Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.
By Jacqueline Trevizo
In the spring of 2000, two long-time El Paso movie theaters closed: Bassett, which showed first-run films, and University, the only discount movie theater on the West side. Were they pushed out of business by the multi-screen giants or by the lack of patrons who prefer to rent videos? Probably both. These theaters and the surviving ones are the descendants of the first theaters which presented live plays, vaudeville acts, and then films in El Paso.
Theatrical development in El Paso grew as drama companies from the East traveled west and attracted El Pasoans. Early theaters were small and were considered playhouses, used for stage performances. Although the first American playhouse to open was Williamsburg Theater in 1716, most major American cities did not have theaters until the 1820s. Cities like Chicago and New York dominated American drama by controlling the largest playhouses and sending out stars and entire companies on lengthy commercial tours by train.
Image caption: The elegant interior of the Old Texas Grand Theatre in 1917. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library
Historian Leon Metz says that El Paso was an ideal place for theater companies to lay over when traveling from New York to San Francisco, giving El Paso the advantage of seeing performances that other towns did not. In the late 1880's, a visit from Nellie Boyd's Dramatic Company, along with the growing prosperity of the city, influenced the growth of theater in El Paso.
Nellie Boyd was the first professional actress in many towns of the Southwest and was considered the "First Lady of the El Paso Theater." The plays she performed for her El Paso audiences were brought from New York's best theaters. In fall 1881, W. S. Hill, a wealthy builder, constructed a barn-like theater made of adobe on San Antonio Street in less than one week. Boyd's company played in El Paso's first theater. In less than a month, this theater became a restaurant. It later become a boarding house and finally a club house.
When Boyd returned in 1883, she performed in the new Schutz Opera House located on San Francisco Street. Most theater managers never called their enterprises "theaters" because of the word's indecent connotations. Even in Shakespeare's time, theaters had to be built outside the city limits of London because actors and theater personnel had less than honorable reputations. Thus, the term "opera house" was used to describe a building in which stage performances were given.
Schutz's hall was used for performances until late December 1885. Leon Metz says the owner, Sam Schutz, published the following announcement on December 19: "Owing to the fact that the State Board of Insurance has raised my rate to such an extent to make it onerous, I hereby notify the public that my hall is now closed and will not be used any more for any kind of amusement or performance." After housing a dance academy and serving as a ballroom, the building burned down a few years later.
Each new theater grew increasingly glamorous. The most charming social center in El Paso before the turn of the century was the Myar Opera House built in 1887. Historian W. H. Timmons says that German immigrant Henry W. Myar "erected a structure which became the pride of El Paso theatergoers for almost two decades." Used for dramas, musicals, concerts and other live performances, the Myar Opera House was built in Renaissance style and could seat 1,200 people.
Sonnichsen refers to the Myar as "El Paso's stronghold of culture." Famous actors such as Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry performed at the Myar. Italian coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini gave her first American operatic performance at the Myar Opera house. Sonnichsen says the Myar "gave ocular and audible proof that ours was not just another honky-tonk town. ... When you saw El Paso at its best, in tails and top hats, it was at the Myar."
The glamour came to an end when the Myar Opera House burned down on November 4, 1905, as hundreds of citizens watched El Paso's volunteer firemen contend with low water pressure and poor equipment. Fire destroyed the entire block.
The dawn of the new century brought prosperity to the city and even more alluring theaters. In 1906, the Crawford Theater on North Mesa opened, fully equipped with dressing rooms, rigging and two balconies, the highest one for patrons who could only afford a dime. For the first few years, this theater was used for drama, but by 1913, it featured musical comedy and vaudeville. Later, it became a movie theater, and then it was razed.
Another theater built in 1906 changed names frequently. First called the Standard, then the Bijou , and finally the Franklin, it was located at Paisano and Oregon and seated 800. It hosted road shows and vaudeville acts. Sarah Bernhardt played there in "Camille." A third theater, the Lyric, opened in late 1906.
The Old Texas Grand was built in 1907 at the corner of Campbell and Texas. This theater was used for stage performances and later for showing films. Leon Metz says that "in terms of vaudeville it was 'big time' and many better known stars performed there." A quarter of a century later, the Old Texas Grand showed its first sound picture on Sept. 3, 1932.
The year 1907 brought another theater in an existing building. Metz tells us that Tom Powers, powerful gambling boss whose business was hurt by a wave of reform, converted his Wigwam Saloon and gambling hall into El Paso's first movie theater. Before the film began, audiences were entertained with live acts and musicians. Admission price? Ten cents. The Wigwam would later become the State Theater and now houses a liquor store and a loan company.
Leon Metz mentions other theaters, including the Ellanay which opened in 1918, whimsically named for two El Pasoans named Louis and Andreas, and the Colón, which opened in 1919 with "Rigoletto" performed by an Italian company. It later showed Mexican movies. The Elite opened in 1911, charging 15 cents admission. In 1914, the Alhambra Theater opened on South El Paso Street. The Alhambra later changed its name to the Palace.
The grandest of them all was the Plaza Theater built in 1930. (See article on the Plaza in the 1994 issue of Borderlands). Called the "Showplace of the Southwest", the Plaza held 2,400 patrons and featured murals, bronze statues and other art objects in its decor. Audiences looked up and saw stars created by special lighting, and clouds floated across the ceiling. The Plaza was air conditioned and supplied with sophisticated technology which allowed it to make the transition to "talkies."
A $60,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ provided music for silent films. The organ, having been sold after the Plaza closed in 1973, is once again in El Paso at Sunland Park Mall where local musicians play it every week. Plans to restore the Plaza come and go, but the local treasure remains tucked away downtown, unused, neglected and for the most part, unseen.
Early theaters reflected the increasing national prosperity. Ornate architecture and fine appointments such as velvet upholstered seats, once found only in royal theaters, were introduced to public playhouses. Elaborate sets and costumes followed the trend.
Today, college, high school and community groups perform live theater in auditoriums or small, intimate theaters. A few times a year, traveling troupes perform at the cavernous Abraham Chavez Theater. Mostly, El Pasoans go to movies with three companies dominating business: General Cinema, Cinemark Theaters and Carmike Theaters. Today's theater patron most likely is paying almost $7 for surround sound, stadium seating, and high-tech films.
Gone are the days of enjoying a cartoon or two, news, and a short subject before the feature film. Gone also are the elegance and much of the comfort of the older theaters.
Patrons of live theater pay between $5 and $15 to see local productions. Or they can pay really big bucks for a one-night stand by a traveling company on its way to the West Coast, much like the late 19th and early 20th century.
From "opera houses" in the 1880s to 20-screen multiplexes in 2000, theaters continue to entertain and serve social purposes. It is probable that some type of theater will exist at the end of this century, but what it will look like and what it will feature?
Plaza Theater Renovation (Along the Rio Grande interview #45)