Aztec Theatre More than Moviehouse; It's an Event
By Greg Fieg
Before the turn of the 20th Century it had been a high cathedral, officious hall of government or great university that had been used to make an architectural statement about the identity and character of a great city. But by the Roaring '20s, it was ostentatious theme theaters that best projected a metropolitan image of a community's living standard, growth, culture and opulence.
San Antonio's entry into the palatial theme-moviehouse craze of three-quarters-of-a-century ago was the dazzling Aztec Theatre - an ornately gold-leafed, whimsical showplace with a near-3,000-seat house, 100-piece orchestra pit and 300-foot procenium. As crown jewel of the Southwest, the theater staked a bold claim to parity with the fabulous Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, Proctor's in New York's Capital District and even the magnificent Roxy on Broadway.
It boasted not only three-dimensional Aztec images, but recreations of Mayan, Toltec, Olmec and other ancient Central American architecture. Its centerpiece was a handcrafted, two-story chandelier with 278 lights and estimated to weigh up to two tons.
Patrons dressed as if they were going to church when the Aztec opened at N. St. Mary's and Commerce streets on June 4, 1926, with 3,000 people turned away after the house filled to standing room only. It was a place to go to not only to see in, but to go in and be seen. Those lucky enough to be admitted were entertained by the feature motion picture of the evening, "Other Women's Husbands" starring Monte Blue, plus live vaudevillian performers, singing soloists and 16 dancers in Aztec costume.
The historic theater, last of six that once stood downtown, fell on hard times in later years. In what amounted to something like sacrilege it was ultimately divided into a three-screen complex in the '70s. It was on the verge of demolition when it was saved by the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1988, then turned over to Aztec on the River, Inc., 10 years later. The firm has overseen a restoration that has taken the better part of a decade since its conception, and the theater (www.aztecontheriver.com), now can be recognized with the Riverwalk, Hemisfair Plaza and even the Alamo as a key attraction in San Antonio's greater commercial district.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has been painstakingly brought back to life in accordance with the standards of its period. Its "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ, like a one-piece orchestra, can produce the sound of train whistles, telephone rings, doorbells, auto engines, sirens, horse whinnies, bird chirps and even smashing crockery along with mood music that accompanies old silent movie clips playing daily. To sit within a few feet of the Wurlitzer's towering, throaty pipes is not so much a listening experience as an immersion in sound. The 1,700-pipe instrument, rebuilt from original organs from the old Senate Theatre in Detroit and the Paramount in Boston, completes with unmistakable authenticity a replication of the black-and-white motion picture viewing experience of the silent era.
But that experience has also been modernized with large format, color presentations of such travelogue-style documentaries as "Mystery of the Maya," and "Journey Into Amazing Caves." A special-effects show by Science North Enterprises of Ontario, Canada, takes place in the lobby, blending artifacts, special effects, light, sound, video and celluloid for a unique, riveting, visual display.
The street entrance features a precise restoration of the original box office. At the River Walk entrance, patrons can relax at the Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar, then stop by the gift shop for souvenirs and authentic Mexican crafts.
The lobby show, as big an event as any the theater presents, is free. For more information, including ticket prices, visit the Aztec Web site.
Editor's Note: Since this piece was originally written, the Aztec Theater has undergone more renovations and been closed for periods of time; check the Web site or call ahead if planning a visit. Also, the fare offered at the theater has swung more toward live performances and plays.
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