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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

San Antonio's
Majestic Theatre

By Michael Barr

29 25' 34.5" N, 98 29' 26" W
29.42625, -98.490556
Michael Barr

Theaters are magical places where artists perform for the approval of audiences. The Majestic Theater in San Antonio is that and more. The theater itself is a work of art and a piece of history that takes visitors on a romantic journey back in time to the age of Don Quixote. The grand old palace is something to see, even when the seats are empty and the stage is bare.

The Majestic, called the Greater Majestic when it opened to distinguish it from the other Majestic down the street, was glorious from its inception. Designed for live acts and movies, the Majestic in its original form had seats for 3,700. When it opened in 1929 it was the second largest theater in the country.

The Majestic was the first fully air-conditioned theater in Texas. San Antonio society women wore their fur coats to the opening in the middle of June.

Opening night was an international affair. Mexico sent a special envoy representing Mexican President Emilio Portes Gill.

But the people who came for the entertainment, to see and be seen, found themselves awestruck at the beauty of the theater. This place was so much more than a bunch of seats and a stage.

Have you ever stood under a night sky in a Medieval village on the coast of Spain? The Majestic Theater is the closest some of us will ever get to that experience.

The atmospheric design of the Majestic, developed by architect John Eberson, used vivid imagery and sensory elements to create a unique theater experience. The Majestic's Spanish Moorish baroque interior brings the outdoors inside and magically transports the viewer to a Mediterranean village in the Middle Ages.

With the flip of a switch the blue ceiling transforms into an evening sky with twinkling stars. The builder positioned the stars after consulting with the National Geographic Society.

Majestic Theater interior, San Antonio TX
Majestic Theater interior
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

The original Majestic had features and amenities that set it apart from other theaters. It had a fully staffed nursery, the largest piano in Texas, antique furniture, full suits of authentic armor and fountains with tropical fish.

Stuffed birds, a trademark of John Eberson's atmospheric designs, were all over the place, some perched on railings, others in full flight suspended by wires. Because of the natural air currents in the theater, the birds would move as if they were alive.

Every seat in the house was filled at the gala opening in June 1929. Don Galvan, the banjo playing Mexican Troubadour opened the show. Next came the Seven Nelsons acrobatic troupe. Jimmie Rodgers, the Elvis Presley of his day, was the headliner. That night he received 18 curtain calls.

Over the years Hollywood's biggest stars made appearances at the Majestic. The Sons of the Pioneers came to town for the premier of the film Wagon Master. James Stewart and Donald Crisp appeared on stage to promote The Man From Laramie. Audie Murphy rode a horse down Houston Street before the World Premier of his movie To Hell and Back in 1955.

The Majestic hosted budding stars like Kate Smith and Lena Horne.

Then in the 1960s and 70s the old theater fell on hard times. The entire downtown section of San Antonio went through a rough period. Houston Street was not the safest place to be after dark.

At the same time there was competition from hundreds of other theaters out in the suburbs. The Majestic couldn't sell enough tickets to pay for its upkeep. The electric bill alone was $8,000 a month. By 1974 it was cheaper to close the doors than pay the bills.

But people in San Antonio knew the Majestic was a treasure. A legion of citizens persuaded the city to buy the Majestic in 1988. Las Casas, the foundation for Cultural Arts in San Antonio, restored the Majestic to its original 1929 splendor. The gala reopening on September 19, 1989 featured Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney.

The Majestic Theater is more than seats and a stage. It dreamlike interior design represents the cultural roots of San Antonio like no other building in the city.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" October 15, 2018 Column

Sources:
Texastrailroundup.org//2017/02/04/golden-age-movie-theaters-majestic-aztec/
"Requiem For A Giant," San Antonio Express-News, January 19, 1975.
"Light Effects Prove Big Feature," The San Antonio Light, June 9, 1929.
The Handbook of Texas

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