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
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
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
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.
..to be cont. 08/27/2006.battersby.