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Alameda Theater Renovations Delayed As Pandemic Chokes Fundraising Campaign

Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio

Many renovations to San Antonio's historic Alameda Theater are temporarily on hold.

A capital campaign to raise $10 million for the restoration came up short because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There are thousands of people in this community with immediate, basic needs, and we understand that is where local charitable giving needed to be focused,” said Pete Cortez, a member of the Conservancy’s Board of Directors.

The first phase of construction began weeks before the pandemic public health emergency and is expected to end in April.

Early construction work focused on correcting environmental risks and connecting to utilities while Houston Street was already closed for the adjacent San Pedro Creek project. Critical construction will also be completed in the stage house, auditorium and balcony structures by the contractor Guido Construction, according to news release from the conservancy.

However, most of the $28 million renovation project still lies ahead. During the temporary delay, the Conservancy will study potential facility improvements that might reduce the spread of COVID-19 or other diseases.

“This gives us a chance to make importance safety improvements that few thought necessary until now,” Cortez said “Because we are renovating a culturally significant and historic building, the design, construction, and amenity standards cannot be compromised. The San Antonio community deserves a beautifully restored Alameda Theater, and we are committed to returning it to its rightful place as the most prominent Latino performing arts theater in America.”

The Alameda Theater complex was completed in 1949 as a Mexican-American entertainment venue. The theater featured performances by major artists from throughout the United States, Spain, Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Stars of Mexico’s golden age — including Pedro Infante, Maria Félix and Cantinflas — graced the stage. But what set the Alameda apart from other nearby theaters, was that it offered desegregated seating.

The Alameda Theatre played host not only to films, but variety shows known as “variedades.”

The Alameda closed in the late 1980s.

In 1994, the City of San Antonio acquired the property. The City of San Antonio, in partnership with Bexar County, Texas Public Radio (TPR) and La Familia Cortez, created a conceptual plan to restore and reopen the Theater as a multi-media live performing arts and film center featuring the American Latino-Multicultural Story.

The project also included the relocation of TPR’s headquarters from the Medical Center into a new home behind the theater.

The mission of the Alameda Theater Conservancy is to be a vital presenter of Latino arts and culture, and to manage and program the Alameda Complex. In recognition of the role of the arts to unite people, the ATC aims to serve everyone in San Antonio and those who visit with programming that entertains, educates and inspires, according to the conservancy website.

Chicano scholar and art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto said the history of the Alameda is reflective of the history of San Antonio.

When the Alameda was in its prime, he said this was where the Mexican-American community learned about itself.

“Remember,” said Ybarra-Frausto, “a lot of this was not taught to us in high school or elementary school. So we saw and learned the history through the movies.”

The theater is well known for its giant story-telling murals of phosphorescent black light paint, which makes them glow in the dark.

"On the left-hand side is the story of Texas,” Ybarra-Frausto said. "You can see the Spaniards coming with their oxen, the buildings. You see the Cathedral; you see the Alamo.”

The opposite side of the theater illustrates the history of Mexico.

“You see the Spaniards, Columbus coming, then you see the conquistadores,” Ybarra-Frausto said.

Rachel Delgado, a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance, has fond childhood memories of seeing movies and variedades at the Alameda. And she was especially enamored by one room.

“The ladies lounge was glamorous,” she said. “Mirrors all along the wall. The little table was… bean-shaped, curved around. I was just a little girl and I felt so glamorous in there."

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1