The Joel Coen drama The Tragedy of MacBeth, starring Denzel Washington, was one of the last films shown at the Santikos Bijou before it closed in March, another seeming victim of the pandemic.
While fans of the arthouse movie theater tucked into the Wonderland of the Americas development lament the loss, officials with Balcones Heights, which is part-owner of Wonderland, say there’s nothing tragic about it.
Major tenants have come and gone in Wonderland’s 61-year history as a retail center at Fredericksburg Road and Loop 410. The Frost Bros. department store closed in 1989 and Montgomery Ward in 2001.
Other big tenants have moved on as well — Norris Conference Centers, Career Point College, SteinMart — as the development converted from traditional shopping mall to a mixed-use development owned in part by the City of Balcones Heights.
While other malls have been gutted, shuttered or reinvented, Wonderland keeps bouncing back, James Bond-style. And “sometimes, forced changes can be a good thing,” said Lorenzo Nastasi, director of development and public affairs for Balcones Heights.
“This property has weathered bigger impacts than the Bijou shutting down,” Nastasi said. “I’m very optimistic for that reason.”
In addition, the Wonderland partnership is in talks with tenants for the space, but Nastasi declined to name them before a deal is signed.
“We have some new prospects that I think [will] take care of [any financial deficits], and make it even more profitable,” Nastasi said.
The decision by Santikos not to renew its lease at Wonderland did not come as a surprise, he added. The theater went dark in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and reopened later that summer. Like with most movie houses, attendance was low, largely because few new films were being released.
There had been rumors that the theater would close permanently, Nastasi said.
But Santikos’ leadership dealt the final blow only several weeks ago, ending its 35-year run at Wonderland, said Andrew Brooks, executive director of sales and marketing at Santikos.
“We just have not been getting the new art films in and so we were working on a plan on how to expand the art film across our fleet,” Brooks said. “That’s why we came up with the Bijou Art Series Plan.”
That plan will be launched this summer with independent films shown throughout the Santikos chain of theaters, which now includes two formerly operated by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema — at Westlakes on San Antonio’s far West Side and in New Braunfels.
“That’ll be our homage back to the Bijou and a way for us to still help independent and art films,” Brooks said.
Wonderland is key to Balcones Heights’ future. The 650,000-square-foot mall, built in 1961, occupies a large swath of the 1-square-mile municipality. Sales taxes from its stores contribute significant revenue to the city’s $9 million annual budget.
But ownership gives Balcones Heights more control over Wonderland’s viability and some assurance regarding that revenue, said city leaders in 2021.
Since 2009, Crossroads Mall Partners, led by Sid Weiss, has worked to turn the former mall into a retail, medical and entertainment destination. Much of the first floor is occupied by Veterans Administration and University Health clinics and other offices.
For over a year starting in early 2021, the mall served as a central COVID-19 vaccination site supported by University Health.
There’s more to come, said Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon.
“We are working on a comprehensive land-use plan to redevelop our master plan that we did in 2009 to utilize property throughout the whole city, Wonderland included,” she said. “There are just a lot of things that we have interest in.”
Though no definitive plans have been set in motion, she said the city has already reinstated talks with VIA Metropolitan Transit that began in 2009 about a transit-oriented development that could include multi-family and additional retail development at the Wonderland site.
Still, De Leon said she will miss the Bijou, an adults-only movie theater where Santikos showed foreign and independent films alongside more mainstream fare and where Texas Public Radio hosted its Cinema Tuesdays program.
Movie-goers could order from a full menu of food and beverages, including wine and beer and of course, popcorn, brought to their seats.
“That was my getaway,” De Leon said. “At the end of the day, I’d slip over there and go watch a movie.”
Such fans of the silver screen are in recent months helping the theater industry rebound two years after a pandemic kept people housebound. The release of Spider Man: No Way Home was the turning point, Brooks said.
That superhero movie is on its way to becoming the all-time highest-grossing film in the U.S., something no one in the industry expected, he said.
“What we’re finding out is if it’s a good movie, and the word of mouth is good, the attendance is there and it’s even better than what we’ve seen in 2019,” Brooks said. “It’s pretty exciting.”