A Conversation with Joci Straus: Guardian of the Majestic, Empire Theaters

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Elaborate decorations and balcony seating await visitors inside the Majestic Theatre.

Elaborate decorations and balcony seating await visitors inside the Majestic Theatre.

Dawn Robinette HeadshotIf it weren’t for Jocelyn “Joci” Straus, the Majestic Theatre and the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre might have gone the way of many other long-lost theaters and buildings: knocked down in the name of progress, parking and revitalization.

Straus didn’t know how she was going to do it: she was busy working on a number of political campaigns and had little time to spare, but when she was approached to help restore and preserve the theaters, she knew she had to say yes.

Twenty-five years and 5 million patrons later, her efforts are being recognized at the Las Casas Foundation Gala tonight as the organization she founded honors Straus for her lifetime achievements and leadership in making the theaters the treasure they are today.

Interior of the Majestic Theatre. Photo(s) courtesy of Majestic Theatre & Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.

Interior of the Majestic Theatre. All photos courtesy of Majestic Theatre & Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.

The moving force behind the restoration of the Majestic and Empire theatres, Straus founded Las Casas and spearheaded the effort to raise more than $10 million for the restoration of both theatres. After founding Las Casas in 1988, Straus led fundraising and restoration efforts that allowed the Majestic renovation to be completed in just 11 months. She then worked to raise the funds necessary to restore the Empire Theatre, which reopened in 1998 after being dark for 25 years.

DAWN ROBINETTE: How did you get involved with the Majestic and Empire Theatres?

Joci Straus

Joci Straus

JOCI STRAUS: I was approached by a few people from the arts community asking if I’d be interested in spearheading an effort to restore the theaters. I had no idea what all that would entail and I asked what would happen if I didn’t do it. They said that if I didn’t do it, the theaters would be demolished and turned into a parking lot.

I agreed to go see the theater. I remember parking my car at the Gunter and walking to the theater clutching my purse close to me — I didn’t feel safe. That was what Houston Street was like at that time.

The theaters needed so much work. We were in the last stages of building our house at 555 Argyle Street and I’d watched the craftsmen and the skill they poured into their work during the construction. I developed an appreciation for the craftsmanship behind the construction. The work in the theaters was so detailed—they really were works of art. Tearing them down to become parking lots? That just couldn’t happen—they were too beautiful to destroy and downtown needed these theaters. We needed something to revitalize Houston Street. The Majestic was amazing once, and it could be again. I couldn’t think about the Empire yet—the ceiling was falling in, it was just a mess.

And then they told me that we only had 11 months to get this done because the San Antonio Symphony needed a place to play. So I started making calls.

ROBINETTE: How did you tackle the project?

STRAUS: I like to say that I picked pockets—A LOT. Grown men would cross the street when they saw me coming! That’s what happens when you chair a number of fundraisers.

I started by organizing lists of names to outreach to, cultivating people I thought could help. I’d invite them to join me for lunch on the stage at the Majestic. Every day, five days a week, I’d have lunch with one person and talk to them about what we needed to do. La Mansion del Rio and Holiday Inn would bring over a wonderful lunch served on a beautiful table arrangement, served by a waiter who I’m sure grew tired of listening to my speech day after day. There was no heat or air conditioning, so the lunches weren’t always that comfortable—it was a long, hot summer. I’d tell my guests to take off their suit jackets during the warmer weather and in the winter, I’d hide a space heater under the table to try to keep warm.

Phase I of the restoration: The entire Majestic theatre, with the exception of the upper balcony and non-essential decorative plasterwork, was restored to its original appearance as accurately as possible, while making the theatre more technically up-to-date and more comfortable for audiences and performers.

Phase I of the restoration: The entire Majestic theatre, with the exception of the upper balcony and non-essential decorative plasterwork, was restored to its original appearance as accurately as possible, while making the theatre more technically up-to-date and more comfortable for audiences and performers.

To help illustrate how beautiful the theater could be again, I had an angel from the proscenium that was partially restored. Half of her reflected the current state of the theater, the other half was beautifully redone. She would sit on the table with us during lunch, showing the promise that we could achieve with the right support. After lunch, I’d call to follow up.

Often when I talked to people, they looked at me like I was stark raving mad—the economy wasn’t doing well, oil prices were down—it wasn’t the time to be fundraising. So we took pledges—and I had to get so much money together before we could announce anything or move forward.

But people were supportive. To raise money, we held a last performance in the Majestic before we turned out the lights to start the restoration and it sold out—it was incredible. People wanted to be a part of what we were doing—that’s what made this a success.

We didn’t know how much money we needed at first—we tackled it in pieces. I remember walking into the theater for one of our regular Monday meetings—Eliot Cohen, the executive director of Las Casas at the time; Milton Babbit, the architect overseeing the restoration; Kirk Feldman from ACE and I met every week during the restoration. The workmen were ready to tear down the walls to expand the women’s restroom. We didn’t have the funds in hand, but I told them to do it anyway: every where I went during the restoration, women would stop me and ask me to expand the women’s restroom.

A crowd of patrons, mostly women, stand in line to see Pat Boone perform at the Majestic.

A crowd of patrons, mostly women, stand in line to see Pat Boone perform at the Majestic, circa 1940s.

During performances, women had to wait in a line that trailed down the stairs of the theater, often missing much of the show. We didn’t have the money, but we had to make this happen—there wasn’t another option.

I learned a lot along the way: it was cheaper to refurbish the seats than build new ones, finding peacocks to replace the ones featured in the theater is not as easy as you’d think and who would have guessed we’d uncover gold leaf hidden under white paint in the Empire? But we did. Of course, that meant we needed the funds to buy six pounds of gold leaf to use in the restoration.

Finding funding for the arts isn’t easy, but thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we made it happen.

Atmospheric theaters are such a treasure. We hear from artists who perform at the theaters, “They don’t make theaters like this anymore.” And they don’t — it’s why we needed to restore these theaters to their glory. San Antonio deserves these treasures.

ROBINETTE: You grew up in San Antonio. What do you remember about Houston Street and the theaters?

STRAUS: My mother took me to see “Gone With the Wind” at the Majestic. I remember her saying we’d need to take something for me to eat because it was such a long movie. Later on, my girlfriends and I would ride the bus downtown to see a movie at the Majestic—I remember that MGM lion roaring and watching the newsreels. We’d go to Chandler’s, a five and dime, and shop, and get oranjas at the oranjas stand. I’m sure it’s hard to imagine us just roaming around downtown and then taking the bus home, but that’s how it was then.

The last time I remember being in the Majestic before working on the restoration was seeing Paul Anka, and the theater smelled like dirty tennis shoes. It certainly wasn’t the theater that it is today!

The Majestic Theatre, circa 1931.

The Majestic Theatre, circa 1931.

And the Empire, well, it was off limits to all of us. It showed “questionable” movies, the movies that weren’t shown at regular theaters. My brother took me to see “Dorian Gray” there. That certainly isn’t a risqué movie today, but it was then and my brother couldn’t wait to see it. When we were raising funds for its restoration, I would ask people to raise their hands if they had been to the Empire and when they did, I’d say, “Shame on you!”

There are so many touches of history in these theaters—you really can step back in time to imagine it as it was. The ceiling in the Majestic features stars in the exact pattern of the night sky on the night the theater opened in 1929. When the theater opened, it featured a nursery where parents could drop off their children while they watched a performance—the room still has the tile and children’s décor from back then, though now it’s used as an ushers’ room.

ROBINETTE: Why are these theaters so important?

STRAUS: Both the Majestic and the Empire are historically significant, but that’s not what makes them important. It’s the experiences they deliver that make them true works of art. Art is so important — we all need it in our lives. Go to the theater and enjoy a performance. You will come out of the theater without any cares.

The Adams Family performs at the Majestic Theatre.

The Adams Family performs at the Majestic Theatre.

Seeing live performances is so uplifting. Leave your worries on the street. Walk into the theaters and experience a show in a beautiful environment. Atmospheric theaters were meant to transport you to another time and place—these theaters do that every time you enjoy a show. Coming to these theaters is entertainment in and of itself—there’s so much to see and admire.

ROBINETTE: The theaters have long been restored. Isn’t Las Casas Foundation’s work done?

STRAUS: Goodness, no! We were founded to restore the theaters and we accomplished that goal, providing a downtown home to performing arts in our beautiful city. But our role didn’t end with the restoration: we also oversee the theaters, so we can’t just go out of business. We’re part of a three-way partnership: the City owns the theaters, ACE Theatrical Group manages and operates the theaters and Las Casas Foundation is responsible for their preservation and restoration.

Elaborate decorations and balcony seating await visitors inside the Majestic Theatre.

Elaborate decorations and balcony seating await visitors inside the Majestic Theatre.

But our support of performing arts does not end with restoration—in 2009, our current chairman, Frank Ruttenberg, created the Las Casas Performing Arts Scholarship Competition to support young people who have talent in the performing arts and want to pursue their craft in college. The program is a brilliant way to use the theaters to help support the future of performing arts.

We must help these talented young people—performing arts don’t get enough support and there are few scholarships in this field. And many of these students have never had the opportunity to see the theaters, so hosting the competition in these gorgeous venues gives them an amazing experience to start their careers.

It was important to resurrect the theaters and now it’s important to grow and cultivate the talent. The competition helps elevate the level of performing arts in our city.

ROBINETTE: What do you hope will happen for the students who participate in the competition?

STRAUS: Success, of course. We want them to have the ability to pursue their dreams, whatever those may be. Whether or not they end up performing, or simply enjoy being in the audience, we want them to have the confidence to achieve their goals and have a life-long love of the performing arts.

So in addition to continuing our efforts to preserve the theaters, we chose to create scholarship support for talented students. We have to nurture our home-grown talent to ensure future generations are able to enjoy performing arts.

This is the only program of its kind in Texas, and one of the few in the country. We’re there to support these students. We want to see them succeed. We follow their careers. It’s exciting to see what they accomplish.

ROBINETTE: Where does San Antonio fit into the art environment?

STRAUS: San Antonio is a bright light on the art scene in Texas. We understand that arts are not frivolous, they’re essential to life and essential to economic development. Cultural opportunities are needed and our city is filled with them. Our art scene is varied, vibrant and strong and the efforts of the Las Casas Foundation support that.

The Majestic's concession stand, circa 1940s.

The Majestic’s concession stand, circa 1940s.

Tonight’s Gala proceeds, featuring Il Divo in their first-ever performance at the Majestic Theatre, will benefit the Las Casas Performing Arts Scholarship Competition. The competition was created to support young talent that needs assistance to climb the ladder to success in the performing arts. Since its inception in 2009, the Las Casas Performing Arts Scholarship Competition has awarded almost $300,000 in scholarship money in the disciplines of theatre acting and musical theatre singing and dancing to deserving students. The 2013 competition will take place May 19 at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre. Following the competition, $85,500 in scholarships will be awarded.

 

Dawn Robinette, APR, is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing the stories of people who have made a difference in their community. With an extensive background in corporate communications, non-profit organizations and agencies, she currently works with The CE Group and can be reached at drobinette@thecegroupincnet.

 

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