This past month here in town, the El Paso Community Foundation has been hosting a film festival, showing all kinds of classic films ranging from blockbusters to vintage cinema. My wife and I planned to go to a few of them, but our schedule filled up early and we couldn’t attend any of them. We decided, on the very last day, however, to go see Harvey at the downtown Plaza Theatre where the majority of movies were being hosted. If you haven’t seen or even heard of Harvey, it’s a quirky black and white film with Jimmy Stewart and a giant invisible bunny. I’ll leave the description there because it speaks for itself, and you don’t really need any more information to enjoy the film.
We knew Harvey was scheduled as a matinee. Unfortunately, we were mistaken by about 3 hours. So, as I circled the downtown area in our car while my wife pondered what our other options were, I waited to hear the verdict on our Plan B: wait for All The President’s Men at 7 pm or go home. She called and informed me that that she bought tickets to another movie, a silent film called Safety Last. Hmm, ok. I was let down twice, but I tried to reserve my judgment since I vaguely remembered learning about a famous scene from the movie.We arrived a little early since I wanted to take a look at the recently renovated old theater. I grew up watching movies inside Cinemark theaters decorated with big neon lights, gigantic screens, and comfortable chairs, all streamlined to improve your viewing experience. It was exciting when I was younger, when the movies were generally better. As I continue to get older (and as the prices continue to rise), I feel like I’m paying for less and less.
If you know anything about film history, you know that the evolution involved not only changes in the filmmaking process but also in the movie “experience.” It’s very difficult for modern generations to appreciate the technologies that exist today when they’ve never witnessed a colorless screen or an entire hour and a half without hearing any dialogue. I’m conscious of some of that history each time I walk into a theater, hopeful that some kind of magic will happen inside the darkened room. I usually walk out with a sense of missed potential, even when I liked the movie. I think many of us feel that. This weekend, however, I walked out concerned with one thing: that I might not have a movie experience like this again.
I have to go back and describe it from the beginning (historically and my evening) because every moment seemed to bring me joy. The Plaza Theater was built in 1929 after an earlier theater owner, Louis L. Dent, bought the property with a noble intention for the city of El Paso. He told a local newspaper:
El Paso has been good to me, and I am going to put something everybody will proud of.
It was constructed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with the intention of being both a modern film house and a stage show venue. Early on, it hosted vaudeville. Just for context, the movie we were there to watch was released in 1923, 6 years before the El Paso theater was built. After it was finished, it was advertised as one of the largest theaters in the southwest. Apart from that claim, it was also the first theater in the US to be air conditioned (reminder: it gets up to 105 degrees here in town). I’ll go into more detail about the visuals later.Fast forward a few decades around the 1950s, and the theater is now in decline. What are the reasons? Well, we can blame tv! That and the spread of residents to suburbia. Sadly, while the downtown area also suffered, the theater was ultimately set to be demolished. And, like so many other magnificent buildings in the 20th century, it was set to be demolished for yet another parking lot.
At the last minute, with a swell of community support, the theater was saved and donated to the city in 1990. Though the interior structure itself was still intact, most of the furnishings, artwork, and facade were either altered or removed. The El Paso Community Foundation, in a partnership with the city of El Paso, agreed to a complete renovation project to restore the building to its original glory. The price tag was $38 million, and it finally reopened its doors in 2006.
I’m thankful that I was able to walk through those doors this past weekend into an extraordinary interior space. I guess it’s somewhat appropriate that I’ve only seen these kind of theater interiors while watching old movies. Ornate decorations everywhere, including small detail work that makes you stop and appreciate the whole room. After passing the entrance hall and the pleasant ushers, you are pulled into the highly decorative lobby. Oh what a space to walk into. Drapes and curtains, vintage telephones, and an elegant staircase leading in multiple directions. The lighting from the chandelier and wall sconces give so much atmosphere to the room, preparing you for what’s being the doors.
We finally take our seats in front of a giant red curtain. I’m a little worried that the group of kids attending have no idea that they’re about to be subjected to an old black and white film, an almost worse fate than not watching a movie at all. I take a look at the program and wonder who Walter Strony is. He’s listed as the special guest so I think that somehow he may have been an extra in the movie when he was a kid. A few moments later, I see a spotlight being cast in front of the stage on the left side. Standing there with a dusty glow surrounding it is a glorious gold organ. I know now that it is a restored Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, a $60,000 instrument designed to elevate in front of the stage to provide music before, during, and after shows. We were about to be treated to the sounds of a grand organ!
We all find out after a short introductory piece from the organ player himself that he is the Walter Strony that I came across in the program. The previous year he had performed a marathon 3 hours of accompanying music for one of the movies shown. Tonight, however, he would only have to play for 70 minutes straight, still quite a feat. He explained that, because of how movie scores were written and performed in those days, he would have to improvise most of the music using a combinations of themes, famous tunes, and his own creations. He would also make use of the sound effect buttons that were built into the organ – birds, doors opening, etc.
Finally, the curtains slide and the music man starts. The next 70 minutes were filled with great comedy routines and daredevil stunts that are still hard to believe today. You can read much more about the movie and its historical impact here. After the film ended, I tried to walk at the slowest pace possible to the point where my wife had to drag me out by the arm. I needed photographic evidence of this event and this building. Even the restrooms were decorated with care – framed architectural drawings hung just outside the entrance. I didn’t want the evening to end. There was so much to take in, all of it special. This is what happens when you take care to build something with love, from the ground up with every detail in mind. This is a place El Paso residents can take pride in. For me, it was a special mix of history, architectural beauty, and a reminder of the magic that we have lost in regards to the cinematic experience.
Oh, and that group of kids absolutely loved the movie.