The Plaza Theatre, located at 125 Pioneer Plaza in downtown El Paso, Texas, represents an important era in American movie theater history and is a unique example of the atmospheric theater style of the 1920s. It has been described as an “exceptional, intact example of an atmospheric movie palace in the United States” and its Spanish Colonial Revival style design reveals much of the unique bi-national and bi-cultural heritage of the American Southwest. [i] For more than forty years it was a local institution entertaining several generations of people from west Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Mexico with films, live performances, celebrities, and public events. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2003 was upgraded to a site of national significance.
The Plaza Theatre on opening night. Image provided by the El Paso Community Foundation.
The Plaza Theatre was built in 1929-30, in the midst of the Great Depression. The border cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua had grown significantly in the early years of the 20th century. By the late 1920s, El Paso was a booming city of more than 100,000 residents with a thriving downtown commercial district. The site of the theater was at the end of a one mile stretch of El Paso Street between Pioneer Plaza and the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez, a thoroughfare sometimes referred to as the "Broadway of the Southwest." [ii]
In 1927 the site was purchased by Louis L. Dent Inc. for a development by Dent Theaters Inc., a Dallas-based theater chain expanding in the new sound movie market. During plans to construct the Plaza Theatre, Dent Theaters was purchased by Paramount-Famous-Pictures-Lasky Corporation. The theater was designed by W. Scott Dunne, a Dallas-based architect and was built by H.T. Ponsford and Sons, an El Paso construction company. The grand opening of the Plaza Theatre took place on September 12, 1930 with a screening of the romantic musical comedy Follow Thru. [iii] Along with the feature film, the audience enjoyed a message from the leading man, Buddy Rogers, a Paramount Sound News newsreel, and a Laurel and Hardy short film.
The Plaza Theatre was designed and built in the Spanish Revival tradition of the early 20th century. The lavish interior was described by the El Paso Morning Times as reflecting the "fabled beauty of Old Spain and the charm of Old Mexico." The Plaza was designed as an "atmospheric" theater; one that creates the illusion of being at an outdoor stage in an open starlit area. A simple vaulted ceiling with technical lighting features simulated clouds and twinkling stars. The 2410 seat theater had many first or unique features. When completed, it was the largest movie theater west of Dallas. It featured the most extensive refrigeration system available, providing cool air-conditioning to patrons and performers. It had the first refrigerated drinking water system in a public building in the country. It was the first theater to use a telephone communications system known as a "telecheck" throughout the auditorium. [iv] One of the most impressive features of the Plaza was its massive Wurlitzer Balaban III organ, built to Dunne's specifications. It featured 15 ranks and 961 pipes and was one of only six produced by the Wurlitzer Company. In building the Plaza, a seventy foot long and eight foot wide steel I-beam was used to support the mezzanine and balcony. This was said to have been the single biggest piece of steel west of Chicago, possibly in the entire country. [v]
The Plaza thrived during the 1940s and 1950s. World premieres at the theater brought major motion picture stars to El Paso including John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and James Stewart. Major films, including 70mm wide screen productions, as well as live entertainment, continued to draw large crowds into the 1960s. A 1965 remodeling of the Plaza brought a new spurt of popularity but suburban cinemas and multi-screen theaters were drawing people away from downtown sites. In 1976 the last film was shown at the Plaza Theatre. [vi]
The Mighty Wurlitzer, however, was saved. In 1959 a group of dedicated volunteers restored the organ but with the decline of the theater it too was threatened. The Mighty Wurlitzer's last theater performance was in 1972. It was purchased by a Dallas resident and was soon forgotten. Later, El Pasoan Karl Wyler and his wife Glyn became major forces in returning the organ to El Paso and having it fully restored. The El Paso Community Foundation arranged for its return and restoration and in 1998 the Mighty Wurlitzer was placed in its new home, the Sunland Park Mall, where it has regularly entertained thousands of people. [vii]
The Plaza Theatre was entered in the National Register of Historic Places as a locally significant site in 1987. During the 1990s the El Paso Community Foundation and the Plaza Theatre Corporation led the move to restore the site. In 2000, the restoration effort was designated as an official project of Save America's Treasures, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millennium Council. From 2000-2004 a variety of federal, state, and local grants were acquired to help with the project. In 2004 the Plaza Theatre was upgraded on National Register of Historic Places to a site of national significance.
[i] Emily Hotaling Eig, “Plaza Theater National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” Sec. C, 1.
[ii] Cynthia Farrah Hines, "Plaza Theater: Showcase of the Southwest," unpublished manuscript, 2.
[iii] Hotaling Eig, "Plaza Theater National Register," 11.
[iv] Hotaling Eig, "Plaza Theater National Register," 6; Farah Haines, "Plaza Theater," 10-11.
[v] Hotaling Eig, "Plaza Theater National Register," 6.
[vi] Farrah Haines, ""Plaza Theater, " 33, 34, 35. Some Spanish language films were shown in 1978.
[vii] Farrah Haines, "Plaza Theater," 16-17.
Eig, Emily Hotaling. “Plaza Theatre.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. Washington, D.C., 2002.
Haines, Cynthia Farrah. “Plaza Theater: Showcase of the Southwest.” Unpublished manuscript. El Paso, TX 2004.
(El Paso, TX) Herald-Post Jan. 3, 1974.
(El Paso,TX) Times Feb 6, 2002; July 31, 2002