Charline McCombs Empire Theatre
226 N. St. Mary's Street,
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Since the 1870’s, the land on which the present Empire Theatre sits on has been occupied by a theatre, 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 Theatre in 1890 and remodeled it for legitimate “wholesome” theatre, 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 Theatre’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.
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