The Ghosts of the Empire Theatre

The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre was established in 1913, where it was built where the Rische's Opera House once stood in the downtown area in San Antonio, Texas. Architects Mauran, Russell & Crow (of St. Louis), designed the theatre in a European palazzo style. The Empire Theatre originally served host to vaudeville performances before becoming a movie house (From Silent to Talkies, then B-movies to Adult themed films).

The reason why the theatre made the switch to pictures was the result of the 1921 flood. The damage was severe, and the repairs were inept, so after a drawn out decline in attendance, the Empire had no choice but to turn into a B movie theatre (and later adult). It seemed there was no hope for the Empire, and the theatre shutdown in 1978.

But, the City of San Antonio and the folks at Las Casas Foundation worked tirelessly to restore to Empire Theatre back to its splendor, and in 1998 it successfully reopen its doors to people of San Antonio.

San Antonio's Charline McCombs Empire Theatre has been one of the city's top venues (off and on) for a little over a century now, and is once again considered to be the place to go for a great date, with the exceptional entertainment they feature. This theatre continues to deliver nothing less than their best, and thus it makes for the perfect place to visit for an unforgettable night out on the town.

The Empire plays host to many incredible events, establishing it as truly one of the hottest spots in all of San Antonio. Just by glancing at the upcoming schedule of events, its easy to see why a ticket to the Empire Theatre has become so highly coveted ("I've got a golden ticket. I've got a golden twinkle in my eye", Grandpa Joe - Willy Wonka). Any show at the Empire is almost guaranteed to bring down the house, and as such their shows continuously sell out quickly. You will rarely see an empty chair setting next to you, regardless of who the performer is or which night you attend.

The History of the Empire Theatre

A little over three decades before the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, its grounds were home to another theatre, the Turner Opera House, which was built by the Turner Verein Association in the year of 1879. The theatre also went by the name of Rische's Opera, the Houston Street Theatre and the Alhambra Theatre before settling on the Empire Opera House. In its time, the Empire Theatre has seen it all, and has played host to just about everything, including: vaudeville, silent films, talkies (movies), concerts and live theatrical performances.

The Brady Era

In 1890, the theatre was bought by Thomas Brady (no relation to the Patriots' quarterback), who reopened the opera house as a family theatre (oh, if he only knew that one day the Empire would show Adults films). Twenty-three years later (in 1913) Brady had a new theatre built (the Empire Theatre) on the same site. He hired the St. Louis firm, Mauran, Russell & Crow to design the Empire Theatre. On opening night, about 1,800 people came out, and it seemed that everyone in town was at the Empire Theatre, including the Mayor, Clinton G. Brown.

At the time, The Empire was widely accepted as the most modern building and grandest theatre in San Antonio, if not all of Texas. Brady spared no expense, having the latest electric lighting system installed (electric fans too, what-what), he made sure the acoustics were the best in the south (perfect for hearing ghostly whispers), and that they had all the necessary stage equipment for vaudeville and motion pictures. The interior was top notch, too, with the the finest draperies and carpet throughout the theatre.

A newspaper clipping from San Antonio's Express and News about the 750,000 dollar renovation of the Empire Theatre in 1964.
San Antonio's Express and News broadcasts the Empire Theatre's upcoming renovation! Today, the theatre remains one of the most opulent (and haunted) in the city. (Express and News, 1964).

San Antonio's Express and News broadcasts the Empire Theatre's upcoming renovation! Today, the theatre remains one of the most opulent (and haunted) in the city. (Express and News, 1964).

Unfortunately, all the masterful work that went in to making the Empire so grand was threatened by a massive storm, and with the rain came along nine feet of water that flooded the theatre in the year of 1921. The flood ruined much of the theatre's interior, and with Brady tapped from his recent creation, and therefore unable to pay for proper restoration, the theatre's walls were simply painted over in thick globby layers of white paint. And, thus the once magnificent Empire, sadly grew to look more like a milk toast version of a theatre.

In the 1964, Brady's building that houses the theatre commenced with a 750,000 dollar plan to remodel the landmark Empire, which was still one of the leading show places in San Antonio. John Gillespie (the building Manager) said the first step of the process was to steam clean and waterproof the building, a wise decision considering the toll the 1921 flood took on the Empire. The theatre also installed 1,500 new and rather spacious seats, and other modernized features, such as a new wide-screen.

The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire fought a valiant fight to stay relevant, doing just about anything and everything in their realm of possibility to remain open to the people of San Antonio. But, the Empire could fight no more, and closed down for business in 1978. A decade later, the desolate theatre was taken over by the City of San Antonio, and with the help of the non-profit organization Las Casas Foundation, they began raising funds and were able to start the creative process for reviving the Empire back to its former glory.

In 1989, the restoration work to the Empire Theatre and the larger Majestic Theatre (right next door) cost about 6.5 million dollars. This, however, was a rather small price to pay considering the economic boost this endeavor was certain to provide to the city and people of San Antonio, along with promoting the social importance of forming a new cultural arts district in the downtown area.

Advocate for this project, Jocelyn Straus (Chairwoman of the non-profit Las Casas Foundation) talked of their mission, explaining how she knew things weren't going to change overnight, but believed within five years that major change was going to come to downtown San Antonio. She went on to speak about her expectations, how the merchants will return, more apartments will become available and you'll be able to see the neighborhood butcher shops and grocery stores come back.

Jocelyn then stated, "We must not lose sight of the cultural arts district which will generate lots of economic development in the center city when it begins to develop."

The Restoration Process

The Empire Theatre in the 1950s. Today, and for many decades, there is said to be the spirit of a man lingering outside the theatre. He only ever asks for twenty-five cents, the price of a ticket in the 1930s, before disappearing.

The restoration of both the Empire and the Majestic were headed by Ray Shepardson and Sonya Winner (winner, chicken dinner). The partners also responsible for restoring other historic theatres (in Cleveland). The partners decided it was important to restore the Empire's neo-classical design, while creating an intimate environment, which was accomplished by reducing the seating to a 900 capacity.

"The Empire is going to be extremely important to revitalization because it is surrounded by four major hotels that can book it for day-time product conventions. But, in the evening it can be converted into a cabaret format for parties, one-man shows and the repertory theatre," Mrs. Jocelyn Straus said gleaming with pride.

The project was quite tedious, and was more time consuming than anticipated. It was actually rather mysterious during the renovations, as to what would be found under the caked on white paint. But, signs of the theartre's neo-classical beauty began to show, as the proverbial frosting was slowly wiped away. The restoration process was methodical, and workers were extremely diligent in getting every detail exactly right to recapture the Empire's magnificence.

The Empire's Back in the Saddle Again

Finally, in April of the year 1998 (five years longer than thought) with the help of a one million dollar donation by Charline and Red McCombs, The Empire Theatre was back in business. The first performance at the new Charline McCombs Empire Theatre was the gambler himself, Kenny Rogers, so apparently you don't always have "to fold 'em," "walk away" or "run."

The Empire Theatre soon reclaimed its spot as the most grand theatre in all of San Antonio, with live performances and special events. A year later, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre received another honor, when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And, in 2014, the Empire celebrated its 100 year anniversary.

Another Flooding

On Jun 20, 2016, the Empire flooded again. While the damage this time was not severe, three people had to be rescued by the fire department, though thankfully all three individuals survived without injury. But, water had leaked into the elevator on that Monday afternoon, and the Empire was endanger of becoming drowned by the thousands of gallons of water.

Luckily, the firefighters were able to pump out the water before any further damage was caused. And the Empire quickly opened back up to the public.

History of Productions

America's best known vaudeville performers would frequently show up on the stage of the Empire Theatre, delighting San Antonians for years. In the '20s, classic silent pictures starring greats like Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin were always crowd pleasers. And, with the the invention of talking pictures (talkies), going to the movie became for than entertainment, it was now an experience.

Like most of the country The Great Depression hit San Antonio hard, but the San Antonians still found away to enjoy life (a little), mostly through afternoons and evenings at the Empire. Crowds would come out in droves to see Mae West, Gene Aurty and Roy Rogers.

After its long hiatus, the Empire Theatre came back strong with performances by Americana greats like, David Crosby and Don Mclean. But, more important than hearing "American Pie," was the raspy aging voice of Rick Springfield belting out "Jessie's Girl." The people of San Antonio were also treated to a little New Orleans goodness when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band stopped on by. The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre additionally plays host to gala, musical productions, children's entertainment and more mutli-faceted programming.

The Ghosts of the Empire Theatre

The Empire Theatre, like most haunted theatres in the world, has the normal paranormal occurrences (pun intended), strange happenings in the form of sudden drops in temperatures, disembodied whispers, creepy unexplainable shadows and scratching sounds. These are mostly considered to be acceptable forms of ghostly activity. The most common complaints seem not to be about the rumored spirits, but actually about the fact that the restroom facilities are located downstairs of the theatre. What's wrong with a little exercise? Just don't order a large soda, problem solved.

There is one ghost story at the Empire Theatre that stands out from the rest.

The spooky encounter happened in March of the year 1931, when a man "wearing a suit and tie" was waiting to see a Charlie Chaplin picture. Just before entering the theatre, the man was approached by an older gentleman, who was dressed just sort of shabbily and was rather small in stature. The older gentleman weakly clutched the man's arm, and with "shame in his eyes" ("What It's Like" off Whitey Ford Sings the Blues by Everlast), he asked the man for twenty-five cents (roughly the cost of a ticket to the movies at the time). The theatre-goer at first seemed put off, but realizing the polarizing effects The Great Depression was having on everyone, he reached into his pocket for a quarter, but when he looked back up to give the older gentleman the quarter he had disappeared.

While the ghost of this older gentleman is not seen frequently, others have had similar encounters with him over the years. He apparently never asks for anything more than a quarter, as he is seemingly trapped in a 1930s loop, when twenty-five cents was worth more than just a gum ball. There is no information known about the life of the older gentleman, what his name was, or even how he died. Perhaps he lost everything he owned during The Great Depression and committed suicide. Or maybe he died of starvation, a victim of societal neglect.

Whatever the reason of how the ghost of the older gentleman came to be, his spirit is attached to the theatre. So, if you visit the Empire, and are approached by this man, remember to be kind, "God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes."

Visiting the Empire Theatre

San Antonio is one of the most popular city in the United States (top seven, easy), and has been on that list for almost as long as The Empire Theatre has been around (100 plus years). There are plenty of things for people to do in San Antonio, like visit the Alamo or go on one of Ghost City's tours! San Antonio is a city for any kind of history buff, with great sources of entertainment too, like The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.

As soon as you step one foot inside of the historic Empire, you'll discover what all the fuss is about, this is one place where you are assured to get a thrill, if not from the performance itself, then perhaps, just maybe, by one of the ghostly fans who still haunt the stunning theatre.

The Charline McCombs Empire Theater is located at 226 North Saint Mary's Street, San Antonio, Texas 78205. You can find out more information about their upcoming shows and offerings here.

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