As the saying goes, there’s “no business like show business.” At San Antonio’s very own Majestic Theatre, which is located in the downtown area’s E. Houston Street, “show business” is just one component to the theatre’s wildly successful history.
Performances aside, it’s been an architectural wonder since its opening in 1929; the first theatre in Texas to offer full-blown air-conditioning; the largest theatre in the American South and the second largest in all of the United States. Even No Country for Old Men author, Cormac McCarthy, wrote of the Majestic in his fiction novel Cities of the Plain: Book 3 of the Border Trilogy, “He told her about seeing his mother on stage at the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio Texas, and about the times that he and his father used to ride in the hills north of San Angelo . . ."
To this day, the Majestic Theatre—now a stage performance property—continues to thrive with an unmatched performance schedule. The Lion King, the 1997 movie Selena with Jennifer Lopez, Wicked, Les Miserables, Cats and a host of other shows have put on at this, you guessed it, majestic location.
But like all old properties that cater to entertaining the masses, the Majestic Theatre also has a bit of reputation in San Antonio, Texas, for being haunted. It seems that the love for this grand theatre does not stop at the living—nope, it transcends and crosses After Life borders to the ghosts, too.
The beginning of the legacy that would become the Majestic Theatre started in 1928. Designed by Chicago architect John Eberson, who had similarly designed other such “movie palaces” around the country. In fact, his empire of “atmospheric" movie theaters totaled nearly a hundred across the country.
When it came to San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, Eberson spared no expense, with a total budget of $3 million. The building itself spanned fifteen stories tall, with the theatre itself taking up the first six floors. The levels above the Majestic were designated as apartments and there was even a very classy penthouse, with its very own private elevator, for the top three stories.
Because that’s when you know you’ve become successful in the world.
The iconic, vertical “Majestic” sign was 76 feet tall, starting at the seven floor of the building and expanding upward. Like the name of the sign suggests, Eberson and his team had installed 2,400 lamps (or lightbulbs) within the sign so it practically gleamed during the nighttime hours.
As for the interior of the theatre? It was perhaps more outstanding, more stunning, than the exterior could ever be. Designed in what was then considered the “Mediterranean Style,” the Majestic was (and is) an enthralling blend of traditional South Mission, ornate Baroque palace and a Mediterranean villa—the intention being to transport and create the illusion that guests were actually in some faraway fantasy land. There were towers (a.k.a. walls) with stained glass, balconies and railings reaching out over the audience, leafy green foliage climbing up the towers themselves.
White peacocks preened as they sat perched on the balconies and, oh yes, there were and are still white doves “flying” in mid-air. (Don’t worry, they aren’t real—just plaster casts).
And if all of this wasn’t enough, John Eberson allegedly sought out the National Geographic Society because he had a rather special request: he wished to recreate the sky as the Majestic’s very own ceiling. Using strategically placed lightbulbs to simulate glowing stars in the midnight sky, as well as a rare Viennese Brenograph machine to project the illusion of clouds moving across the “sky,” guests glanced up in awe back in 1929 and continue to do so today.
On Flag Day, June 14, 1929, the Majestic Theatre swung open its front doors and welcomed its first giddy guests. Tickets ranged from $2 - $10, depending on where you sat in the audience—considering that there were a grand total of 3,700 seats at the time, there was a good chance that there were a good many dropped open mouths as everyone filed into their seats for the theatre’s first ever performance.
On opening night, the feature film playing for thousands of guests was Movietone Follies. It’s tough to say whether the guests would have been more impressed by the silent film playing or the fact that the Majestic Theatre was equipped with one more fancy technological device: air-conditioning.
Yup, you read that right. The Majestic was allegedly the first theatre in all of Texas to offer air-conditioning, and it became such a hit that the Majestic’s A.C. advertisements became quite the rage. One such published newspaper article read, “An acre of cool, comfortable seats [were] further emphasized by the snow which topped the letters of the theatre’s name."
Snow. In Texas. Now, while I’m sure it happens (this here writer hails from Boston and is biased to what "heavy snow" is), the women who frequented the Majestic took throwing heavy fur coats over their shoulders—for the grand opening in June! Whether they needed it or not remains to be seen, but there was no doubt about it: the Majestic Theatre was a hit.
And if the cool air didn’t get you, the fact that the Majestic actually offers an in-house babysitter service so that patrons could enjoy the show without their kid demanding when they got to go home probably would have made any parent giddy with glee.
At the turn of the twentieth century, San Antonio’s downtown area was booming. Hotels like the Menger Hotel, the Crockett and the St. Anthony were going up, which reflected the overall status of the area during the period. Living downtown, working downtown, going out downtown were all the rage.
When the Majestic Theatre opened in 1929, they were able to capitalize on this economic gain by showing silent films and the ever-popular Vaudeville performances—until the Great Depression hit. Miraculously enough, the Majestic only closed for a few weeks before realizing that people saw movies as their mental escape—and no one in the country did it better than them.
Management was correct: Americans flocked to the Majestic just as they always had, and continued to do so for the next few decades.
Following World War II and the return of the heroic veterans, there was a major shift in play. Whereas once people thought of Downtown San Antonio as the place to be, the age of the baby boomers and their parents wanted out into the suburbs. As residents trickled out of the heart of San Antonio, so too did a majority of its businesses. But while some business owners had no problem picking up their goods and moving out of town, that sort of thing wasn’t likely to happen for the Majestic Theatre.
For one, it was a behemoth of a size. Secondly, it was just not possible to replicate the beauty and grandeur of the theatre anywhere else.
Slowly as the years passed on, the Majestic Theatre continued on its downhill struggle. On December 31, 1974, the Majestic was forced to close its doors thanks to a change in owners. It made the National Register of Historical Places the following year, which thankfully saved the historic building from near demolishment.
In the mid-80s, City Council members apparently realized that there was a desperate need for revitalizing the downtown area. One way to go about doing so? Restoring the then-closed Majestic Theatre and its next-door neighbor, the Empire Theatre.
The City of San Antonio actually acquired both theaters, and hired the Las Casas Foundation to restore the properties—in terms of the day-to-day operations, the Arts Center Enterprises stepped in to seal the three-way deal.
Restoration was completed in a series of three phases, starting with converting the property from a movie theatre to a performing one. In doing so, the Majestic decreased in seat number, dropping to 2,264 seats instead of upward of 3,000. To make more room, the City purchased the Little Brady Building, which sat (sort of) adjacently to both the Majestic and the Empire. Through this, Las Casas could actually extend the Majestic’s stage another forty-feet deep, allowing for grander stage performances than could have been held previously. In fact, the Majestic’s rear was pushed back until it met, butt-to-butt, with the Empire. They even share the same dressing room! (The more the merrier, right?)
The whole cost of the restoration and expansion neared $3.5 million, and while the Majestic first reopened in 1989, it was not until 1995 with the acquisition of the Little Brady Building that the renovations were deemed complete.
Much like in its heyday, the Majestic Theatre is one San Antonio’s golden apples. Since the late 1980s, it has been home to the San Antonio Symphony, as well as the Broadway Across America productions. In 1993, it was also designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Over the years, the Majestic has played home-away-from-home to over four million patrons. Big name celebrities such as Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, Sting, Chris Rock, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfeld have all been headliners at this grand theatre.
Even Pink Floyd once played here, even though its ornate Mediterranean villa, white peacock sitting, white doves flying, clouds skirting doesn’t exactly seem Pink Floyd’s “thing."
The theatre’s performance schedule continues to be jam-packed with exciting arts events, and even the staff have added their own stamp on the place. Apparently, the theatre’s stagehands have a funny tradition of signing the butt of the theatre’s Venus de Medici statue. When in Rome, do as the Romans?
Or better yet: it’s just show business, baby.
And like many other theaters across the world, the Majestic Theatre has got a few ghosts up its sleeve as well.
Ask a San Antonio local and they’ll probably tell you something similar: the Majestic Theatre has a few ghost stories hanging around. But before we delve into those paranormal stories, let’s rewind to perhaps the first time the “supernatural” may have occurred at the theatre on a large scale.
I’m talking about magic. Doves popping up in the middle of no where (and no, not the white plaster one’s “flying” around the Majestic), or bunnies popping up out of tall, back top hats. Real magic. It was a great time to be alive during most of the twentieth century, especially if you were Ladislao Trevino.
A Texas boy from birth—born in 1917—Trevino spent a lot of his time traveling all over Central America and Mexico. In the wake of the very famous Harry Houdini, who died in 1926, Trevino found his calling as an Illusionist and Entertainer. He spend much of his youth traveling through Central America and Mexico, but really kicked off his career in Corpus Christi, Texas. At the time, Trevino worked as a TV host for the Spanish show Consejero del Espacio, or Advisor of the Space.
Later, he would have a consistent magic show at the Majestic Theatre under the stage name, “Zoroastro.” While there isn’t much information on what his show entailed in terms of acts, Trevino, with his dark brows and dark as night hair, must have cut a handsome image while on the stage.
Captivating his crowds with his magic tricks and unbelievable acts, is it possible that the famed-Zoroastro may still be haunting the Majestic?
Among staff and guests, there are rumors aplenty about a particular ghost who loves to hang out by the stage, as though still performing to his eager fans. Whether this rambunctious, charismatic specter is, in fact, the Zoroastro still playing to his patrons couldn’t be decided without a proper paranormal investigation—but it seems that this might certainly be a possibility.
Leading up to the second floor of the Majestic Theatre, there have been sightings of ghosts, as well as other phenomena.
Some years ago, a woman (we’ll call her Kelsey) was visiting the Majestic while on a high school field trip. Somehow—because they are incredibly lucky people who should have shared the good fortune—they were allowed to stay the night on the property, for whatever reason.
“A private” tour, she called it. (I checked: the Majestic no longer offers overnight tours).
In any case, Kelsey and her classmates were seated down in the orchestra area of the theatre. All around them, the towers rose with their enchanting stained glass windows, the gleaming lightbulb-stars twinkled overhead, and the stage itself glowed with dim lighting. They were positioned around one of the former head of the stage department, who had been working at the Majestic for many, many years.
He recited to them stories of various performers who had visited the theatre over the years, including a particular ballet troupe who were frequent performers. However, on one particular night there was a tragic twist of fate.
As the dancers spun around on the stage during rehearsal, circling, dipping, leaping, the overhead lights somehow became undone and fell right on top of the performers. The heavy lights reportedly killed some of the dancers.
One night, some years later, the old man was cleaning up after a show when suddenly the closed stage curtains flung open, the lights beamed on the stage—and the ghostly apparitions of ballet dancers twirling around caught them completely off guard.
While there is no concrete evidence pointing to the whole overhead lights murdering of the ballet troupe—and so this might have been an elaborately woven ghost story for the high school students—it’s more than likely that some of the Majestic’s spirits are ballet dancers have decided to stick around in the after life, still soaking up the limelight.
Another frequently spotted ghost at the Majestic happens to be the spirit of a woman up on the second level toward the heart of the stage.
Staff have seen her late into the evening hours, even after the stage curtains have been pulled shut for the night. Her spirit reportedly always appears in the same box on the same level, leaving staff to wonder if the female specter may have once held season tickets.
On one particular night, a medium was visiting the Majestic—the Blue Man Group was playing, and the venue was filled to the brim. As the medium sat listening to the music, he felt the distinct urge to look up to the second floor. And who did he see but the season ticket holder herself, her ghostly frame leaning over the railing in awe of the performance down below on the stage.
According to the Medium, he believed the female ghost’s name to be Magdelene.
One thing that’s for certain, Magdelene (whether that’s her name or not) seems to be one of the theatre’s many performance-loving ghosts, who couldn’t get enough of the shows during life and has so decided to stick around even after her death.
One interesting architectural facet to the Majestic Theatre is its acoustics. If you happen to be standing down by the stage, you can whisper and have it be heard all the way up into the nosebleed section of the audience!
Which leads us to wonder . . . is it possible that some of the so-called paranormal activity at the Majestic might in fact be nothing but the acoustics playing sound tricks on staff and guests? There have been the classical supernatural phenomena, such as disembodied footsteps, and the quiet whispering of conversations (when no one is standing around).
Theaters around the world are known for being haunted (much like hotels or abandoned hospitals) because they are a meeting space for people: performers who travel all over, guests who can’t wait to take a seat in the audience. It’s a melting pot of emotions and various energies, and it is that energy that spirits feed off in order to gain traction.
There’s no doubt that the Majestic Theatre is haunted—with objects being moved by unseen forces, and ghostly forms appearing on the stage, in the seats, and in the employee-only area, the Majestic is teeming with the paranormal.
But is possible that some of the activity might be a result of fantastic sound acoustics?
That’s up to you to decide.
Next time you’re in the heart of San Antonio, Texas, be sure to swing by the Majestic Theatre on E. Houston Street—it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Take a seat, enjoy the doves flying overhead and the peacocks up on the perches. Watch the performers amaze you. But don’t forget to glance up to the second floor by the stage—look for the ghost known as Magdelene.
And if you’re feel particularly brave, head up to the nosebleeds and listen. Are those footsteps you hear that of the living or that of a ghost roaming the halls? The Majestic Theatre’s ghost stories are as intriguing as the building itself.
Want to know what shows are coming next for the Majestic? Check out the theatre’s upcoming schedule here!