Radio station and movie theater owner Will Horwitz was born in Benton, Arkansas, on June 26, 1886. He graduated from the University of Michigan with an M.A. degree and arrived in Houston sometime around 1917. He opened Houston's third radio station, WEAY, in 1922, and when he took over the first border radio station, XED in Reynosa, in 1931, Horwitz's friend Jimmie Rodgers performed live at the opening broadcast.
Horwitz's flamboyance and flair for dramatic promotional events made him one of the most colorful figures on the business side of Texas music history. He bought his first theater in 1919 and rechristened it the Iris. Its grand opening included, among movies and other entertainment, the Lewis Iris Orchestra. A few years later he opened the Texan Theatre. When movie producers threatened to cut off the supply of films to Horwitz's chain of Homefolks Theaters because he refused to raise ticket prices, the showman installed live hogs in his theater lobbies. The hogs wore signs reading “Movie Hog Trust.” When Democrats gathered in Houston for their Democratic National Convention of 1928, Horwitz dispatched his right-hand man, Fred Cannata, to the Rio Grande Valley to assemble a herd of donkeys and escort them on the train back to Houston. Horwitz then presented a live donkey to each astonished delegate. The conventioneers must have returned home from their visit to Texas with a vivid memory of an instance in which the state lived up to its mythology.
By the mid-1920s Horwitz sponsored an annual Christmas party for Houston's underprivileged kids. The radio and theater man dressed as Santa Claus and distributed gifts to the children. When the Great Depression gripped Houston, he established free soup kitchens—or “grubstake restaurants”—and operated free employment bureaus.
Jimmie Rodgers's biographer Nolan Porterfield observed that the Blue Yodeler made a number of trips to Reynosa with Horwitz, “in high spirits, to contribute to XED's programming—which was normally chaotic anyway—with a bit of impromptu yodeling and singing.”
In April 1932 Horwitz was arrested by American authorities for advertising the Tamaulipas state lottery over XED, which, like all border stations, reached a significant part of the United States. For using the interstate mail system to promote a lottery, the radio station owner was sentenced to eighteen months in Leavenworth. When he was released after six months, 2,000 supporters met him at City Auditorium to welcome him home. President Roosevelt pardoned him in 1940.
After having his own thyroid operation filmed in the late 1930s for educational purposes, Horwitz passed away from a heart attack on December 25, 1941. “The show must go on,” he told guests at the final Christmas party. He was survived by his wife Gladys and daughter.
In his study of Houston's cinemas, David Welling wrote that Horwitz's son-in-law, Fred Gibbons, was a well-known organist who played at downtown theaters during the silent film era.
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Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Psychics, Pitchmen, and Other Amazing Broadcasts of the American Airwaves (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Houston Post, April 9, 1986. Houston Radio History: Will Horwitz and XED, Reynosa (http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007/10/will-horwitz-and-xed-reynosa.html), accessed June 28, 2011. Nolan Porterfield, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979, 1992; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Richard Schroeder, Texas Signs On: The Early Days of Radio and Television (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998). David Welling, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
Business, Promotion, Broadcasting, and Technology
Texas in the 1920s
Upper Gulf Coast
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