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Alameda Theater: The Past & Future Of San Antonio's Mexican Movie Palace

One of the last classic Mexican movie palaces in San Antonio still stands. Built in 1949, for three decades, the Alameda Theatre played host not only to films, but variety shows known as “variedades.”

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 it offered desegregated seating.

The Alameda closed in the late 1980s. There have been numerous attempts to revive it, but the latest might be the one that sticks.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
The Alameda Theater.

San Antonio — in partnership with Bexar County, La Familia Cortez, and Texas Public Radio — plans to restore and revive the Alameda as a multimedia performing arts and film center, serving the Latino community. Texas Public Radio’s future headquarters will also be housed adjacent to the theater, in the non-historic backstage structure.

On a recent open house hosted by the Alameda Theater Conservancy, the theater and its grounds were opened to the public.

Giant, illustrated panels of a charro and a woman in traditional Mexican dress with flowers in her hair greet visitors at the doors. On either side are elaborately curved stairways that lead theatergoers to the balcony. The stairways, bordered by sketched plexiglass railings, are blocked off for safety. The theater is nearly in the shape it was when it ceased to operate two decades ago.  

Chicano scholar and art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto led the tour and 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.”

When you pass through the lobby and under the art deco chandeliers and walk through the double doors on each side, you see a wide expanse of empty space. This is where thousands of theatergoers would have sat in the dark, passing popcorn down the aisle, with eyes glued to the center stage.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
This large illustration of a charro greets visitors at the entrance to the Alameda Theater.

But there are no seats there now. And if you walk closer to the stage, there are just a few chairs and a projector showing some short films on a screen.

What is there when you turn around to look back at the house is a huge balcony shrouded in darkness.

And on your left and your right are large, blue-tinted murals.  

“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.

And what makes the murals even more special, they’re drawn with phosphorescent black light paint, which makes it glow in the dark.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
A mural inside the Alameda Theater.

Ybarra-Frausto said the murals and the building itself are a symbolic union of the two cultures that make up Texas and San Antonio.

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. “

And Jesus Rios Vidales, 97, a short, spry, spirited man, remembered entertaining theatergoers outside the Alameda with his Mexican trio, El Trio Los Romanticos.

He talked about once having the gumption to ask the manager for permission to play inside.  

“I told him, ‘My name is Jesse Vidales. I used to be a singer back in my days. I still sing every now and then,” he said. “ ‘I wanted to see if you could give me permission to come in and sing one or three songs.’ ‘Oh, yes, yes, come on in,” Vidales said. “I loved it.”

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Jesus Rios Vidales and Rachel Delgado.

Plans to revive the theater include converting the 3,000-seat venue into a more intimate 1,000-seat space. It will include modern sound and lighting upgrades and the restoration of historically significant structures, like the stairways, the mirrored women’s powder rooms, and the expansive balcony.

Vidales hopes the spirit of the building will not be tarnished with shiny, new upgrades.

If they do, Vidales said, “(They’re) going to be destroying the sentimental feelings of the theater in its early days. (But) I know we will continue to see the Alameda.”

Construction is set to begin in July 2019, with completion by fall 2020.

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

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