Though parts of Texas were still considered the wild frontier in the early days of this century, city fathers made sure every town of any size offered some sort of cultural diversion for families of hard working farmers, ranchers and oil-field workers. When movies swept the country as the newest popular entertainment, downtown opera houses and vaudeville venues were quickly equipped with screens and projection equipment, inviting citizens to escape the hardscrabble life for an hour or two of silver screen fantasy in elegant surroundings. Unfortunately, the heyday of the ornate, downtown movie palace is long since passed. In the last two decades, movie entertainment has been defined by monster suburban multiplexes while single screen theatres either became art houses or fell into sad disrepair because they were no longer profitable. However, several of these grand old Texas palaces have been saved and given new life as performing arts venues, homes to community theatre companies or cabaret-style dinner-and-a-movie theatres.
The History of the Yucca Theater
Among the resplendent survivors of the single-screen slaughter are the Paramount Theatre in Austin, the Palace Theatre in Georgetown, and the Granada Movie Grill in Dallas. Yet none of these venerable venues boasts a prouder heritage than the Yucca Theatre in Midland. The Yucca was an integral part of Midland’s development as the capital of the oil industry in the burgeoning Permian Basin in the 1920s. Commissioned by financier T. S. Hogan, the Yucca was built in 1927, adjacent to Hogan’s ornate Petroleum Building, Midland’s first “skyscraper” office tower. The former Montana senator was attracted by Midland’s fast growing economy and envisioned the town as the natural business center for the oil boom that was occurring in the wake of the mammoth Santa Rita oil strike. An aesthete as well as a supporter of the arts, Hogan recognized the need for a multi-purpose regional theatre to service the growing population. In an interview Hogan gave the local newspaper during the Yucca’s construction he is quoted as saying, “it’s not enough to offer prospective citizens brick and stone, the spirit must be fed. They must be surrounded by beauty.” To meet this need, the Yucca was designed to accommodate both theatrical productions and the new talking motion pictures. At the gala opening in 1929, the new Yucca was heralded as “the biggest and finest theatre this side of Ft. Worth.”
The 54-year-old theatre company struck a deal with building owners and fashioned a very favorable seventy-five year lease on the elegant landmark. Because MCT didn’t want to incur more debt to finance the rehabilitation of their new acquisition, the restoration of the Yucca was done in stages with plenty of volunteer labor. Some of the funding for the project came from special productions such as a gala presentation of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas in 1983 which netted over $200,000 for repairs.
To return the Yucca to its former glory and accommodate the needs of a modern theatre ensemble, the long-shuttered playhouse needed lots of work. It was necessary for MCT to upgrade the heating and air conditioning, adjust the acoustics with padding, and install new lights and sound systems. The dressing rooms underneath and to the right of the stage had to be refurbished, and the lobby bar got a facelift and a liquor license that would contribute to potential revenue. Threadbare old seats were removed and the auditorium was terraced to accommodate cabaret-style seating with table and chairs. By the mid-eighties, when all the work was finished, the Yucca found new life as a self-supporting performance venue ready to host local and traveling musical productions and concerts, business meetings and seminars, special movie screenings, and of course, MCT’s riotous Summer Mummers.
The Yucca Resuscitated
The Yucca building was actually slated for demolition when it was saved in 1981. That year, the Midland County Historical Society began the necessary research to have both the Hogan Petroleum Building and the adjacent Yucca designated as Texas Historical landmarks, and those awards were made a year later in 1982. At the same time, the Midland Community Theatre (MCT), a vintage establishment of its own, was searching for a permanent home for its boisterous annual production called the Summer Mummers—the group’s main fundraising event.
The Summer Mummers were the brainchild of founding members of the fledgling Midland Community Theatre in the late 1940’s. Realizing the need for an annual event that would be entertaining enough to inspire volunteer work as well as ticket sales, MCT envisioned an old-fashioned “meller-drammer” augmented by a movie-ola and a vaudeville olio complete with musical acts and comedy sketches. “Every community has plenty of worthy causes needing volunteers and donations,” explains 1998 Mummers producer Douglas Heck, who has learned what it means to rely so heavily on volunteer support. “They knew whatever they did had to be lots of fun so folks would help out.” In the summer of 1984, the first Mummers performance was a classic melodrama entitled The Drunkard. It was a success and the tradition was born.
Revived Texas Theaters
Perhaps the most recognizable example of an historic venue is Austin’s Paramount Theatre (713 Congress, 512/472-5411), a stately old building on Austin’s main thoroughfare. Built in 1915, the proud old Paramount began its decline in the Sixties but was saved by a corporation formed in 1973 by a group of visionaries. The theatre was restored to its original grandeur in the early Eighties and today is one of the busiest performing arts venues in the state. The Paramount is home base of the beloved Tuna Trilogy, sponsors the ever-popular summer movie series and plays host to an impressive roster of theatrical productions and concerts every season. Just north of the Paramount, the long-abandoned State Theatre (719 Congress, 512/472-5143) is in the midst of the public/private financed renovation that will make it the permanent home of Austin’s Live Oak Theatre Company.
The Palace Theatre
In downtown Georgetown, the Palace Theatre (814 S. Austin Ave., 512/869-7469) began showing silent movies in 1927, converted to talkies in 1936 and lapsed into limited use by the 1970’s. Today, it’s the Palace Community Theatre, home to an amateur acting company, monthly productions of the Georgetown Opry and shows occasional films.
Granada Movie Grill
Hungry movie-goers in Dallas’ lower Greenville area are big fans of the Granada Movie Grill (3524 Greenville Ave., 214/887-0223), a dinner-and-movie venue in the fifty-year-old Granada Theatre. It was one of the first movie/dining operations in the country. Famed as Dallas’ first movie house with built-in air conditioning, the Granada was built in 1948 with facilities for both live acts and movies. When it opened, tickets were 40 cents for adults and 16 cents for children, and there was even a “crying room” to accommodate the baby boom. Original murals still exist in the Granada’s interior.