Sunken Garden Theater: A Quarried Gem Seeks Resurrection

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Courtesy / Brackenridge Park Conservancy

A mariachi performs at the Sunken Garden Theater in May 1941.

The early rock quarrying activities that produced many of San Antonio’s historic buildings also have given the city some of its most treasured and unique places.

In particular, the San Antonio Zoo, the Sunken Gardens, and the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park owe their existence to the walls created from excavation by the Alamo Cement Company, which leased the quarry site from the City from 1880 until 1908. When Alamo Cement moved farther north to what is now the Alamo Quarry Market and golf course, cultural leaders and park officials began to imagine how the site, which included a semicircular indention forming a natural amphitheater with good acoustics, might be adapted.

That vision not only became a reality, but an integral part of San Antonio’s performing arts scene for 80 years. Even in the second millennium, the old stage has hosted new acts, as well as old rockers staging comebacks. But for at least the last 30 years, producers have had to bring in their own lighting, sound and audio-visual equipment, and stage sets. Dressing room windows are broken, and the storied waterfall on the back stage cliff needs to be restored. Venues with concessions, air-conditioning and adequate seating have long eclipsed the venerable old theater.

“It has declined over the last 20 or 25 years, and been critical over the last five,” said Lynn Bobbitt, executive director of the nonprofit Brackenridge Park Conservancy (BPC).

Maintaining the facility is beyond the scope of Brackenridge Park’s budget, Bobbitt said, as it is just one part of the park’s 115 acres that are free and open to the public and one aspect of a Parks & Recreation Department that must maintain more than 240 parks.

Still, Bobbitt and the Conservancy are determined to return the theater to its early glory, likely with modern technology.

“Do you put a retractable roof over the musicians?” she wondered. “Do you put a cover over the audience? Could we bring in movies?”

She asks with good reason.

“There isn’t an amphitheater that can accommodate 5,000-7,000 people in this general area. And people are very sentimental about it. It’s not only a novelty but part of our history.”

The Sunken Gardens Theater prepares for the Fiesta event Taste of New Orleans. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball/Rivard Report

The Sunken Garden Theater is the site of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy’s gala on May 12.

Resurrecting the Sunken Garden Theater is part of the Brackenridge Park Master Plan that addresses the restoration of historic structures and features. However, $7.75 million in funding for Brackenridge Park contained in the recently passed 2017 bond does not include allocations for the theater.

“It will be a priority in the next bond in 2022, and in the meantime, the BPC will work with the city to develop a plan for making the theater a vital part of the performing arts community once again,” Bobbitt said.

To that end, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy is hosting a fundraising gala called the Spirit of Brackenridge Park on Friday, May 12, from 6-10:30 p.m. to benefit park improvements and the eventual restoration of the Sunken Garden Theater.

Patrons and partiers will board the Brackenridge Eagle for a tour of the park, then be served dinner created by San Antonio restaurateur and Iron Chef Gauntlet contestant Jason Dady on the stage of the theater. San Antonio Symphony trumpet player John Carroll and his new group, the San Antonio Brass Band, will evoke the heydays of the old theater. For more information on the event, click here. 

Sunken Garden Theater almost became the city’s first Tobin Center. A history of the site written by local historian Maria Watson Pfeiffer for the City’s Parks and Recreation Department states that Mrs. Eli Hertzberg, president of the Chaminade Choral Society, suggested in 1927 the amphitheater be used for performances too large for the Municipal Auditorium and that it be named the Tobin Memorial Amphitheater to honor Mayor John W. Tobin, who had recently died in office.

To test the idea, the San Antonio Civic Opera Company presented The Pirates of Penzance on a temporary stage on July 12, 1928. It was such a great success that planning for a permanent outdoor theater proceeded. If one version had been constructed, San Antonio would have had its own Mount Rushmore for the performing arts. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who designed the presidential wonder in South Dakota, drew plans for a theater that “he said would present a Grecian style of architecture,” Watson Pfeiffer discovered.

Instead, a team of local architects – Harvey P. Smith Sr., George Wilks, and Charles T. Boelhauwe – designed the theater. It was built in just six months, in time for the dedication and first-ever performance on July 14, 1930. The San Antonio Civic Opera Company presented The Bohemian Girl, described by the Guide to Musical Theater as having “lilting, memorable melodies and [a] generally uncomplicated score.”

Elizabeth Smith Leach, Smith’s granddaughter, learned from her family that since the theater didn’t have a proscenium, it couldn’t have a curtain. Local inventor E.J. Altgelt contrived a special curtain, perfected by the architects, that rose from the stage floor, held in place by concealed hoists.

Similar to a much smaller version of the Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver, the rear stage wall is formed by a craggy stone ridge. A waterfall ran down its side, lighted in blues and greens. By the thousands, the amphitheater would fill with well-heeled patrons up for a night of opera, musicals, Viennese extravaganzas, and concerts by the San Antonio Symphony and other groups. Arthur Fiedler, legendary master of the Boston Pops, conducted Ravel’s “Bolero” there.

“It was all quite wonderful,” said longtime San Antonian Cam Rosengren. “My grandmother would take me when I was little. The moon would rise and a little breeze would start up. It was just magical.”

Jake Beasley, who produced Shakespeare in the Park performances in the early 1990s, said he had heard that when Metropolitan Opera tenor Lauritz Melchior gave a concert in the 1930s or ’40s, the lions at the nearby zoo began roaring and he had to sing over them.

Black and white photos show an audience of GIs ogling a pageant of bathing beauties, and in aerial shots the amphitheater is one of the few masses of concrete amid curvy roads and a dusty Alamo Stadium. The McAllister Freeway would have seemed as bizarre as a 750-foot tower rising from downtown.

In a production of The Sound of Music in the early ’60s, Beasley recalled, the rapturous “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” climax had the Von Trapp Family Singers escaping the Nazis across the stage’s Alpine back wall, singing all the way.

By the late ’60s and into recent times, the lilting melodies of operas gave way to The Monkees; Steppenwolf; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Bad Company; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and – surely unpopular with zoo and surrounding River Road residents – Iron Maiden; Megadeth; and Anthrax. Everyone seems to remember that Carlos Santana played there with fragrant wafts of illegal substances emanating into the night sky. Imagine Leon Russell, Selena, B.B. King, and Sheryl Crow. For a gentler crowd, there was Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, and Suzanne Vega.

Bob Dylan performed the night Princess Diana died. A carefree rocker once threw her bra at Joan Jett, who caught it and waved it around her head.

“One weekend it would be Little Joe y La Familia and the next might be Donnie Osmond,” Beasley said. “Hundreds of people would be there. It was just great.”

As producer of the free Shakespeare in the Park series, he said one of the most moving moments was watching a family enthralled by a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The little kids were engaged and listening, and their father was leaning into his mother’s ear, translating every word of the play.”

But it wasn’t all pop music, Beasley said. The natural setting of rock and sky and breeze proved perfect for the Music of Americas series, in collaboration with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, in the late 1980s. Indigenous musicians of Bolivia, Brazil, and Puerto Rico performed to full houses.

“That’s the caliber of productions we were doing,” Beasley said.  “People still tell me how special it was, with the moon rising over the cliff.

“That’s the thing about the Sunken Garden Theater – it’s part of Brackenridge Park, and the park is welcoming to the whole city. It’s why we hope people start using it again.”

2 thoughts on “Sunken Garden Theater: A Quarried Gem Seeks Resurrection

  1. Thank you for the informative article Nancy, but you didn’t mention the contributions to the Sunken Gardens by the 1936 Texas Centennial (everybody forgets, that’s why I call my website The Neglected Texas Centennial http://www.picturetrail.com/neglected_tx_centennial)
    The Sunken Garden Theater facility as it appears today was completed in 1937 as part of the Texas Centennial celebration. A federal allocation of $62,000 was used for improvements. Renovation and additions at that time included dressing rooms, stage improvements, and a concrete area with 2,200 seats. San Antonio and the NYA contributed an additional $5,000 to construct new roads, walks, walls, and landscaping. Architects for the Centennial project, completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), were Harvey P. Smith, George Willis and Charles T. Boelhauwe. A concession area was built by the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1937-38. A bronze plaque installed on the east wing wall read, “1836-1936. Sunken Garden Theatre, a memorial to the Heroes of the Texas Revolution.” Another plaque recognized the San Antonio Civic Opera Co., founded by Mrs. Lewis Krams-Beck. At the entrance to the park, there is a large monument with the Texas pioneers that everyone drives by and doesn’t notice. It says “Sunken Garden Theater – a memorial to the heroes of the Texas Revolution.” Photos are on my website in the Buildings album and I have more if you would like to see them. NOBODY remembers the Centennial in San Antonio. I couldn’t even get the TriCentennial Committee to listen or restore the statues of Ben Milam and Moses Austin. 🙁

  2. In the 1960s, the poor folk would watch concerts from hidden spots on Alpine Drive (now it’s an unused road above the Theater) or from a wall on the Alamo Stadium. An industrious engineer could devise a public transportation conveyance (a resurrection of the sky-ride? an extension of the Brackenridge Eagle?) to carry today’s zoo, theater, and park visitors to and from the Alamo Stadium parking lot.

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