Hoblitzelle, Karl St. John (1879–1967)

By: William H. Crain

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: June 18, 2021

Karl St. John Hoblitzelle, theater owner, civic leader, and philanthropist, son of Clarence Linden and Ida Adelaide (Knapp) Hoblitzelle, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 22, 1879, one of thirteen children. After completing grammar school, he was forced to leave his studies in order to help support his family. He worked for short periods in a real-estate office and a soap factory. His initially successful venture into truck farming was ended by illness. He next went to work as an office boy for Isaac S. Taylor, the director of works of the St. Louis World's Fair. Hoblitzelle was soon promoted to secretary and then acting director of works for the demolition of the fair.

His entertainment contacts alerted him to the Southwest's potential for a vaudeville circuit, and in 1905, with his brother and others, he founded the Interstate Amusement Company, with theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, and San Antonio. In 1906 Hoblitzelle was elected president of the company. One of his first acts was to execute a policy of censoring vaudeville acts for family entertainment, markedly upgrading the "saloon" theater image of the time. Eventually he expanded his holdings to include motion-picture theaters, where he provided his audiences with the latest in technical advances. Among his innovations were air-conditioning, sound, earphones for the hard-of-hearing, children's cry and play rooms, and children's chairs. Hoblitzelle treated his employees with respect and consideration and granted employees of over a year's service 10 percent of the profits.

In 1920 he married Esther Thomas, who, under the name Esther Walker, had pursued a career as a singing actress in New York. After their wedding trip, the Hoblitzelles made their permanent home in Dallas. In 1929 Hoblitzelle planned to retire and sold most of his theater interests to RKO. The couple set off for Europe in 1931 but upon their return found that the Great Depression had badly hurt the major studios and endangered the jobs of hundreds of Hoblitzelle's colleagues. RKO and Paramount went into receivership in January 1933, and Hoblitzelle reorganized the Texas holdings of these two companies as the Interstate Circuit and the Texas Consolidated Theatres. By 1935 he was president of both corporations, and he remained active as president of Interstate until his death. In addition to his theater holdings, he established Hoblitzelle Properties, which bought real estate throughout the Dallas area. He was a director of the Republic National Gas Company and Southwestern Life Insurance Company, and he served as chairman of the board and chairman emeritus of Republic National Bank.

During World War I he provided entertainment for patients in army and navy hospitals. During the depression years he intervened with the Dallas City Council when they attempted to take $20,000 out of relief funds and spend it on a tax survey. Early in World War II he advocated greater United States involvement with the Allied cause, and after the United States entered the war he often required his cumstomers to purchase a war bond or donate a can of food, an item of clothing, or pieces of material vital to military production as the price of admission to one of his theaters.

In 1942 the Hoblitzelles formed the Hoblitzelle Foundation (first as a trust, later as a nonprofit corporation) to be used for "charitable, scientific, literary, or educational efforts." When Mrs. Hoblitzelle died in 1943 the bulk of her estate went to the foundation, which also received Hoblitzelle's estate upon his death. Through the auspices of this foundation, Hoblitzelle helped form the Southwestern Medical Foundation, which donated the money and Dallas land for the teaching and research hospital that later became the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Hoblitzelle also helped found the Texas Research Foundation at Renner, which aimed to revitalize rural Texas through agricultural research. In addition, he organized the Texas Heritage Foundation, which promoted education, research, and collections in Texas history. Hoblitzelle also donated generously to the University of Texas. For years he provided a Radio House Fellowship for music students. He placed on permanent loan to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center the James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips editions of Shakespeare, the Albert Davis Collection, and the Messemore Kendall Collection, all of which form an invaluable part of what is now known as the Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library.

Hoblitzelle was board chairman of the Hockaday School, a member of the executive committee of Southern Methodist University, a member of the board of directors of Texas Technological College, and a trustee of Texas A&M University. He served as director of the Dallas Citizens Council, the Dallas Art Association, the Dallas Symphony Society, and the Dallas Grand Opera Association. He was also a trustee of the Dallas Society for Crippled Children and chairman of the Texas Centennial Commission of Statehood, as well as a member of the Centennial Board of One Hundred, the Dallas Historical Society, and the Texas State Historical Association.

Among the honors he received were the Linz Award for outstanding citizenship in Dallas, the American Legion Special Citation, the Presidential Certificate of Appreciation, the United States Treasury Silver Medal Award, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Citizenship Medal, and (although he was Episcopalian) the papal Benemerenti Medal as public recognition for his work in the fields of Christian education and charity. Hoblitzelle died in his home in Dallas on March 8, 1967, and was buried in St. Louis.

Dallas Morning News, March 9, 1967. Don Hinga, Forty Years of Community Service: The Story of Karl Hoblitzelle and the Development of Interstate Theatres (Dallas: Stellmacher, 1946). The Story of Karl Hoblitzelle (MS, Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

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

William H. Crain, “Hoblitzelle, Karl St. John,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hoblitzelle-karl-st-john.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 18, 2021

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