Majestic auditorium Aug 1999
The Majestic Theatre was built in 1928 by Karl Hoblitzelle for his theatre chain (the Interstate Amusement Company of Dallas). Hoblitzelle began the Interstate with his brother George shortly after leaving his employment at the St. Louis World's Fair. They scraped together $2500 with the intention of capitalizing on the lack of vaudeville type entertainment in the southwestern United States. The investment would prove itself to be a wise one, for both the Hoblitzelles and the people of the Southwest. The Interstate would evolve from vaudeville performances, to silent movies, and naturally, into the talking movies. Hoblitzelle insisted that his establishments would provide clean, wholesome entertainment and pass the inspection of the watchful eyes of the local churches. The Interstate chain also maintained the highest standards in all aspects of theatre work, and eventually grew into one of the largest motion picture chains in the Southwest.
The Majestic Theatre was one of many designed by John Eberson for Hoblitzelle, and it was Eberson's final "trademark" Atmospheric theatre, the first being The Majestic in Houston in 1923. Eberson's first documented collaboration with Interstate, an experiment at atmospheric theatre design, was The Austin Majestic, in 1914 (now restored and renamed The Paramount). The San Antonio Majestic is one of the few "atmospherics" remaining of the dozens that Eberson designed throughout the United States. The name, "Majestic", was a Hoblitzelle tradition.
Eberson (1875-1964) was born in Cernauti, Bukovina, a region of Romania. After attending high school in Dresden, he then studied at the University of Vienna in 1893. Later he was imprisoned after a disagreement with a superior officer in his military regiment and eventually escaped. He emigrated to the United States in 1901, and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he learned the principals of theatre design. Between 1901-03 he experimented with the atmospheric style while working for the Johnston Realty and Construction Company. The Jewel in Hamilton, Ohio (1909), is his earliest known conventional theater commission. In 1910, after moving to Chicago, steady theater design work was coming his way. His early commissions were traditional theatre designs, but, with the Austin Majestic (1916), and Dallas Majestic (1917), he began his shift to the atmospheric style. The Houston Majestic, his first truly "atmospheric", opened in 1923. Eberson's European heritage was clearly evident in the landscape and gardens, many fountains, grottoes, and, statuary and other interior motifs. Eberson's design work was so popular that sketches and blueprints were stolen from his studio, and later appeared in other theatres by competing architects.
Eberson concentrated on creating the illusion of an exterior space within his theatre's interiors. Windows, tile roofs, and balconies are common. John Eberson said, "We visualize and dream a magnificent amphitheater, an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio or a mystic Egyptian temple yard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky."
At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair he learned a technique using a combination of plaster and straw to cast the ornaments that were lettered and numbered for assembly later, on site. At the San Antonio Majestic Theatre these parts were modeled by  Hannibal Pianta, and cast at his shop on Fredericksburg Rd. Installation of these ornaments were assembled on site by Hannibal's son, Eugene, and his crew.
Probably the most popular movie house in San Antonio throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, all the top rated movies were shown at the Majestic. Built at a cost of $3 million in 1928-29, by the local contracting firm of Walsh and Burney, Inc., on land leased from J.M. Nix, seating 4000 people, it was the largest theatre in the south when it opened on June 14, 1929. Otto Johnson was the local architectural representative. Called the MagicStick by some, it is one of the finest examples of the Atmospherics surviving in the U.S.A. today. A great number of these fine movie houses have been demolished, but Joci Strauss, Las Casas, and many other conservation minded supporters worked long and hard, and saved the Majestic from the wrecking ball in the late 1980s. Funds were gathered mostly from private sources (and the city of San Antonio - $2 million) and restoration began in 1988, after being boarded up for several years.
This was a major undertaking led by Milton Babbitt of 3D/International Architects. Many hands were involved in the restoration, repair, and rebuilding of this house.
My dad, Tom, and I spent almost a year doing all the plaster restoration that was needed. We did work in all areas of the theatre from the proscenium to the sky 70 feet above the floor, to the very back in the second balcony. Some areas needed major repair and replacement. One fifty foot stretch of elaborately embellished soffit in the second balcony was completely removed, reproduced, and replaced. It had been ruined by leaking air conditioning ductwork above it. A life size statue of Venus, above the proscenium arch, was missing her right arm from the bicep down. We replaced the arm using my twelve year old nephew as a model for her hand. At the time it was just the right size. There is also a little cupid (about three feet tall) standing in a niche high up on the house left wall. He was missing part of his hand, and I rebuilt it. I assume the hand was damaged when his bow was removed. The bow is still missing.
In the lobby, there was also quite a bit of work for us, as it had been modified several times through the years. After you purchase your ticket at the kiosk, and you enter the front doors, there is a bronze statue titled "Sweet Grapes", done by Harriet W. Frishmuth in 1928. In the 50s, the statue was put into storage, and the elaborately embellished surround was demolished, in order to make room for a popcorn machine. I have seen pictures of the original surround, and it was a beautiful piece of work. Funds will become available soon to replace the surround (Aug 1999). The statue has been put back in place, and my dad and I constructed a new pedestal for it, designed by Milton Babbitt.
Also in the lobby, there was an aquarium for many years, and it was removed during a remodel in about 1980. The elaborate surround was demolished at this time. This surround was replaced during the restoration in 1989, after the aquarium was returned. The aquarium had "disappeared" at the time of the remodel job. There are some pictures here, and I will add some better shots as soon as possible. Also removed at that time was one of the three sets of doors between the lobby and the main auditorium. Some of the embellishment above the doors was demolished, as well as the floral applique on the jambs that surround the doors. We restored this all back to original in 1989.
There are several pages of detail photos here: details.
After the theatre restoration was completed, my dad and I were awarded the Lynn Ford Craftsman Award by the San Antonio Conservation Society. It was presented to us by then Mayor Nelson Wolfe, on stage at the Majestic during a special awards ceremony there in June 1990. Some others receiving recognition that evening included Milton Babbitt, and some others that I will have to research. There is a photo of the Lynn Ford trophy and the award itself at the link near the beginning of this paragraph.
I will be adding much more here about the theatre and our work there in the near future. be cont. 08/27/2006.battersby.
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