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Aztec Theatre, San Antonio

Aztec Theatre, San Antonio

First Opened: 4th June 1926 (93 years ago)

Reopened: 2006, 2009, & 2014

Former Names: Aztec on the River

Website: www.theaztectheatre.com Open website in new window

Telephone: (210) 812-4355 Call (210) 812-4355

Address: 104 North St Mary’s Street, San Antonio, TX 78205 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

 Featured Photos

 Overview

The Aztec Theatre opened in June 1926 as a Mesoamerican-themed atmospheric movie theatre, generally considered the most elaborate example of its kind throughout the entire United States. Despite triplexing in the 1970s and an extended period of closure in the 1990s/2000s, the theatre has been restored to its 1920s glory and is currently an active live entertainment venue managed by Live Nation.

In 1925 a group of prominent San Antonio businessmen formed the Commerce Realty Company with the intention of building a movie palace for the city. The Kellwood Company offered its principal architect for the project, Robert B. Kelly, who architected the theatre in collaboration with designer R.O. Koenig for a cost of $1.75 million.

Built within a six-story office building, the theatre’s exotic theme was to be Mesoamerican, incorporating features interpreted from the Aztec, Mayan, Mixtec, Toltec, and Zapotec cultures. Kelly and Koenig spent several months in Mexico researching archaeological sites and visiting museums – particularly in Mexico City – creating models and sketches as part of their studies.

Included within the design of the theatre building was a basement level café. The Old South Café was a hit from the outset in the mid-1920s and served Southern-style home cooking for around 20 years. It was accessible only by a single stairway adjacent to the theatre’s main entrance, and patrons waiting to be seated could often be seen backing-up on the stairs. It would later become a Mexican restaurant.

The Aztec’s auditorium is an “atmospheric” style. Architect John Eberson is generally credited with devising the style, in which the auditorium resembles an outdoor courtyard with an open blue sky above, often featuring twinkling stars and projected moving clouds. The extant Majestic Theatre in San Antonio is a particularly good example of an Eberson atmospheric auditorium. The Aztec’s ceiling has been altered over the years (it is raised and flattened in the center; done to accommodate a now-absent movie screen which used to hang over the orchestra seating area in advance of the balcony and could be retracted up to the ceiling) however the original ceiling curved up gently from the sidewalls with no visible joins or lines and was painted to look like the sky. It featured approximately 100 lit and twinkling stars, and had moving cloud lighting effects projected onto it from four projectors, probably hidden behind the sidewalls. Hidden cove lighting created a mood appropriate to the show or season, such as cool blue during the hot summers or a warming red glow in winter.

Unlike most atmospheric theatres, the main architectural elements of the Aztec’s auditorium are symmetrical. Monumental Doric columns support the proscenium, flanked on their inner edges by gigantic cut stones gradually stepping inward as they rise from stage floor to the proscenium above. To the sides of the proscenium are pairs of cylindrical columns with the appearance of cut stone and capped by giant sculptures of Coyolauhqui, the Aztec Moon goddess. The sculptures have burning red eyes and Aztec sun stones sitting atop their heads, and surround ornate organ grilles composed of writhing golden serpents amongst intricate wave and circle patterns, Mesoamerican symbols for water and sand. Above the organ grilles the stepped-back “roofs” allude to Mayan or Aztec stepped pyramids. The whole auditorium decoration was intended to create the illusion of sitting within an open courtyard in a Mesoamerican temple complex.

Above the proscenium is a large horizontal low-relief carving replicating panels found in the Temple of the Plumed Serpent at Xochicalco and featuring the sacred serpent Quetzalcoatl. The entire proscenium panel is surmounted by twenty colossal stepped blocks, each with its own individual illustration, representing the 20 Day Signs of the Aztec and Mixtec calendars. The proscenium centerpiece is a complex monumental sun motif located centrally above the stage, capable of being lit from within in a mix of colors (originally noted as 20 colors, linking to the Aztec/Mixtec Day Signs and/or their vigesimal (base-20) numbering system). Tradition had it that the sun device was always lit in gold at the end of a performance.

The theatre houses a fire curtain with an elaborate painted design by Herbert Bernard and executed by Volland Scenic Studios of St. Louis. The scene depicts the meeting of conquistador Hernando Cortez and Aztec ruler Montezuma in 1519 at the outskirts of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The fire curtain was last photographed in the late 2000s but is understood to still be in place as of 2019.

The impressive four-story colonnaded lobby features a massive one-and-a-half ton chandelier, two stories tall and 12ft wide, hailed as the largest chandelier in Texas when it was added to the theatre in 1929. It was commissioned because theatre management decided they needed to step up their game and elevate the theatre’s level of grandeur in light of the Majestic Theatre opening just a couple of blocks away. The chandelier was constructed out of steel and glass from scratch in just 35 days. Directly underneath the chandelier sat a circular sacrificial altar stone featuring detailed carving (see photo below), however it was removed from the theatre after being sold in the 1960s.

Surrounding the lobby at orchestra level there are 16 wall lamps, supported on slender columns rising from the floor which are modeled on ceremonial staffs and feature Mayan detailing. The wall lamps have heraldic emblems and send a gold light outwards and upwards throughout the lobby.

The lobby also features heavily detailed murals on the balcony stair landings, modeled after Lintel 39 from the Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan (north side) and the Mayan Temple of the Sun at Palenque (south side). The upper corners of the stairway portals in the lobby feature serpent head brackets, placed there to pay homage to the ancient Aztec practice of stationing such figures at the base of ceremonial stairways, the most familiar example being Kukulan, the feathered Mayan snake god, at the base of the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichen Itza.

At mezzanine level, 16 gigantic round columns frame open galleries overlooking the orchestra-level lobby below. The columns have a cut stone appearance and were reportedly inspired by the Hall of Columns at the Mixtec ruins of Mitla in south Oaxaca. Capping the columns are brightly colored heads of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, complete with burning red-lit eyes. The three coffers in the lobby ceiling were originally painted with blue sky and clouds.

The theatre’s entrance was originally open to the street however it is now enclosed with wall-to-wall glass doors. Inside the vestibule the floor features brightly colored tiling with the centerpiece being the ticket booth, styled to suggest a stepped Mesoamerican pyramid. The ticket booth originally featured black wrought iron bars for security, shaped and painted to look like arrows.

Opening night at the Aztec was 4th June 1926 and featured a 26-piece orchestra with Aztec chorus girls. A crowd of 6,000 tried to get one of the theatre’s 2,500 seats; ultimately 3,000 patrons were admitted.

The theatre was originally furnished with a 3-manual, 11-rank Robert Morton organ (Opus 18586). The organ was restored by Ed Gaida in 1958. As of 2019, organ pipes are still in place in the original organ chambers, and a disconnected Wurlitzer console is on display in the VIP “Warrior Room” at the House Right side of the auditorium. For more details of organ changes, skip to the details of the 2006 renovation, below.

In 1932 a sulfur (stench) bomb was exploded in the theatre, burning six people – two seriously. The explosion was the fourth stench bombing to occur at a theatre in San Antonio since 1930, the result of a nation-wide phenomenon created by the woes of the Great Depression which saw theatre operators fight back against theatre management for fair pay and staffing.

The theatre was listed in the Film Daily Yearbook of 1943 as having a seating capacity of 2,451 and being operated by Paramount Pictures through their subsidiary Hoblitzelle & O’Donnell.

The Aztec was popular for many years, however in response to the growth of television, and in common with most single-screen theatres of the time, the Aztec was triplexed in the 1970s. It was advertised as the Aztec Triplex and the digit “3” was added to the theatre’s blade sign, below the word AZTEC.

In 1988 the San Antonio Conservation Society Link opens in new window purchased the theatre, saving it from potential demolition for parking or conversion to a hotel, and continued movie operations for another year, however the theatre eventually went dark in 1989.

In 1992 the theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the only surviving example of a Mayan Revival style theatre in Texas, as well as one of the few and best remaining examples of the style in the nation. In August 1993, the San Antonio Conservation Society sought to sell the Aztec Building with preservation covenants, requiring buyers to return the theatre to its 1920s glory. Several potential uses were circulated, including being a new home for the San Antonio Symphony, conversion to a dinner theatre or a Spanish-language TV studio, however none of the proposals progressed.

In 1998, Baron Theodore Bracht, from Belgium, purchased the building with the intent of turning it into a family restaurant and entertainment complex. In Spring 2000 a $20 million restoration project commenced, including some new construction tunneling under the roadway (Crockett St) between the theatre building and the San Antonio River Walk, thereby affording direct access to the theatre from the River Walk. The space initially included “a museumlike exhibit” showcasing the 1920s-era mechanical equipment used to run the theatre, however as of 2019 the underground space is occupied by retail and there is no longer public access up into the theatre.

The restoration project was completed in 2006 and the theatre reopened on Saturday 1st April 2006 as Aztec on the River, featuring:

Sadly Aztec on the River closed mid-December 2007 after struggling to find its identity and attract an audience, the latter in part due to the films it screened which appeared dated when compared to the up-to-date titles and 3D features being screened at the IMAX theatre in Rivercenter, just half a mile away.

In early 2008 Drury Hotels negotiated a lease on the theatre with the intention to reopen it as a concert venue, showcasing San Antonio Rose Live – a two-hour Branson, Missouri style entertainment cabaret featuring traditional Country, Western swing, and Gospel music, headlined by Country singer Darrell McCall. A $4 million conversion was undertaken and the show opened on 21st September 2009. After a two-and-a-half year run the show closed in February 2012 due to “current and future economic circumstances”.

In 2013 Samuel Panchevre’s PHH Ventures LLC signed a multi-year lease to operate the theatre. With a $2 million redevelopment the Aztec was reimagined as a live entertainment venue, increasing capacity from 1,700 to 2,000. The orchestra seats were removed, replaced by terraced flooring that could accommodate chairs, cocktails tables, or standing room only – with a central bar serving the area. The theatre reopened in 2014. In early 2015 the building was sold to Samuel Panchevre, and less than half a year later a 51% stake was sold to Live Nation.

The Aztec is currently programmed and managed by House of Blues Entertainment, a division of Live Nation whose portfolio includes The Wiltern in Los Angeles, The Tabernacle in Atlanta and other live music venues across the US that fly the House of Blues flag.

 Listed/Landmark Building Status

 How do I visit the Aztec Theatre?

As of mid-2017 the Aztec does not offer tours however they host a multitude of events which are available to book online on the Aztec Theatre’s website Link opens in new window.

 Further Reading

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Historic Photos & Documents

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 Photos of the Aztec Theatre

Auditorium - Balcony Level

The balcony currently seats 677 with movie theatre style seating.

The detailed and colorfurl friezes surrounding the exit doors at either end of the balcony cross aisle are not original. Rick Armendariz, a UTSA art professor, recreated them as part of the renovation project completed in 2006, based on black-and-white photographs of the originals and slivers of surviving painted plasterwork.

Towards the rear of the balcony, a monolithic arch with the appearance of cut stone blocks spans the entire width of the auditorium. Framing the stage for patrons sitting in the rearmost seats, it helps draw the eye into the overall picture and affords a sense of being sat within the Mesoamerican courtyard setting as opposed to - in reality - being sat quite far back from it. Practically, the arch allows the atmospheric “sky” ceiling to transition into a higher, flat ceiling to the rear of the arch, extending back to the projection booth.

The existing projection booth is not original and most likely dates from the 2006 renovation which featured large-format projection onto a 60ft by 45ft iWERKS “Extreme” screen. It is not known what, if anything, remains of the original projection booth.


Auditorium - Orchestra Level

The orchestra level currently consists of standing room in front of the stage on stepped risers, which back onto VIP tables underneath the balcony. A small technical/sound control cockpit is located at the front center of the VIP section, and to the rear is a large bar serving the entire orchestra level.

Balcony soffit light fixtures and painted decorations have been retained and restored.

Although the Wurlitzer organ console is not currently connected to the rest of the organ system (the console is on display in the VIP “Warrior Room”), the organ chambers are still populated with organ pipes. The organ grilles are decorated with wave and circle patterns, Mesoamerican symbols for water and sand. The gigantic cylindrical columns surrounding the organ grilles are each capped with a sculpture of Coyolauhqui, the Aztec Moon goddess.


Backstage

There is not much to see backstage at the Aztec Theatre. Whereas the grid is still intact, all soft goods are dead hung and lighting trusses are mounted on electric winches. A large HVAC duct runs across the stage, approximately midstage. There is nothing to be seen of any previous flying system installation.

As of 2019 the blue velour house curtain is inoperable however the original 1926 painted fire curtain is still in-situ.


Exterior

The theatre’s main entrance is on North St Mary’s St, on the building’s west side. The original canopy spanned most of the west and south sides of the building, with a secondary ticket booth and entrance on the south side (no longer in use). The canopy around the main entrance was embellished in later years. The current box office is located on North St Mary’s St, at the northwest corner of the building.

When the Aztec operated as a triplex, the circular neon device at the bottom of the blade sign was inset with a large digit ‘3’, such that the sign read AZTEC 3.


Lobby - Balcony Level

Balcony level of the lobby affords a mezzanine promenade overlooking the main floor (orchestra) level. Stairs leading up from the orchestra level are located on the north and south sides, each featuring large scale low-relief plasterwork on the mid-way landings. The north side features a panel styled after Lintel 39 from the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan, whereas the south side features a panel styled after the Mayan Temple of the Sun at Palenque. The south side of the lobby at balcony level was used as a lounge, and was designated as a museum on the original blueprints for the building.

Closeup views of the lobby chandelier highlight the six tiers of candle-like lamps rising upward and inward, casting a gentle golden glow throughout the space. It is also possible to clearly see the saucer-like bowls below each of the 16 gigantic columns (reportedly inspired by the Hall of Columns at the Mixtec ruins of Mitla in south Oaxaca) which provide a way to light the columns and the large sculptures of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, which cap each of the 16 columns.

The west promenade, above the exterior entrance, features seven identical sculptures spaced at regular intervals which were inspired by Zapotec funerary urns. Raised up on columns with the appearance of cut stone, the faces stare out at head height with their burning lit eyes, surrounded by hidden red lighting from behind their stylized headdresses.

Entrances to the balcony were styled as temple entrances, accentuated by the steps running up through the vomitory which are suggestive of stepped ceremonial pyramids such as those found at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.


Lobby - Orchestra Level

The Grand Lobby rises four stories from floor to ceiling. A massive chandelier, said to be the largest in Texas when it was installed in 1929, is the centerpiece of the lobby. The chandelier has a diameter of 12ft, weighs one-and-a-half tons, and is two stories high. It is suspended from the center of three coffers in the lobby ceiling which were originally painted to show a blue sky with fluffy clouds. The chandelier originally contained around 500 lamps and features multi-colored stencilled Mesoamerican figures lit from behind on its lower part, giving way to six tiers of candle-style lighting above.

The orchestra level of the lobby features lamp standards spaced equally around the room, heraldic symbols emanating gold light mounted on the walls with standards seemingly supporting them from the floor, modeled after the ceremonial staffs carried by Mesoamerican priests.

Every door leading out of the lobby features the sacred jaguar in a circular emblem on the lintel above the door. On the wall adjoining with the auditorium there are three Aztec Maize Goddesses set within niches, each holding a bowl which emanates golden light upwards.

The stairs to the balcony level feature large scale low-relief plasterwork on the landings. The north side features a panel styled after Lintel 39 from the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan. The south side features a panel styled after the Mayan Temple of the Sun at Palenque.

The balcony level features gallery promenades overlooking the main lobby level. Here there are multiple monumental columns, capped by the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui looking into the lobby with burning red lit eyes.


Organ Console

The organ console is currently located in the VIP “Warrior Room”, at the House Right side of the theatre at balcony level.

The theatre was originally equipped with a 3-manual, 11-rank Robert Morton organ (Opus 18586) however as part of the $20 million restoration project completed in 2006, a 1931 Mighty Wurlitzer organ console (Opus 2173) was installed at the House Left side of the Balcony, one of only three Waterfall-style consoles made by the Wurlitzer company. The console was originally installed in the Paramount Theatre in Boston, MA and had been in storage since December 1997. Waterfall-style consoles were originally painted gold however a new color scheme was created for installation into the Aztec. The 1,700-piece organ pipe and percussion system was bought from Oral Roberts University, with reconditioning including computer playback controls.


Other Public Areas

The Ladies Lounge at balcony level is original, and despite pressure to increase restroom facilities the lounge continues to be preserved as it was originally built.

The ticket booth, centered within a vestibule which was originally open to the sidewalk, is original and designed to be reminiscent of a Mesoamerican stepped pyramid. The ticket booth windows originally featured black wrought iron bars for security, shaped and painted to look like arrows.


Photographs copyright © 2002-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
For photograph licensing and/or re-use contact me here.



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