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MAJESTIC THEATRE (SAN ANTONIO)

Majestic Theatre, San Antonio
San Antonio's Majestic Theatre opened with great fanfare on
June 14, 1929. It was the largest movie house in the South
and the first fully air-conditioned theater in Texas.
Photograph by Ann T. Smith.

MAJESTIC THEATRE (SAN ANTONIO). The Majestic Theatre, located at 224 E. Houston Street in downtown San Antonio, first opened on June 14, 1929. It was one of the last atmospheric theaters designed and built by John Eberson for theater magnate Karl St. John Hoblitzelle of Interstate Amusement Company. The two men had previously collaborated on building Majestic Theatres in other cities, including Houston and Dallas. The $3 million San Antonio building housed an auditorium, with a seating capacity of more than 3,700, that was the largest movie house in the South and the second largest in the nation. The Majestic, with the latest lighting and sound equipment, a 3,500-gallon artesian well, and elevator access to balcony and mezzanine areas, was also the first fully air-conditioned theater in Texas.

Exterior features of the Majestic include an expansive cast iron canopy, a theater marquee, and a decorated theater box office made of marble and cast iron. The building has fourteen stories topped by a penthouse. The “Majestic” vertical sign, lit with 2,400 lamps, was seventy-six feet in length and began at the seventh-floor level.

Upon entering the theater, patrons undoubtedly find themselves transported into a world of fantasy. The atmospheric theater blends Spanish Mission, Baroque, and Mediterranean architectural styles. The lobby has inlaid tiles, copper lanterns, statues, painted murals, tapestries, a large aquarium, and opens up into two stories. Antique furnishings were purchased from an estate in Tuscany; however, many of the furnishings were sold throughout the years by various owners. Every detail was important to Eberson and, as with his other “Majestic” theatres, he created the feeling of being outdoors—perhaps in the courtyard of a castle. The vaulted auditorium ceiling painted blue with light bulbs for twinkling stars and moving clouds projected by a Viennese Brenograph machine, simulates a nighttime sky. National Geographic was consulted about the position of real stars before the theater opened.

Stuffed birds were used extensively; there were white doves caught in flight, pigeons, colored parrots, wild Texas turkeys, and a rare large white peacock with a spreading tail span and height of ten feet. Birds are still perched on gables and eves. Spanish cypress trees were imported from Italy, and palms came from South America. Decorating continued with the use of orange, azalea, magnolia and oleander trees, blooming cactus, grape vines, rose bushes, bougainvillea plants, and Texas bluebonnets. Auditorium side walls with arches, columns, scrolls, statues, and a bell tower create the fa├žade of a castle or village. The impressive proscenium arch, flanked by towers that extend from the side walls, has cherubs spaced across the lower portion and is topped by a statue of Venus. There are rear and side balconies and a curved staircase that leads to the mezzanine.

The grand opening of the Majestic Theatre marked the beginning of “Prosperity Month” in San Antonio. Advertisements and articles in the June 9, 1929, issue of the San Antonio Light publicized opening festivities and highlighted features of the new theater. All seats for the first night were reserved and ticket prices ranged from $2 to $10. Proceeds were donated to the children’s hospital fund of the San Antonio Junior League and to Ella Austin Orphans Home. The opening show featured the movie Follies of 1929 by Fox Movietime. There were also live performances by banjoist Don Galvan, an acrobatic group called the Seven Nelsons, Eddie Sauer and his Syncopators, and the popular Jimmie Rodgers who reportedly received eighteen curtain calls. Attendance during the first week was unprecedented according to a thank you offered to the general public by Mr. Hoblitzelle in the June 23, 1929, Sunday edition of the San Antonio Express.

The Lone Ranger at the Majestic Theatre, San Antonio
WOAI disc jockey Aaron Allan interviews the Lone
Ranger (Clayton Moore) at the world premiere of
The Lone Ranger at the Majestic Theatre in San
Antonio on January 11, 1956. The Alamo City marked
the first stop on the Lone Ranger's first nationwide tour.
The Majestic has hosted an array of movie premieres,
theatrical plays, and musical performances during its
long history.  Courtesy Aaron Allan.

Beginning in 1929 a typical evening at the Majestic featured the showing of a main movie followed by vaudeville acts. In 1934 Cab Calloway and his Harlem Cotton Club show performed to record audiences. Entertainment stars often made appearances for movie openings, for example in the 1950s—the Western musical troupe the Sons of the Pioneers appeared for the film Wagon Master, James Stewart and Donald Crisp promoted the opening of The Man from Laramie, Anna Maria Alberghetti and others were present to promote The Last Command, Clayton Moore accompanied the world premiere of the Lone Ranger, Latin comic Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales was present for the premiere showing of Strange Lady in Town, and Audie Murphy rode a Texas stallion down Houston Street to help the launch San Antonio’s Frontier Festival and promote the world premiere of his film To Hell and Back which set box office attendance records.

In December 1974 the Majestic Theatre was officially closed. The next year it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1976 the Hoblitzelle interests donated the theater to the newly-created Majestic Foundation. Various performing arts events continued to be held at the venue for a number of years.

The city of San Antonio purchased the Majestic building in 1988. The nonprofit organization Las Casas (the Foundation for Cultural Arts in San Antonio) was formed, and its first priority was to restore the Majestic Theatre as close as possible to its original 1929 design. Las Casas raised $4.5 million for the restoration which was completed in 1989. The renovated theater, with a seating capacity of 2,264 and major sound system improvements, became home to the San Antonio Symphony as well as a popular venue for concert artists, touring Broadway shows, and other performing arts events. The San Antonio Symphony performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Ode to Joy” on September 14, 1989, as the first program in the restored theater during “Majestic Week.” Patrons were entertained by Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis at the opening gala on September 19. Don Galvan, at age eighty-seven, returned to the city for the reopening celebrations. The Texas Historical Commission recognized the theater as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1991 and placed a plaque on the building in September 1992. On April 19, 1993, the Majestic was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Due to limited physical space on its small stage which had a depth of twenty-seven feet, the Majestic was unable to accommodate large productions such as touring mega-musicals, which were growing in popularity and were viewed as a good source of potential income for the community. With the acquisition of the Little Brady Building in 1995, a proposal to expand the stage was finally able to move forward. The stagehouse expansion project, completed in September 1996 at a cost of around $4 million, required construction, demolition, and the reconfiguring of structural walls between the Majestic Theatre and the adjoining Charline McCombs Empire Theatre and the Little Brady Building. In addition to a forty-foot-deep stage, new construction included the installation of sound-isolation barriers, an acoustical door, a new hydraulic lift, and a freight elevator. The first mega-musical presented on the expanded stage was Miss Saigon in June 1997.

Arts Center Enterprises, Inc., (ACE) maintains and runs the Majestic Theatre. From 1989 to 2011, the theatre hosted over 4,200 events with more than five million patrons in attendance. In 2011 the venue was still home to the San Antonio Symphony as well as the Broadway in San Antonio series. The season calendar included concert artists, top-name musicians, and comedians. Musicians B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, and Kenny Rogers—to name a few—as well as comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy Griffin, Chris Rock, and George Lopez have performed at the theater. The Majestic has hosted top Broadway musicals, including Cats, Camelot, Jersey Boys, Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lion King, Wicked, and Phantom of the Opera.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

“About Us—Majestic Theatre,” (http://www.majesticempire.com/aboutMajestic.php), accessed November 6, 2011. Dallas Morning News, June 15, 1929; October 2, 1934; April 18, 1955; August 18, 1955. Joan Upton Hall and Stacey Hasbrook, Grand Old Texas Theaters That Won’t Quit (Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 2002). “Majestic Theatre,” Cinema Treasures (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/3158), accessed November 3, 2011. Jane Preddy, “John Eberson and the Greater Majestic Theatre, San Antonio, Texas,” Marquee, The Journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America, Vol. 20, No 3 (1988). San Antonio Express, June 8, 16, 23, 1929; January 8, 1956. San Antonio Express-News, December 11, 2005. San Antonio Light, June 9, 1929; May 14, 1950; July 8, 31, 1955. “San Antonio Performing Arts Center,” Las Casas, The Foundation for Cultural Arts in San Antonio (http://www.lascasasfoundation.org/a_sapac.htm), accessed November 8, 2011. Emily Smith, Majestic Theatre, Telephone Interview, November 18, 2011.

 
Ann T. Smith

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Ann T. Smith, "MAJESTIC THEATRE (SAN ANTONIO)," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/klm07), accessed August 30, 2014. Uploaded on November 26, 2013. Modified on April 2, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.