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Waco's Hippodrome Theatre: Then and Now

Via CINEMA TREASURES // By Jennifer Warren

Construction began on the Hippodrome Theatre in 1913 after a group of Waco businessmen organized by Thomas P. Finnegan and Mayor J.P. Harrison garnered support for a downtown vaudeville theatre.

The Hippodrome Theatre’s opening night, February 7, 1914, featured a live seal act, a five-piece orchestra and a magic act on the bill. Tickets were ten cents for adults, five cents for children, and box seats were a quarter. The theatre was operated by Mr. H.P. Hulsey & known affectionately known by Wacoans as “Hulsey’s Hipp”. The Hippodrome Theatre was the place for road shows, vaudeville tours, movies and local talent shows and events.

As the vaudeville era came to an end, the Hippodrome Theatre became a Paramount-Publix silent movie theatre. As an affiliate of Paramount Pictures, the theatre served as a movie theatre until a fire in the projection booth in 1928 destroyed much of the front of the building, forcing a renovation of the facility.

The consequent renovation resulted in the Spanish Colonial Revival style that is still present in the building today. In 1929, Southern Enterprises leased the theatre to Louis Dent’s Waco Theatre, and management changed the name of the Hippodrome Theatre to Waco Theatre.

The facility remained in use as a movie theatre and performance venue while undergoing renovations in 1936, 1961 and 1971. During this time, a number of celebrities performed and visited the Waco Theatre. Elvis Presley performed on stage, as well as taking in a movie while stationed in Fort Hood. The largest crowd ever gathered at the Waco Theatre was over 10,000 people to see John Wayne in town to promote one of his pictures.

The Waco Theatre remained open until the late-1970’s, but an increasing number of customers turned to newer movie theatres in suburban areas, ultimately causing the theatre to shut its doors. The Waco Theatre remained unused until 1980, when the Junior League of Waco began the process of restoring the Waco Theatre. At the time, Waco was in need for a performing arts venue, and the empty Hippodrome Theatre fitted the bill.

Between 1981 and 1986, community volunteers, the Junior League of Waco, and the Cooper Foundation contributed $2.4 million dollars and countless hours of dedication to undertake the restoration. The Waco Hippodrome Theatre was reopened on February 28, 1987 and became listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The facility was operated by the Waco Performing Arts Alliance and offered a variety of live theatre performances in the building until 2009-2010 when the Hippodrome Theatre once again closed its doors.

In December 2012, local developers Shane Turner and Cody Turner purchased the Hippodrome Theatre and began its current renovation. The theatre retained its classic look, but took on a few new changes. Inside the theatre, a retractable wall and movie screen was added to the balcony giving the building the capability to show two films simultaneously. The seating was refigured to be more stadium-like, as well as to give means for flexible seating with or without tables for dining. The second floor lobby has been renovated into a bar. An addition was constructed facing S. 8th Street that features two kitchens, a concession stand, a full-service restaurant and handicapped accessibility with restrooms on each level and an elevator to connect the floors.

While native Wacoans remember the Waco Theatre as a movie theatre, the Hippodrome Theatre has always been a performing arts center in one form or another. The new Hippodrome Theatre opening in 2014 will offer first-release films, along with classic films, live theatre, concerts, stand-up comedy, dance and much more. The Hippodrome Theatre is set to entertain Waco for another century. By 2018 it had 4-screens


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