A revival of the fittest
For generations of El Pasoans, the historic Plaza Theatre was a romantic place to unwind and watch movies. But, over the years, the building fell into disrepair and finally showed its last movie on May 30, 1974. However, after skirting several attempts to destroy it, the theater re-opened on March 17, 2006, saved by the city and several local organizations.
Because the Plaza Theatre needed $7 million in repairs when it closed 32 years ago, El Paso city leaders considered demolishing the building to gain downtown space. The cost to tear down the Plaza Theatre discouraged the city, however, and the plans to destroy it were quickly abandoned. Unwilling to let the building fall into further disrepair, a group of residents, spurred by their memories of the theater and a collective vision of its resurrection, formed a committee called “Save the Plaza” and campaigned to raise funds for its restoration. They collected thousands of dollars from community donors but eventually returned the money after realizing it was not enough to repair the property.
In the 1980s, the theater once again was threatened as the city made plans for a parking lot. The El Paso Community Foundation stepped in, raising $1 million through community donations and fundraisers. One event even included a performance by singer Rita Moreno. Although that was enough to make some repairs, but a complete restoration would cost an additional $37 million.
The Community Foundation donated the Plaza to the city in 1990 and, in 2002, convinced local officials that the theater would be instrumental in revitalizing the downtown area. “The city, after listening to them, decided that [they] had to help with some money as well,” says Pifas Silva, communications manager for the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau. The city dedicated $15 million to the project, and philanthropists donated the rest. “That [has been] the largest private-public partnership in the state of Texas,” Silva says. “It was a three-way partnership in the fact that the Community Foundation got the ball rolling, [and] the city stepped up and put in their part. But, citizens as well helped to make the Plaza open up again.”
With the financial backing from the city secured, the refurbishment began in earnest in 2002. Restoration experts from New York-based EverGreene Painting Studios and Washington-based Martinez and Johnson Architecture labored to return the movie house — built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style — to its original glory. The proscenium arch that frames the stage was cleaned and gilded with a bronze and metallic powder, and the walls, ceiling and columns were restored to their original colors. The new interior was redesigned to accommodate large touring shows, ballets and musicals, and the orchestra pit was enlarged to hold a full opera-sized orchestra. Contemporary lighting and sound systems also were installed.
Now, operated by the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau, the expanded theater, renamed the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Centre, now extends for more than one city block and seats more than 2,000 patrons. Currently, all sections of the theater are fully operational except for the Plaza Theatre Annex, which is slated to open this fall.
Since the grand re-opening, the theater has hosted performances of “Riverdance” and featured sold-out concerts by Tony Bennett and Michael Buble. “On show days, you’re seeing a vibrancy downtown where people are actually coming before the show and having dinner in some of the restaurants adjacent to the theater,” Silva says. “And, we’re going to start showing movies in the theater again, which is what it was originally built for.”