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San Antonio Remembers, Sings Praises For Alameda Theater

Vacant for 30 years, downtown San Antonio's Alameda Theater may be reborn in the coming years, and, to some, the structure has a value that's hard to quantify in just dollars and cents. 

Graciela Sanchez says going to the Alameda Theater on Houston Street wasn't a solitary experience. It was a family event.

"As a very young child coming with the family, coming from the hot weather of San Antonio, and just opening the doors and feeling the cool air conditioning and smelling the popcorn," she explains. 

For 57-year-old Sanchez and most residents from the West side, air conditioning wasn't something she had at home, or was even used to.

"For sure, in the '40s and the '50s, to have that air conditioning was a luxury," she says.

Stepping inside the cool Alameda, one can easily imagine the ascending staircase with etched-glass tropical flowers and banana leaf walls, the smells of popcorn popping and the crowd making its way into the grand theater. Five decades later, Sanchez's Alameda memories are still vivid. 

"The big, red velvet curtains just kind of going up. Then you hear the advertisement: 'Coca Cola Grandes Te das mucho más!'," she sings. "That was a Coca Cola advertisement."

To understand the Alameda Theater and its place in San Antonio culture, you have to understand how different things were in 1949 when it was built.

"Downtown was segregated. The Mexican American community tended to find themselves in the western section of downtown, so from Soledad Street West, and the Anglo community would be Soledad East, to the Alamo and Joske's, and that area," Sanchez recalls.    

Joske's was a high-end shopping store on Alamo and Commerce Streets. As to the segregation, it wasn't by law. People just knew. Back then, downtown wasn't just a place to go, it was the place to go.

"For those of us on the West Side, it was a 5-minute bus ride.  You could buy clothing. You could eat at a restaurant like Coney Island or Mexican Manhattan for 50 cents and a dollar. And then you still had money to go to the Texas Theater or the Alameda Theater," Sanchez says. "And the Alameda Theater was the only theater downtown that catered with a focus on the Mexican and Mexican-American community."

The Alameda mixed movies with live, internationally-known and local performers. Performers like Jesus Vidales.

"I was born here on August the ninth, 1921, on a Tuesday morning at 5:25 a.m.," he says.

96-year-old Vidales got an early start as a performer.

"By the age of 13, I became a professional singer. We had the Nacional Theater. The Zaragoza Theater. And when they opened the Alameda, oh my God, that was something beautiful!" he remembers.

The Nacional and Zaragoza were places for up and coming performers, but when you were asked to play the Alameda, you knew you had arrived.

He and two friends formed a vocal group whose name describes the music they sang.

"Los Ramanticos. The Romantic ones. That was our name," he says.

Although Vidales loved singing, he didn't only sing for the love of music. The money he brought in helped soften poverty for his family.

"I remember I'd leave to go to school bare-footed. No shoes. Cold, summer, snow, freezing temperature. I had to walk," he recalls.

His Los Romanticos work at the Alameda paid more than his mother made working full-time.   

"For seven days, one dollar each, $7 a week," he says.

Vidales says that while most everyone he knew was poor, he thinks by some measures, they were rich.

"The poor people back in those days, especially Hispanic people here on the West side, they all look at each other like family. We had one another," Vidales says.

And the place they all came to celebrate was the Alameda Theater. Although the building's heyday has passed, efforts by the city and county have resulted in a complex funding model and plans for restoration that, if successful, may breathe new life into the structure and thrill those to whom it meant so much.  

"It was something very glorious. Beautiful," Vidales says.

Chances are, the Alameda will know a re-birth, and it will be both glorious and beautiful. 

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii