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First Opened: 14th December 1914 (105 years ago)
Former Names: Turner Opera House, Rische’s Opera House, the Houston Street Theatre, the Alhambra Theatre, the Empire Opera House
Status: The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre originally opened as the Turner Opera House in 1879.
Telephone: (210) 226-5700
Originally the Turner Opera House, the space now occupied by the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre has been associated with the arts since 1879. The current theatre was built by Thomas Brady and opened in 1914.
In 1850 the Turnverein Association purchased the land to build an exclusive gymnastic club and entertainment center. The first performance to take place in the new Turner Opera House was presented by the San Antonio Literary Association on 8th August 1879. Sometime in late 1890 the theatre was renamed Rische’s Opera House.
Thomas Brady bought the theatre in 1899, restoring then reopening it in September 1900 as a family theatre. This practice continued for a number of years.
In 1913 Thomas Brady engaged St Louis-based architects Mauran, Russell & Crowell to build him a new theatre on the same site but to be enclosed within an eight-story building called the “Brady Building”.
The new Empire Theatre was built as a European palazzo in Renaissance Revival style. Carpets, draperies, and electric fans would be part of the expensive design. Seating capacity was specified at 1,766 with 813 on the orchestra level, 603 on the first balcony, and 350 in the upper balcony. In addition box seats were added at orchestra and first balcony levels. Outside, over the marquee, a copper sculpted eagle, in full flight, highlighted the facade.
Master plasterer Hannibal Pianta and his crew, likely mostly family members, created the lavish plasterwork throughout the auditorium. A pipe organ and electric piano were included and demonstrations of them were given at the lavish opening night on 14th December 1914.
In 1921 the theatre was catastrophically damaged in the San Antonio flood of 1921. Nine feet of water descended onto the theatre ruining much of the interior. Still balancing debt from the building of the theatre, Brady was unable to pay for proper restoration and the theatre’s walls were simply painted over in thick layers of white paint.
Periodical Music Trades reported in late October 1921 that a “Robert-Morton picture organ” had been installed in the theatre. It was a 3-manual 10-rank “Style C” and the top manual was a dummy. “Competent picture organists” were invited to apply for employment on the 2-manual organ in trade magazines of April 1922.
During the Empire’s golden age of the 1920s, many of Hollywood’s biggest stars made personal appearances to promote their new films, including Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney. Even during the Depression years, which caused many movie houses to lose business or even shut down, the Empire Theatre boomed, including one week when well over 15,000 people packed the theater for Mae West’s “Belle of the ’90s”. Among the last major celebrities to appear on the Empire’s stage were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (including his horse Trigger) to throngs of enthusiastic fans.
In 1928 the Majestic Theatre opened around the corner and set a new standard for theatre interiors. The Empire was redecorated in an attempt to compete, however it struggled against the Majestic’s lure and the proliferation of other downtown movie palaces.
After many years exhibiting movies, B-movies, and Blaxploitation movies, the Empire closed in the 1970s. In 1987 the City of San Antonio bought the building, and in 1988 the non-profit organization Las Casas Foundation was created and awarded the master lease in order to head the preservation and restoration of the theatre. Las Casas began raising funds and were able to start the creative process for reviving the Empire back to its former glory.
Over a five year period select areas (the lobby, box house right, and main entry surround) were renovated as a preview / interest generator. The eagle, which had originally sat above the entrance canopy, was found covered-up in a Ladies restroom, restored, and re-sited in its rightful position.
The balcony faces featured a total of 160 rosettes, each with an electric lamp in its center. During the renovation these were entirely re-wired and the rosettes recreated from only four surviving period examples.
During the long period of renovation the Empire’s stage depth was reduced when the back stage wall, shared with the Majestic Theatre, was demolished and rebuilt 18ft into the Empire’s stagehouse, allowing the Majestic an expanded stage to house touring Broadway shows.
The Empire Theatre was renamed by the City of San Antonio in 1998 as the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre to recognize a $1 million gift by Charline and B.J. (Red) McCombs. After being dark for nearly 25 years, the golden jewel was restored in 1998 at an approximate cost of $5.5 million.
As of mid-2018 the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre does not offer tours, however you can tour the Empire’s sister theatre, the Majestic. Check out the Majestic Theatre website for more information and booking.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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