San Antonio’s historic AZTEC Theatre

san antonio aztec theatre

At one time, San Antonio’s historic AZTEC Theatre was not only the talk of the town – but the nation. Now, the Aztec is back, and it’s better than ever before. After years of restoration planning and project, the dream has come true. Discover the theatre that once again is the talk of the town.

Think back on a time when just going to a movie was a special occasion, when the theaters themselves inspired awe and wonder and Hollywood was still a glamorous thing; when movie theaters were called movie palaces and you felt like a King or Queen just walking into the building and taking a seat before the silver screen and stage. It was the roaring 1920’s, before the stock market crash, and life was generally wild and crazy – indeed, by most aspects, life was good.

It was during this time period the elegant movie palace, The Aztec, was designed by noted theater architects Mayer & Holler. San Antonio was ready for a major theater palace, and they weren’t disappointed once it was built.

The prestigious architectural firm had also designed Hollywood’s The Chinese Theater and The Egyptian Theater for movie mogul Sid Grauman. When finished, the theater sported a Meso-American, temple like auditorium and colonnaded lobby.

Movie going was such a favorite past time during the era that it was not unusual for people to go to “the show” every week. Theaters and movie palaces attracted large crowds three to four times a day with even more showings on the weekends. Between 1920-1930, movie attendance in the country soared from 40 million a week to over 90 million. Let’s face it, Americans were mesmerized by the silver screen, and Hollywood had grown as an entertainment source to a point that even rivaled American baseball as our nation’s favorite past time.

But along with the success of the motion picture industry came more public theaters, and soon the challenge for theater owners was how to attract customers away from their competitors. It became apparent that the dramatic appeal of the theater building would be just as important for customers as the entertainment itself.

As one studio head put it, “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”

So began a new era in theater architecture and the birth of the movie palace.

A movie palace differed greatly from it’s theater predecessor, the nickelodeon, which had somewhat of a seedy reputation. The movie palace was a fantasy world where everyone could become royalty – if but for a single night. After all, the surroundings were luxurious and glamorous, often accented by marble staircases, velvet drapes, elaborate chandeliers – plus a series of elegantly theme designed rooms to explore before ever entering the main auditorium. In this respect it was like a 1920s theme park adventure. The entertainment was cheap, complete with stage shows, permanent orchestras, organs, and first run films.

Patrons were treated by ushers and attendants with the demeanor of a refined royal servant. And often these theaters took on the style of exotic locations such as the Forbidden City, the Palace of Versailles and fortunately for San Antonio, the Mysterious World of the Aztec Indians.
And so, in 1926, the River City gave birth to the Aztec Palace, one of the grand movie palaces in the nation. For the time, an inordinate amount of money was spent on this grand piece of architecture, $2 million in fact. The owners of the theater wanted to immerse their patrons in the quintessential Meso American civilization and reproduced authentic columns, reliefs, and artifacts to accomplish the feat. To crown off the main lobby, a two story chandelier was installed and was reported by the press to be “the largest chandelier in the largest state of the Union”.

On opening night, June 4, 1926, some 6,000 people vied to see San Antonio’s newest wonder – the Aztec. But only 3,000 lucky ticket holders were admitted. The opening day extravaganza included performances by a 26 piece orchestra, 16 “Aztec Chorus Girls”, and – on the “13 Rank” theater pipe organ – a stage drama, The Court of Monteczuma, and the feature silent film Other Women’s Husbands.

For more than 63 years the Aztec entertained tens of thousands of South Texas residents and world travelers. As the birth of the modern cinema, malls, and urban development gave way to growth on the outskirts of San Antonio however, fewer people were interested in the old movie palace.

In 1989 the Aztec closed and was scheduled to be destroyed. Fortunately, and thanks to the efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society, the Aztec was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was this that saved the historic theater from the certain doom that awaited.

Now, the mighty movie palace is about to reopen again, the culmination of years of planning, fundraising, renovating and recovery, with careful attention given to not only restoring the theater to its original glory, but to incorporate high technology into the framework, making the Aztec both a blast from the past and a major modern entertainment and amusement attraction.

It wasn’t easy going however. Once the planning started, it was a full decade before renovation efforts would actually begin. Creating the right plan – and the right team – to bring the movie palace into the 21st century without losing it’s original appeal was a monumental task. But a five member restoration team was assembled and brought hundreds of entertainment, financial, real estate and restoration professionals to the table to bring the Aztec back to life.

The five member team included IWERKS Entertainment, Inc., one of the world’s leading full-service providers of high-tech entertainment systems, ride simulations, and specialty venue attractions, to insure state of the art technology in the redesign efforts. More than 250 IWERKS attractions can be found throughout the world at museums, hotels, theme parks and resorts, so the company brought a great deal of experience to the table.

Another member of the team, Science North Enterprises, is widely respected for creating theater shows that incorporate a blend of artifacts, special effects, light, sound, film, slides, video, and venue-appropriate objects and subject matter to provide audiences with a unique entertainment experience.

Of course no project of this size and depth could be successful without it’s financial planning, backing and investors. It’s great that a hometown (San Antonio) based financial group, Euro-Alamo Management, Inc., held the reins on the project. And the construction and development company had local ties as well. Drury Southwest, Inc., which is responsible for the construction and development of hotel and office properties in the southern United States, has a regional office in San Antonio. The company has become a leader in historic renovations, and in conjunction with the Aztec Theater project, Drury is currently renovating the historic Alamo National Bank Building and converting it into a Drury Plaza Hotel.

Adding to the difficulty of the project is the challenging task of restoring significant historic elements of the original theater. Fortunately for San Antonio, one of the best in the business is a San Antonian.

Restoration Associates Ltd. has been in the business for over 46 years and it’s team of conservators and restoration artists are experts in the conservation of wall mural paintings, architectural elements, objects and wood artifacts.

One particular object of restoration had a special appeal to a San Antonio artist. The infamous “largest chandelier in the largest state of the Union” would be meticulously restored and reinstalled by Ted Voss of Kurt Voss Metals, Inc., the grandson of the original chandelier designer Theo Voss. Seventy six years after its construction, grandson Voss has once again put the family name at the top of the historic theater.

The restoration and project development began on August 2000. The six year project has been a great testament to a city that passionately cares about it’s history. It is fortunate for San Antonio that many professional corporations and organizations had local ties to the project and grand visions for the Aztec.

The hard work pays off with the grand opening of the new Aztec On The River this month.

The new Aztec On The River™ offers the entertainment value of the old movie palace combined with the education and entertainment technology of the 21st century. It’s destined to be a favorite destination for tourists and locals alike. Its fully restored lobby features a spectacular, multimillion dollar special effects show every ninety minutes, free and open to the public. Guests with tickets enter the auditorium where they experience even more special effects, including a massive 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ.

Once guests are seated, the show takes them back to 1926 with an authentic silent film movie experience, and then fast-forwards them through time to the high fidelity sound system and giant state-of-the-art iWERKS Extreme Screen™.

But the fun doesn’t stop with the entertainment. Visitors to the new Aztec on the River can also browse through a new River Walk level and experience another free special effects show featuring the theater’s enormous engine room. The area also includes over 19,000 sq.ft. of retail space for restaurants and unique shops.

Compared to the golden ’20s, going to the movies has changed dramatically. Weekly movie attendance by capita has declined. Most movies are shown at “multiplexes” where a large amount of space is given to marketing efforts and concession stands. And while the new technology and comfort of stadium seating is nice, you can hardly call it a stellar entertainment experience.

But it’s good to know that while other grand old structures are disappearing throughout the nation, the Aztec has been reborn and will continue to entertain thousands of visitors for the years to come.

Aztec Theatre
104 N St Mary’s St
San Antonio, TX 78205

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