click here to read text of the history the Empire
 
don't click here, click directly below
 
click here to see photos of the finished decoration
 
click here to see photos taken at the Empire in 1989
 
click here to see some of the photos from the 1998 construction phase
 
click here to see a photo from the proscenium arch
 
click here to see photos taken in 1913, during the original construction
 
The Empire was built in 1913-14 on the east side of St. Mary's St. south of Houston St. at the corner of College St. The San Antonio River is one half block south. The property there was purchased in 1890 for $56,000 (from the Turn Verein Association) by Thomas F. Brady. He commissioned the architectural firm of Mauran, Russell, and Crowell, of St. Louis, Missouri, to design the eight story Brady Building and the Empire.  The Great Flood in 1921 through downtown San Antonio filled the theatre with nine feet of water, and much work was needed to reopen.
On August 8, 1879 the San Antonio Literary Association premiered it's first production, "The Irish Tudor", in an opera house built by the Turn Verein Association. They purchased the land there in 1850 and built an exclusive gymnastic club and entertainment center.
For twenty years the Turner Opera House was successively operated as Rische's Opera House, the Houston Street Theatre, the Alhambra Theatre, and O'Conner's Furniture Store. This all took place in a three or four story structure on the corner of Houston Street. A one story building at the College Street corner housed Edward Dusselvorst's Opera House Bar. On September 2, 1900 the theatre was reopened, after a restoration, as a family theatre at popular prices.
In 1913 Mr. Brady leased the property to W.L. Lyttle for a five year period at $1,500 a month. Construction began in late 1913 on the Empire Theatre and The Brady Building. Carpets, draperies, and electric fans would be included with the furnishing. A complete lighting system, ventilating system, a scenery set, and stage equipment would also be installed. The stage curtain was to be a gold fiber screen with a six foot velvet border. Moving pictures, vaudeville and stock performances were coming here soon. Lyttle was to be allowed to place posters announcing the coming attractions in the Brady Building.
Seats of the latest and best design were specified for all floors. Eight hundred thirteen on the orchestra level, six hundred and three on the first balcony, and three hundred and fifty at the upper balcony. In addition first level and balcony level box seats were placed on each side near the stage. The seats were required to be on par with the seats at the original Majestic Theatre located on Main Street just north of Houston Street (there is a parking lot there at this time, 12/04/1998).
Hannibal Pianta and his crew (mostly family members) created all of the lavish plaster embellishments that adorn the walls and ceilings in the auditorium. The one pictured at the top of this page is just one of hundreds inside this grand old house. Mr. Pianta came to San Antonio in about 1908, from Italy. His father, John Pianta, had a plaster casting shop on Leal St., specializing in ornamental capitals. Most of the capitals on the homes in San Antonio were produced in this shop. John was the chief plasterer at the Texas State Capitol, as well as the Georgia State Capitol. John died in 1912, and soon after that Hannibal opened a shop on Fredricksburg Rd, close to Five Points. Hannibal also created all of the ornamentation for the Majestic Theatre, and the Aztec Theatre, to mention just a few of his accomplishments. Hannibal died in a train wreck in 1937. There is more info, and a photo of Hannibal in his shop if you click here.
A movie projector was to be included, the same as the one at the Wigwam Theatre #2. A pipe organ and an electric piano would fill the auditorium with sounds. J. Arthur Geils, "the tallest organist in the world", would operate the organ on opening night, Dec. 14, 1914. Speeches were given at the dedication ceremony by then Mayor Brown, Rabbi Marks, Judge James R. Davis, J.H. Kirkpatrick, and L.J. Hart. "Neptune's Daughter, starring Annette Kellerman, was screened that evening.
The theatre was eventually sold to a Dallas man, and the organ was given to Waco's Baylor University after his death.
Around the corner of Houston St., in 1928, Hoblitzelle built the Majestic Theatre for his chain. The last in a line of Atmospherics designed by John Eberson (his first being the Majestic in Austin, Tx, in 1914, now called the Paramount). At this time the Empire was redecorated to come up to the new standard set by the Majestic. The Empire struggled, competing against quite a few other downtown Movie Palaces, for the most part now all gone, (doors closed, or mostly victims of the wrecking ball). The Decline included a lot of B-Film and Smut, earning itself the nickname- The Impure (around the corner, was The MagicStick).
According to a friend of mine, who walked the foot patrol downtown for the SAPD in the late sixties, it was patronized mostly by Air Force recruits, and some local characters. He says when stepping inside to check on things, the air reeked foully, and rats the size of small cats could be seen darting about. Of course that has all changed now.
The Impure's doors finally closed in 1973. The Las Casas Foundation acquired the Theatre in 1988, along with the MagicStick, and the Aztec.
The Texas also around the corner, had already been demolished to make room for a savings and loan that survived for about two years, before going down along with a large group of other financial institutions.
Las Casas commissioned Milton Babbitt (3DI), to begin executing a master plan for the restoration and renovation of the much dilapidated, dismantled, and dated old movie house, in 1991.
There are several pages with photos of the finished work at the restored Empire Theatre if you click here.
Several areas were restored over about a five year period, as a preview / interest generator, including the main entry surround, the lobby, and the box seat surround house right.
During this time the lobby was restored, including plaster restoration by  Battersby Ornamental, and a new polychrome finish with a generous reapplication of gold leaf, by Cisi Jary and her daughter Pam Rosser.
At the exterior a new marble kiosk was designed by Milton Babbitt, and put in place by M. J. Boyle General Contractors, along with a twin set of double doors flanking the kiosk.
Allen Swartzkopf directed Boyle's crew in the application of three wood panels above the doors and kiosk to receive ornaments that were removed from the house left box surround, refined (to adapt to their new location), recast and placed by Battersby Ornmntl. Twin Bacchus' watch from above each set of doors, and a large cartouche is placed above the kiosk. These exterior embellishments remain to be painted at this time (Nov. 98).
There is a photo of the original copper eagle , which was also restored and placed back on his original perch above St. Mary's St. on the canopy.
At the box surround house right (which extends from the floor and up 38' to the ceiling intersection), paint applied at the time of the original construction, the Great Flood refurbishment, and the Majestic catch up job, was all removed, leaving the raw 70 yr. old plaster exposed. Battersby Ornmntl. restored the plaster, which was in surprisingly good condition in this area. Then Cisi and Pam redecorated after doing a layer by layer analysis to determine the original scheme (mostly powdered gold, silver, bronze, and copper, accented heavily with gold leaf ). There is a photo of the top of the box surround, with the new decoration, and the area directly above, with paint applied sometime after 1921, at this LINK. There is also another page with old and new, side by side, and links to other images HERE.
Also during this time, the Majestic Theatre stage was enlarged to accommodate the large sets that now accompany the Broadway shows brought in by ACE Enterprises, who run both the Empire and the Majestic. The two theatres share a common back stage wall which was demolished, and rebuilt about 18' into the Empire's stage...........
The funds were in place, and "The Rebirth" finally began in 1996.
To read about my time working at the  Empire CLICK here 
 
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stuccoist