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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
There is also another page with old and new, side by side, and links to other images
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
The funds were in place,
and "The Rebirth" finally began in 1996.
To read about my time
working at the
Empire CLICK here