Waco in the Spotlight

IMG_2183Story by Rachel Leland; Photos by Rachel Leland

Waco may be in the heart of a conservative Texas, but in celebration of Halloween the Waco Hippodrome Theatre featured two sold-out shows of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The 1975 musical was performed in all its raunchiness in front of a screen showing the original movie. Guests stood up, laughed and danced with the performers all night. “I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to perform a shadowcast like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” actor Meredith Underwood said. “The space allows for us to stage things in such a way to get the audience really involved in the show.”

Although the Hippodrome is first and foremost a movie theater, live performances are no stranger to its stage. Built in 1914 as a venue for vaudeville shows, the Hippodrome has long entertained the guests and natives of Central Texas. At the beginning, live acts held the theater’s spotlight, but as moving pictures gained prominence, cinema slowly began to replace vaudeville as the main act. These movies were silent films, but they too were replaced again by “talkies” later in the next decade.

Now the theater is known as an “indie” theater because it screens films that moviegoers can’t find elsewhere in Waco, such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” These independent films set the Hippodrome apart from its local competitors.

During the mid-20th century, the Hippodrome first experienced the challenges created by changing demographics and industry. It was the 1960s, and people began to favor the suburbs over downtown. New theaters sprouted up. Unable to compete with the convenience of the larger, suburban theaters, the Hippodrome closed in 1974 and remained vacant for six years until the Junior League commenced a restoration project to restore the historic theater.

This was not the only time the theater would close. Still facing similar commercial threats from the suburbs, the Hippodrome had to close its doors once more in 2010. It was only two years ago that the Waco cinema treasure began screening films again. Local developers Shane and Cody Turner bought the building and began renovations. The two brothers kept the vintage aesthetic, but made novel renovations including dividing a screening room so that two films can play at once. “When managing a theater with so many historical ties to the community we must always consider what this building has provided for the Waco community since 1914,” Princess Pete, Waco Hippodrome manager said. “That consideration is imperative when we make decisions that involve change.”

The Hippodrome also offers food and drinks, much like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. The theater also sells snacks to passersby from its side window. All of these amenities represent a business model that looks to provide customers with an experience not to be found in a basic theater.
The Hippodrome doesn’t just show pictures. Some weekends dueling pianos can be heard from the street. On Mondays, the theater hosts its weekly Movie Mondays, a free event open to Baylor students interested in watching a film that is usually social-justice centered. As of late, the Hippodrome’s theaters are often used for charity events, making the theater a hub of the community, rather than just a place that serves popcorn and forgettable flicks. “So many elderly patrons tell me ‘I remember this building from when I was a child,’” Pete said. “There’s not another theater in Waco that can provide such a long history of memories.”