Plaza Theatre History
By the late 1920s, El Paso was a growing metropolis. With a population of 100,000, El Paso already had two airports, numerous theaters, a fully-developed trolley system and all of the amenities of any other modern city.
At the center of it all was the Plaza Theatre, which opened September 12, 1930 to a capacity crowd of 2,410. It was advertised as the largest theater of its kind between Dallas and Los Angeles. Designed as a modern film house with the flexibility of presenting stage shows, the Plaza eventually hosted popular traveling shows and movies, becoming a fixture in the lives of theatergoers for generations to come.
Although several theaters existed in downtown El Paso at the time the Plaza Theatre opened, its size, elaborate decor, and technical innovations made it stand out. No expense was spared in creating this elaborate building, designed in Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture. While the exterior facade was designed to be reminiscent of a Spanish mission-style parapet, patrons were awed by the interior, with its intricately painted ceilings, mosaic-tiled floors, decorative metal railings and sconces and, to heighten the effect, antique furnishings. With such grandiose rococo design, itís no wonder the Plaza was known as ìThe Showplace of the Southwest.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the $60,000 Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, elevating from the orchestra pit to accompany vaudeville shows, sing-a-longs, and to entertain patrons before and after films. Its toy box provided it with the versatility to replicate such sounds as horses hooves, the ocean surf and birds chirping. In 1972, the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ was sold and housed at the home of a private collector in Dallas. Through the generosity of the late Karl O. Wyler, Sr. (former owner of KTSM television and radio stations), the organ was restored and returned to El Paso in 1998. After a long run at Sunland Park Mall, the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ will return to its original home in the majestic Plaza Theatre.
An event at the Plaza was more than simply seeing a show or a movie, but was a build-up of events. From the elaborate decor to the ushers catering to their every need, patrons were transported to a magical movie palace. Once seated, the theater lights would dim while tiny stars blinked and clouds appeared across the blue “sky”. The organ would rise from the orchestra pit and the organist would play a musical medley. Finally, the show would begin. It’s no surprise that during the Great Depression and World War II, the Plaza Theatre and other atmospheric theaters across the United States were an escape from the everyday world.
By the 1950s, two major influences factored into a slow decline in the Plaza Theatre’s patronage. The advent of television (KROD-TV first appeared on the airwaves in 1952) and the rise of suburban neighborhoods further and further away from downtown served as major challenges to the Plaza Theatre in addition to other downtown establishments. At the same time, a new source of competition arose with the advent of drive-in theaters in the late 1940s (The Chelsea at the corner of Chelsea and Montana Avenue was first built in 1946).
These experiences were not unique to the Plaza Theatre but were common to theaters across the United States as patrons began living further and further away from the downtowns they had once faithfully patronized. By the early 1970s, the theater was sold and much of the beautiful artwork, along with the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ was auctioned off. Only by the acquisition of the theater by the Dipp Family in 1973 was the Plaza saved from demolition at that time.
In 1986, after years of infrequent programming, the decision was made to demolish the Plaza Theatre in order to make way for a parking lot. Spurred by a groundswell of community support, El Paso Community Foundation began negotiations to raise the required $1 million to save it from demolition. With only six short weeks to raise the funds, fundraising events were held across the community with the most visible effort being staged by actress Rita Moreno the day before the deadline. It was announced that evening that enough money had been raised to save the Plaza Theatre. After El Paso Community Foundation placed a new roof on the theater, the Plaza Theatre was donated to the City of El Paso in 1990.
Like many historical structures, the Plaza Theatre has lost some of its original splendor. Furnishings and artwork have been removed, the facade has been altered, and parts of its once-advanced electrical systems are no longer functional, yet the interior structure appears as it has for close to seventy years. On July 30, 2002 the City of El Paso formally approved a public/private partnership with the El Paso Community Foundation to restore the Plaza Theatre to its original splendor. Once again, the Plaza Theatre will become El Paso’s Showplace of the Southwest.