Charline McCombs Empire Theatre

226 N. St. Mary's Street,
San Antonio, TX 78205

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Empire Theatre ca. 1918

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Since the 1870’s, the land on which the present Empire Theatre sits on has been occupied by a theater, first the Turner Opera House, later called Riche’s Opera, the Houston Street Theatre, the Alhambra Theatre, and finally the Empire Opera House.

Thomas Brady acquired the Empire in 1890 and remodeled it for legitimate “wholesome” theater, as it remained until 1913, when Brady built a new Empire Theatre on the site, inside an office tower later named the Brady Building. The Empire Theatre opened on December 14, 1914.

Designed by the firm of Mauran, Russell & Crowe of Saint Louis, the theater was designed as a European-style opera house, and was acclaimed as the first modern theater of San Antonio, and the city’s largest at the time. It boasted electric lighting, fans, and motorized stage equipment, as the Empire not only staged legitimate fare, but vaudeville, stage revues, and motion picture screenings.

The Empire’s interior was plush and elegant, with gilding covering nearly every piece of plasterwork in the theater. The ornate plaster took the shape of goddesses, floral designs and medallions, covered with not just gold gilt, but various types of metallic leaf, including various bronze and copper shades.

The auditorium itself takes up four floors of the Brady Building, contains two balconies, side boxes, a soaring proscenium arch, trimmed in gilded, highly intricate plaster, with a large stage area. The Empire’s auditorium was (and still is) noted for its superb acoustics.

Outside, over the marquee, a copper sculpted eagle, in full flight, highlighted the facade. Later, a large vertical marquee, four stories tall, was added to the corner of the Brady Building, overlooking St. Mary’s Street.

During the Empire’s golden age, the 1920’s, many of Hollywood’s biggest stars made personal appearances there to promote their new films, including Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney. Even during the Depression years, which caused many movie houses to lose business or even shut down, the Empire Theatre boomed, including one week when well over 15,000 people packed the theater for Mae West’s “Belle of the ‘90s”. Among the last major celebrities to appear on the Empire’s stage were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (including his horse Trigger) to throngs of enthusiastic fans.

Tragedy struck the Empire Theatre in 1921 when during a flood, more than nine feet of water filled the theater, destroying large sections of plasterwork, and causing heavy damage to the rest of the theater. However, the owners of the Empire Theatre at the time opted not to bother restoring the original paint color schemes and gilding, and after cleaning up, painted all of the auditorium completely white.

After many years of falling into decline, including years of screening adult features, the Empire Theatre was shuttered in 1978. A decade later, the city of San Antonio bought the decrepit theater and, with support from the Las Casas Foundation, funds were raised to restore the Empire Theatre to its original appearance.

The original autumnal color scheme was restored, as were pounds of gold leaf on repaired plasterwork. The proscenium arch, its gilded plaster goddesses and flora now shimmering under warm lighting, frames the enlarged stage area.

Even the copper eagle, removed decades ago from the front of the Empire’s facade, has been restored to its perch, discovered hidden in a ladies' room during the renovation.

The Empire Theatre, renamed the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, had its grand reopening in 1998, and is today one of San Antonio’s most graceful and enjoyable entertainment venues, a perfect counterpart to its neighbor, the larger and more well-known Majestic Theatre.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and in addition to concerts, the Empire Theatre hosts musicals, children’s theater, as well as cabaret-style shows and banquets.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 18 comments)

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on August 31, 2007 at 6:31 pm

A Robert-Morton theater organ size 3/10 was installed in the Empire Theater in 1920.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on January 23, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Here is the Empire sign during the day and this is the sign at night.

DonLewis
DonLewis on March 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

A live appearance by Roy Rogers at the Empire Theatre in 1943.

Do you think they liked Roy?

Too bad the name was changed to “Charline McCombs Empire Theatre and to what end?

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on April 30, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Here are two 1984 photos:

Photo1

Photo2

LuisV
LuisV on May 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I’m a little confused by this theater. I was just reading a book on historic San Antonio buildings and it says that there were 2 theaters here and it was the smaller theater that was restored by Las Casas at a cost of $3.5MM. It also says that it seats just 800 people. As I peered through the lobby windows, the view couldn’t have been any plainer or drab for a supposed palace. I also didn’t see any upcoming events posted. If there are in fact 2 theaters, what happened to the other one? What is the status of that one? My reference is a picture book titled “San Antonio, Then and Now” by Paula Allen.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 28, 2011 at 2:02 am

The architectural firm responsible for the Empire Theatre was Mauran, Russell & Crowell (John Lawrence Mauran, Ernest John Russell, and William DeForrest Crowell.) Quite a few Internet sources give Crowell’s surname as Crowe, but reliable period sources such as Western Architect invariably say Crowell.

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on August 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Pictured in this 1915 trade article: archive

LuisV
LuisV on September 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I can confirm that this theater is still open and (on the outside at least) couldn’t be more drab and unpalacelike. :–) I also read on a historical plaque on Houston Street that the theater was made smaller during the renovation to allow the more important Majestic theater to expand their backstage operations. I’m really curious about what this theater actually looks like on the inside.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Luis: There is a recent photo of the auditorium of the Empire Theatre on the main page of the Las Casas Foundation’s web site.

LuisV
LuisV on September 3, 2012 at 10:27 am

Wow! Thanks Joe. It’s amazing how different the inside is compared to its exterior. The outside is “fugly”! They need to graft the exterior of the old Texas Theatre around the corner onto the front of the Empire. Then you’d have one complete and fabulous movie palace! :–)

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