Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It The Plaza Theatre Enough

Plaza Theatre in El Paso

Is the Plaza Theatre Enough
Should The Plaza Be the End of the Road for  Theater Renovation in El Paso

For decades the Plaza Theatre in Downtown El Paso sat unused and in need for renovation. At one time, The Plaza was the palace theatre of the Southwest: It probably is once more. However, by the 1960s, attendance had fallen significantly as Interstate 10 expanded and more modern theaters made a trip Downtown for a film superfluous.

Jim Crow Plaza

The Plaza closed in the late 60s or early 70s (depends who you talk to), but the dream of renovating it and reopening the theatre kept in the minds of many El Pasoans, especially the affluent and elite, but others as well. One cannot say that the nostalgia The Plaza garnered was one only of the rich and elite because many of El Paso's middle class and poor remember that days, when they were poor, of going downtown to see movies. However, for some El Pasoans, the Plaza was a not something of nostalgia, but a memory of Jim Crow.

The Plaza, at several times throughout its history, did not admit Blacks, or sequestered them to the top balcony, the so-called Colored Balcony. Bill Rast, in Cynthia Farah Haines book Showtime! From Opera Houses to Picture Places in El Paso says the “colored balcony” had “one exit and one stairway....” Farah Haines states, “As late as the 1960s, the segregation policy at the Plaza was maintained.”

Birth of a Nation

The Plaza would also do a yearly screening of D.W. Griffith's overtly racist Birth of a Nation, in which the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as heroes riding in like cavalry to save White women from African-American mongrels (of course they were Whites in black face).

According to Farah Haines, in 1962, when The Plaza screened A Raisin in the Sun, a film with African-American actor Sidney Portier in which an “African-American man confronts racism when he attempts to move into a White neighborhood...Demonstrations were held outside the Plaza to protest the fact that Black patrons were not allowed to purchase tickets to see the film.”

Renovate The Plaza: Dale Gas

The Plaza even had a back entrance for Blacks as they were not allowed to enter thru the front. This also had a separate ticket seller for Blacks. Even sitting up their today, the chairs are thin and uncomfortable. It is no wonder, that some have no nostalgia for the theatre, as they were not allowed in or kept secluded on a Jim Crow balcony.

Despite its Jim Crow past, by the 1990s, the movement to renovate and reopen the The Plaza went full throttle. The El Paso Community Foundation led the effort to reopen the theatre and its is impressive what was accomplished. As far as the Jim Crow issues, some African-Americans supported the reopening and renovation. They wanted to see the theatre, as they were not allowed before 1962 when the El Paso City Council outlawed discrimination in public places.

Antique Theatres

When one visits other cities, old and working theatres like the Plaza are a dime a dozen, although none marvel the beauty of the Plaza

Kansas City for example had probably two dozen old theaters still in service: The Folly, the Gem, The Repertory, The Uptown, The Box. Some were used by Theatre troupes, other hosted the symphony and the ballet, others host shows and bands. Some are small, some are grand. The Gem in the historic 12th Street and Vine district brings in jazz concerts and more. 

The Gem in Kansas City's 12th and Vine District

Should El Paso stop with The Plaza?. What about smaller theatres? Many buildings that housed old theatres are still standing. El Paso lacks a smaller vintage stage for theatre works and for small concerts.

Who knows what renovations have been made to the point that the theatre aspect of the buildings in question, are only a memory. One example is The Colon, it hosts a store presently. El Alambra (The Palace) has hosted a never-ending of open and shut night clubs. Even outside of downtown, there is The Pershing Theater and the Mission Theatre in the Alameda-Piedras-Copia Business District. 

El Colon 2011, presently hosts three stores (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Balcony of El Colon, March 2011 (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Looking toward former stage area of El Colon, March 2011 (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Shield atop of stage at El Colon, Mar. 2011 (Photo: Ray Rojas)

The Alambra (aka The Palace) on El Paso Street (Photo: Altman Collection, El Paso Public Library)
The Alambra (aka The Palace) on S. El Paso Street, now a night club called______ (not worth naming as the name will change within six months)

The Pershing Theater serves as a studio. The Misson Theater, which catered to the African-American community until the late 1950s also served as a union hall for many years. It now sits unused. Farah Haines says the theater was “designed by architect O.H. Thorman to look like a Southwest mission. The exterior was cream-colored brick stucco, antiqued with false cracks, with a bell in the tower, colored Mexican tile in the arch at the top of the facade, and stain glass windows. The interior featured a 30-foot lobby and a mural with a Spanish theme.” I once sat 750 patrons on two levels. What the possibilities for this theatre to help revitalize the Chamizal neighborhood, only time could tell.

Former Mission Theater and United Steelworkers Hall on Alameda (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Pershing Theater in Five Points (Photo: Billy Smith)

Theatres do not have to be big to function. If anyone looks at the host of theatre troupes functioning in our city, one can imagine the use these theaters could offer. Then again, knowing the history of headaches the Plaza Theatre supporters went through to renovate and now keep The Plaza open, it not easy. Most certainly, The Community Foundation had to write business plans that The Plaza could follow to survive. Moreover, few are those who know how to renovate theatres and keep them open and flourishing afterward.

Some of these theatres were originally opened as movie houses, so use in stage production is a question. Definitively, the Plaza, despite is Jim Crow aura, is a good example.

On the other hand, some of these still-standing buildings that use to have a theatre are owned by private sector, so dreams of renovation and re-use as a theater may never be fulfilled.

However, the dreams for smaller theatre venues that theatre troupes can use may be a necessity and will further spur the theatrical arts in El Paso and spur bands that play small venues to visit El Paso.

Presently, theater troupe use the following venues:

Fox Fine Arts Center at UTEP (Fox Fine Arts Studio Theatre)
Fox Fine Arts Center at UTEP (Wise Family Theatre)
El Paso Community College Transmountain Campus (EPCC Performers Studio)(good use)
Kids-N-CO. Education and Performance Center, 1301 Texas Av. (exclusive use for the Kid-N-Co.)
El Paso Playhouse, 2501 Montana (I'm not sure if this was a theatre originally. It is exclusively used for the El Paso Playhouse troupe)
El Chamizal National Memorial Theatre (heavy use)
UTEP Dinner Theatre (this is almost exclusively used for the dinner theatre. It was originally the Union Ballroom)
Philanthropy Theatre (this is in the Plaza Theatre complex seats 191)
El Paso Public Library Main – 250 seat auditorium
Magoffin Auditorium at UTEP

Rarely-used venues:
Adobe Horseshoe Theatre in San Elizario, Texas

Other stage venues:
Union Cinema Theater

The following are good for readings and lectures, not necessarily for plays:
UTEP Geology Building Auditorium
UTEP Geology Reading Room
Various Schools (El Paso High is used a lot, Socorro also has a good auditorium)
El Paso Public Library
UTEP College of Business Auditorium


The Glasshouse - this opened this year or last year near Texas and Cotton.

The former Princess Theatre was in this Benny's Pawn Shop location. It is unknown whether this was the Princess Theatre building. (Photo: Ray Rojas)

The Mexican Theater was at this location at 403 S. El Paso St. (Photo: Ray Rojas)

This was the location of the Eureka Theatre at 315 S. El Paso St. I'm unsure if this was the original building. The Loft Light Studio sits on the second floor. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
This building at 2317 Texas Ave. has a theatre front facade, but I'm unsure if this is the original Turn of the Century Theatre, which according to El Paso historian Leon Metz catered to African-Americans (Photo: Ray Rojas)

According to Farah Haines, Wigwam Theatre at 110 San Antonio was designed by architect Henry Trost. The name was changed to The Rialto in 1921, then back to the Wigwam in 1922. (Photo: Altman Collection, El Paso Public Library)
According to Farah Haines, The Wigwam was renamed The State Theater in 1949. It showed films until 1981 when it began showing X-rated films later closing in 1981. It now is a retail store and restaurant. (Photo: Ray Rojas).
This building at 702 S. El Paso was the location of the Star Theater. The building still has a theater like interior although I'm unsure if this is the original Star Theatre building. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Location of the Paris (aka Iris) Theatre at 606 S. El Paso. I'm unsure if this is the original edifice. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Crystal Theatre (Altman Collection: El Paso Public Library)

This building at 713 S. El Paso sits at the location of the Crystal Theatre. The black and white photo above is a side view of the Crystal. This location has a theatre facade, but I'm unsure if it is the original Crystal Theatre building. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
The Cine Mexicano was at this location at 815 S. Stanton. I'm unsure if this was the original building. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
El Alcazar (aka El Calcetin Parado) was at this location at 506-8 S. El Paso Street. Joey 2 and Payless Shoes currently sits on this corner directly across from the former El Colon. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
This building at 1323 Alameda in the Alameda Business District near Piedras and Copia has a theatre exterior. It may have been the Lincoln Theatre. It does sit at the address of the old theatre. The building appears to be vacate as of March 2011. (Photo: Ray Rojas)
Former Lincoln Theatre? (Photo: Ray Rojas)