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The Plaza Theater…Here to Stay!?
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Debra Barron Diaz
In the heart of downtown El Paso, people lined the streets waiting to enter the theater to witness another stirring performance. The lights from the marquee were so bright it seemed like daylight. Excitement filled the air. This was the enchanting Plaza Theater of fifty years ago.
The Plaza Theater. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Community Foundation
Today you can walk down the same streets and not even know the Plaza Theater exists. The marquee is no longer lit, El Pasoans no longer wait in line to enter the theater, and the only performances are those of the ghosts believed to haunt the empty building. The once beautiful and intriguing Plaza Theater has had its doors closed for almost twenty years now. It was and still is one of the few theaters of its kind in this country.
Nearly 70 years ago, Louis L. Dent, owner of the principal El Paso theaters, decided to buy the property on Pioneer Plaza, which then was home to The Herald News. Dent was determined to do something good for the city, and in February of 1927, he said in the El Paso Times, "El Paso has been good to me, and I am going to put something everybody will proud of."
In 1929, construction of the Plaza Theater began. H. T. Ponsford & Sons built the theater, designed by architect W. Scott Dunne and constructed by C.A. Goetting Construction Company.
From the early 1930s when the Plaza Theater first opened its doors, it fascinated El Pasoans and people from other areas with its uniqueness and glamour. Patrons went to the popular Plaza to be seen. It was known as "The Greatest Showplace in the Southwest," home to a multitude of elegant and lavish decorations.
Valuable oil paintings, antiques and other art objects found their home throughout the lobbies, halls and stairways of the theater. Posh carpeting, wrought iron banisters and mosaic tile floors and walls adorned the lobby and foyer. The building itself, along with its furnishings, was of elegant Spanish motif.
The extravagance of the Plaza's architectural design held fast, from its transition from a theater for live stage performances, to a theater exhibiting first-run motion pictures.
At the point where the entrance wing of the Plaza adjoined the auditorium, a domed tower rose in three tiers, projecting above the roof line. Other exterior references to the style included modest brick delineations at the building's corners, simple cartouche motifs and stepped and curved parapets with tile accents along the roof line. All these exquisite styles suited our city perfectly.
Among the best known features of the Plaza was its Wurlitzer organ, played before live performances and movies and during intermissions. Resting below the actual seating area in front of the stage and out of the audience's view, the organ was elevated to its playing position, astonishing theater goers. After a musical interlude, the organ was lowered back to its original position on the platform.
The organ had 15 ranks with 61 pipes in each rank. It originally cost about $60,000. This elegant organ is one thing that many El Pasoans seem to remember most. Unfortunately, it was removed and sold to an organ collector in 1972.
The Plaza was by far the most elaborate and modern theater of its kind, boasting many new and innovative features, among them the first refrigerated air conditioning in the United States, This technology not only cooled the air in the summer but warmed it in the winter.
The Plaza could accommodate more than 2,000 people comfortably. The original seating capacity was 2,410, with 1,510 seats on the main floor, 508 in the mezzanine and 392 in the balcony.
Patrons would meet and mingle inside the Plaza, while above them in the auditorium puffy clouds crossed a sky filled with twinkling stars. Two machines worth $1,500 each controlled the enchanted sky.
John Wayne, Ethyl Barrymore, Mae West and Joan Crawford, among others, performed live at the Plaza during the height of their popularity. On February 10, 1934, the Plaza's very first stage drama, "Richelieu," was performed for El Pasoans. The cast included then famous Walter Hampton, Dallas Anderson, John Davenport and Mable More. Other memorable plays presented at the Plaza were "The Taming of the Shrew" and the "The Little Foxes."
During the Plaza's heyday, motorists and pedestrians going down San Francisco and El Paso streets could see the grand old theater for blocks. With its brilliantly lighted marquee announcing another production, the Plaza was a sight to behold. The Plaza hosted the world premier of the film "El Paso," which drew a capacity and star-studded crowd, and also showed Tom Lea's popular "The Brave Bulls."
Parents and grandparents of today's generation once experienced the Plaza that emphasized our city's cultural beauty. Most El Pasoans who grew up here will have a story or two to tell about the Plaza.
As a kid, Robert Inez Barron once worked at the theater. He recalls, "I would go and clean the Plaza just to be able to see it up close and explore in it. Whether I got paid or not didn't matter, as a long as I was there."
For Barron and thousands of others, it was a place for dreaming. Many people had their first date there or their first kiss while waiting for the curtain to rise. It was a place where sweet memories were made.
Because of its historical importance to our area, the Plaza has been named an Historical Landmark by the National Register. Peter Flagg Maxon, Chief Architectural Historian of the Texas Historical Commission, states, "We believe the Plaza Theater to be one of the most significant architecturally and historically in the state of Texas." Recently, the El Paso Community Foundation pledged $3 million for the next ten years to operate and maintain the Plaza. The foundation asked the city to pay $5.9 million in certificates of obligation to renovate it. Although City Council first agreed to provide the $5.9 million, Mayor Larry Francis vetoed the plan.
The Mayor said he believes that $5.9 million for renovating the theater is too high, that the El Paso Community -Foundation has offered the city no definite guarantee of the project's viability or profitability, and that the issue of renovating the theater could jeopardize the outcome of the $97.5 million bond issue scheduled for May 7. Mayor Francis added that he would like to see the Plaza Theater renovated, but not as currently planned. He also explained that a possible solution might be for the foundation to reduce its request to $3 million and to endow that the theater with $ 1 million at the outset of the project instead of after 10 years.
A recent poll by Kaigh Associates showed over a 60 percent approval rate among registered voters in El Paso for renovating the Plaza Theater. Many feel the theater could only be an asset to the city. East Side City Representative Dusty Rhodes also feels that the Plaza could do the city some good. As he said in an article in the El Paso Times, "I believe the Plaza is a desirable, fiscally economic facility that's reflective of what El Paso should be. I'm prepared to spend my 25 cents a month."
The El Paso Community Foundation has worked tirelessly to raise funds for the Plaza renovation. Countless El Pasoans have donated their time, effort and money to save the theater from destruction and have contributed in numerous ways to restore the Plaza to its original grandeur. According to Dolores Gross, Program Manager of the foundation, the group is appropriating funds to buy back original art and furnishings of the Plaza, including the Wurlitzer organ.
Only time will tell whether the Plaza will exists years from now, but having been a part of El Paso for generations, the theater just might stand a chance. With the help of City Council and commitment by the El Paso Community Foundation and other concerned citizens, the Plaza won't be just another memory of today's parents and grandparents. The theater will be an exciting part of our children's lives as well. As columnist John Laird pointed out in his daily column this spring, "The Plaza is too much a part of our past to be denied a role in our future."