The World’s Stage

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Story by: Susan Duty

Photos by: Kyle Beam

Honeyed vibrations of a street performer’s violin ring out over the loud clunking of construction. At the shaded corner of Eighth Street and Austin Avenue, Waco’s Hippodrome is coming back to life.

Shane and Cody Turner have been bringing life back to downtown Waco for the last several years. With the additions of swanky lofts, boutiques and restaurants, the buzz of city life has picked up. The thump, thump, thumping of hammers coming from the open doors of the Hippodrome signals a swelling excitement.

It’s an awakening. And it’s about time.Hippodrome2

Decades of dust mixes with powdery rock, covering the floor and railings of the once pristine entryway with a silky mix of memory and progress. The wall nearest to Eighth Street that once was the Hippodrome’s box office is about to take a tumble. In its place, a 5,000 square-foot add-on will rise three stories, creating additional space on each floor.

A new concession stand, two full kitchens and a lounge area will all be a part of the new addition. A balcony attached to one of the restaurants will overlook 8th Street. “There’s probably going to be five different things going on at once,” Turner said.

The Hippodrome is shaping up to be a one-stop shop for drinks, dining and entertainment. There’s something for everybody; one need only find a parking space.

Positioned at the top of a winding pathway of stairs is the projection booth from which visitors can peer through a small window that overlooks the entire theater. A giant hunk of archaic, faded green metal rests in the center of the room. It’s an original 35mm projector – similar to the one that spun reels of classic Hollywood films during the theater’s heyday. During the silent film era, the Hippodrome, known then as the Waco Theater, was routinely decorated with elaborate setups promoting the latest motion picture.

D.W. Griffith’s “The White Rose” featured a large display of the lead characters embracing in a kiss, accented with two waist-high vases of white roses on either side of the couple. Wacoans were enticed to buy a ticket to see “the story of a girl who could not stop loving.” If cinema wasn’t what customers were looking for this particular spring day in 1923, they could see a live performance of The Hurlock Sisters, featuring “the boy from Waco and the girl from New Orleans in a bit of melody.”

A photograph from this same era showed how the Hippodrome, in classic Hollywood fashion, heralded the role of the handsome Douglas Fairbanks in “Don Q, Son of Zorrow.” On a small sign next to the display: “Coming: Charlie Chaplin, ‘The Gold Rush.’”

In 1928, the theater closed for renovations after a fire destroyed the projection booth. It reopened in 1929, this time with air conditioning. Sound capability came two years later.

The theater continued to host live acts and movies, even after the death of Vaudeville – what the Hippodrome was originally built. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fannie Brice all made a stop at the Hippodrome during the ‘30s. John Wayne, Sandra Dee and Don Knotts also came through on tour to promote their films. Elvis Presley came down from Fort Hood once. He asked the employees to keep it a secret, but his well-known reputation overrode their ability to keep it quiet. In no time, downtown was swarmed with fans eager for a picture of The King.

The heart of the city throbbed with the thunder of hot rods cruising down Austin Avenue. The glow of dozens of marquees lit up the long, gray sidewalks. The chatter of excited Waco residents on Friday and Saturday nights bubbled up outside one of Waco’s premier entertainment venues. The Hippodrome was alive and well. But sadly, the future was bringing unforeseen changes that would ultimately put this glittering, historical spectacle on life support.

Only the walls know how many thousands of feet of film wound their way through the clicking machinery during this golden era of cinema. Life continued its relentless march, moving from a time of soda shops and swing skirts to Vietnam and disco.

And then the construction of the Twin Cinema near Highway 6 and West Waco Drive was complete. The new theater offered more screens, better technology and had capitalized on the suburban sprawl exploding on the edges of town.

After 61 years of operation, on Sunday, Dec. 15, 1974, the Hippodrome screened its last film. Waco had caved in to the suburban frenzy, leaving downtown behind. The future of the Hippodrome was up in the air. No one was sure if the theater would simply continue to host live performances or be destroyed. Happily, fortune smiled on the relic. It remained intact.

Over the next several decades, the Hippodrome showcased Broadway performances, musicians and local plays and operas. It was rented out to different nonprofits for fundraisers. A harmless and humorous mix-up in 1989 even brought the risqué Chippendales dance troupe to Waco, causing quite the controversy in this predominantly conservative community. Eleanor Levy, chairman of the Waco Performing Arts Co. at the time, she said in a Waco Tribune-Herald article that she thought they were “tap dancers or something for children.”

The Hippodrome avoided demolition, but it wasn’t what it used to be. Another renovation in the mid-’80s attempted to make it more favorable for the performing arts. In 2005, funding scares sent a panic throughout the city. Lagging attendance and high utility and maintenance costs were creating a combustible mixture of problems that many feared would end the Hippodrome’s life for good. Again, the future of this Waco treasure was uncertain. But in the “eleventh hour,” fundraisers were able to meet the monetary goal necessary to keep the doors open.

But the success wasn’t long lived. In 2010, after 96 years of shaky but joyful operation, the Hippodrome closed its doors and fell into a lonesome, deep sleep.

For several years, the biting wind of winter whipped past the boarded-up windows. The blazing sunlight of the Texas summer baked the crumbling brick of the walls facing Austin Avenue. And thousands of people drove and walked past one of the most beloved and memory-filled places in the entire city. Perhaps some stopped to peek in the windows. Perhaps some paid no attention at all. The ebb and flow of life continued to swirl all around it, almost like it wasn’t ever there at all. The Hippodrome had become like a bum on the corner, mournful and abandoned.

Until now.

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It took nearly 30 years, but the cycle that took moviegoers away from downtown has come full circle. Like the rest of the building, the tiny room that housed the old, dusty projector is changing, too. The Hippodrome is coming back with a swing harder than Babe Ruth’s. It’s going digital. Turner said he might put the projector on display in the lobby. When it reopens, the theater will show first-run features with digital projectors. Capable of a much more impressive level of brightness, clarity and color, the Hippodrome won’t just be selling tickets to movies again. They’ll be selling an entirely new and mesmerizing experience.

It’s sure to give a much-needed jolt to the nightlife downtown. “We thought with this, there’s 800 seats in this building. If we get 800 people downtown to watch a concert, well they’re going to eat at Jake’s or go eat at Klassy Glass.”

Austin Avenue has exploded with new eateries. The Hippodrome, if all goes as planned, should act like a beacon for the rest of the city. And the theater itself will have two full kitchens. So those wanting to stay fairly stationary in their quest for food and fun can get all they’re looking for in the same building.

Chris McGowan, director of urban development with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, echoes the high hopes surrounding the Hippodrome’s reopening. “It’s the most important project in downtown this year,” he said. When the Hippodrome was in operation several years ago it inspired businesses to grow around it, and there was a noticeable difference when it closed, he said. Like most residents, especially those with memories tied to the theater, he’s “terribly excited to have it back.” And not only will the theater help the new businesses already springing up around it, it will open up even more employment opportunities. Turner expects to employ 70-80 people at reopening.

Standing on the bare concrete floor of the theater, Turner turned his gaze upwards to the balcony. “It’s a soundproof wall that’ll descend from the ceiling and it’ll land on top of that three-foot wall there, so it’ll close off the balcony level and we’ll have a screen there … But if we need to use the whole theater you just push a button and it goes back up into the ceiling,” he said. The Hippodrome will have two-screen capability. Two swaths of 40 foot by 20 foot heavy, white vinyl will bring movie magic back to Austin Avenue. State of the art sound equipment is already being installed as well.

In addition to running first-run films, Turner is open-minded with what the program will entail on a monthly basis. One idea is a foreign film night. If enough interest is generated, Wacoans might possibly be able take a trip to the Hippodrome to see something a little more exotic. Currently, there aren’t any screenings of movies like this anywhere else in town.

And as to be expected, there’s plenty of talk regarding opening night. The signs covering the chalky windows out front denote a Feb. 7, 2014, opening. It’s the date everyone is hoping for, but it’s still uncertain if the renovation will be complete at the theater’s 100th anniversary. Regardless of when it actually happens, it’s sure to be an event unlike anything Waco has seen in some time. “We’re looking for all sorts of cool and exciting things for the grand opening,” said Dean Riley, who is in charge of marketing for the Hippodrome.  The goal, in his words, is for there to be a “wow” factor.

“My marketing people are talking with booking agents now. I want someone that will appeal to young and old,” said Turner. Riley and Turner hope for a crowd at the door, ready for a memorable evening. As completion of construction draws nearer to a close, details of the event will be released. But it’s safe to say that there’s something big brewing at marketing headquarters.

Nearly a century has passed since this brick-and-mortar hub of entertainment was first built for the people of this city. The life of the Hippodrome has been one of uncertainty, rife with tribulation. The strength of its stone is matched only by the tenacity of the Turners to bring it back to life. Economic woes could not end it completely. Weather could not destroy it entirely. And the love the city holds for this three-story heirloom has in some way over the years kept it alive.

Though it spent its days wandering in the proverbial wilderness, there’s a light on the horizon. Its pulse beats in time with the hammer. Its song, growing ever louder, hums with the sound of a circular saw. Yet again, the floor feels the brush of scurrying footsteps. After too long, the pleasant air of the world outside has begun to waft its way into the dampest corners of a building that could have been gone forever.

If you stop in front of the marquee out front, “Waco” written large on its face, and look very closely, you can see it happening. A new day is coming, better than the days that came before it. Stop, look and listen.