will be housed in the nonhistoric space of the Alameda.
News of TPR’s interest in the Alameda Theatre first broke in 2016 and a partnership formed between the nonprofit radio station, Bexar County, and the City of San Antonio. Plans to restore the 1949 theater call for a 1,000-seat venue complete with modern sound and lighting upgrades and the restoration of historically significant structures.
For TPR, currently housed in a medical office building on Datapoint Drive, the theater’s nonhistoric warehouse space will become its new station headquarters. TPR will relocate to the 40,000-square-foot space facing Commerce Street within two years.
At a total project cost of $12.5 million, the new Media Center will house not only a broadcasting studio overlooking San Pedro Creek, but also a black-box theater with 220 seats for broadcast-quality productions and a smaller performance studio with seating for 50. Overland Partners is designing the space and JLL is the project manager. In August, Carlos Alvarez, chairman and CEO of The Gambrinus Co., pledged $2 million toward the project.
The goal, said Joyce Slocum, TPR president and CEO, is to be visible and accessible to the community. “We want people to say, ‘Let’s see what’s going on at TPR,” she said. The location will also serve as a catalyst to ongoing revitalization along the west end of Houston Street, she added, where Mexican-American-owned businesses once thrived, and in recent times spurred by construction of the new Frost Tower.
The Nicolas family’s ties to the Alameda go back to its start. In the 1940s and ’50s, Guillermo’s grandfather Raoul Cortez broadcast his radio and later television shows from the Alameda before its own headquarters was built. Cortez brought musicians from Mexico to perform on the radio live, then at the theater, and those performers often visited the rooftop club Cortez also owned, La Villa Fontana on South Flores Street, after their shows.
“They’ve always been philanthropic, but quietly,” said Emilio and Irma Nicolas’ youngest child, Guillermo, president of the commercial real estate management and development company 3N Group and chairman of the San Antonio Arts Commission.
Over a Mexican Plate and iced tea at Café Alameda on Houston Street Thursday, Guillermo spoke to the Rivard Report of his father and mother and his decision to make what he would only describe as a “significant contribution” to TPR, with great respect though not their knowledge. In doing so, he continues the family’s legacy of giving.
Guillermo in fact admits he did not know of his father’s legendary generosity toward others until he was a young adult, and when he brought it up, Emilio was furious, he said. “In their mindset, their philanthropy is private and it’s not a put-your-name-on-the-building or get a big article written in the paper,” Guillermo said.
“But … for me, it’s really important … and it makes me feel good that my parents will be recognized. More importantly, I think it will, for a lot of young Hispanic kids who don’t have a lot of people they might relate to, I think it will help them.”
If Guillermo didn’t know of his parents’ benevolence, he was keenly aware of the impact they made in the business of broadcasting even as Emilio eschewed special notice or recognition.
Born in 1930 in Coahuila, Mexico, Emilio came to San Antonio in 1948 and graduated from St. Mary’s University. In 1953, he married Irma, the daughter of Genoveva and Raoul Cortez, who obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission for radio (KCOR-AM) and television (KCOR-TV) stations in the 1940s. That union joined the two families in a venture that would give rise to a powerful new medium and, by the end of the century, would create a significant cultural and economic legacy for the Spanish-speaking public.
But it’s a legacy not widely known in San Antonio or beyond. “If we were in New York, his name would be synonymous with Paley (William, founder of CBS) or Sarnoff (David, of NBC) because my father built the fourth network,” Guillermo said. “If we were in a bigger market, and he was a different person, you would know him commonly because of his accomplishment.”
Even his closest friends were unaware back in the day. “The first time many of his friends knew he had built this business was when he sold to Hallmark and it was in the Wall Street Journal, and there were a bunch of zeroes [in the sales price],” Guillermo said. “’Holy s—! Emilio is a multimillionaire and he never told us.’ I think they thought he just had a crappy little TV station.”
Vision and Innovation
Steadfast in his belief that the airwaves belonged to the people, that Mexican-Americans deserved to have a voice in politics, and San Antonio had earned his devotion, Emilio ran his broadcasting empire not from a corner office in New York or Los Angeles, but in his adopted hometown. From San Antonio, he beamed programming via satellites to listeners at 250 affiliate stations across the country.
“What I love about what he did is not only did he serve to educate and entertain his viewers … it was also a political platform,” Guillermo said. “That’s how the [civil rights workers] Willie Velasquezes and César Chávezes of the world became known. Our Mexican-American population reveres these people, but they never think about why and how they heard about them. It’s because my father and grandfather opened the airwaves to them.”
Guillermo, 10 years younger than his older siblings, watched it all, traveling alongside his father as he established affiliates around the country in other cities with large Hispanic populations. In 2003, after gigs at QVC, the Home Shopping Network and Home Shopping Español, Guillermo went to work at his father’s network, Univision. Soon after, discovering and correcting discrepancies in the companies’ real estate books, his own career in commercial real estate was launched.
In story after story, Guillermo told of his father’s humility, business acumen, and tenacity. He talks of a time in the 1980s when two groups in San Antonio were offered the chance to vie for establishing TPR. Emilio lent one group some available studio space, equipment, and engineers. In the end, that group was not successful, but the memory is just one of the many times Guillermo saw his father step in to help for a cause he believed in.
While Emilio created wealth for others through the affiliates he established, he also helped launch the Hispanic advertising industry by insisting that commercials would not be dubbed. “That opened the door to millions,” Guillermo said, then told the story of how his father produced the first Spanish-language ads for Coca-Cola at borrowed studio space in Mexico City.
Much of Guillermo’s memories are born of pride in his father’s many firsts, including how he created the first satellite-interconnected network in the country. “He was also the first broadcaster to name a woman as co-anchor, Teresa Rodríguez,” he said. “That was years before Katie Couric.”
And though Emilio has received numerous accolades over the years, including a 2015 Texas Medal for the Arts Award in multimedia and inclusion in a Smithsonian exhibit on American innovation, it took urging by an adoring son to push Emilio and his accomplishments into the limelight.
“I told him, ‘It’s your obligation to show young Hispanic males and females that don’t have hope that they can do more than what their parents have done, that they can do it, too,” Guillermo said. Of his mother, Guillermo said she is the unsung hero of Emilio’s success. “She is an amazing woman,” he said, and so begins another tale, this time of her force of will and how she used it to make the business better, her city stronger.
Emilio, 88, and Irma, 86, still reside together in a home they built on the property where their first house once stood in Olmos Park, where they raised their family. Though Emilio’s physical health is declining, his mind is sharp, and he still listens to the opera and symphony.
Guillermo hoped it would be a welcome surprise when he shares news of the TPR Media Center naming gift.
“I want them to know that their city will have some recognition of [their success], and they will be remembered,” he said.