Memories of Spanish-language movie theaters:
© Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., 2008
The arrival of the ”talkies“ in the 1930s generated an interest in Spanish-language cinema that spread to almost every city in the United States. In the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, entertainment for Hispanics started to flourish when radio programs, live shows, records and moving pictures in Spanish became a regular fare. Local entrepreneurs and out-of-town theater circuits embarked on the development of movie houses that catered mainly to Mexican audiences.
Like in many parts of the United States, the development of business in the Rio Grande Valley was greatly influenced by the arrival of Mexican migrant workers before, during and after WWII. The presence of thousands of immigrants stimulated the activity of local establishments, including movie houses. Although Hollywood films dominated the screens in the Valley, Mexicans just as easily could select from an assortment of Spanish-language movies. In the early 1940s, approximately twenty theaters specialized in Mexican films. By 1953, this number increased to thirty-two establishments. As drive-in theaters began to be built, the exhibition outlets for Spanish-language pictures equally expanded.
Prior to 1930, very few entertainment spots in the Rio Grande Valley catered specifically to Hispanics. In Harlingen, The Park Theater sometimes offered ”interesting and varied pictures“ for Mexican families. It played, for example, the seven-part serial Historia de la Revolución Mexicana in May of 1929. The Teatro Anahuac, in McAllen, showed movies with popular Latin stars of Hollywood. El Pagano, a silent film with Spanish titles featuring Ramón Novarro, played here in March 1930. Another theater catering to Mexicans was the Teatro Chapultepec of Donna.
A new entertainment center opened in Edinburg at this time: the 350-seat Grande Theater located on Harriman Street, in the Mexican section of the city. Its owner, Velma Montague, planned this theater with the explicit intention of showing films to the ”many people that lack the most indispensable knowledge of English.“ The local newspaper El Defensor (March 28, 1930) declared that the Teatro Grande had been built using the best materials available. That weekend it showed a Hollywood Western starring Hoot Gibson. But the following month, audiences had a chance to see a Mexican silent film, El Indio Yaqui. This movie had been a commercial success in Los Angeles, California, where it was partially filmed in 1926 by Guillermo Calles, a Mexican artist of Tarahumara ancestry. Theaters in the U. S. Southwest continuously played El indio yaqui until the arrival of ”talkies“ in the early thirties.
Mrs. Montague, who was the wife of a prominent doctor, also owned the Aztec Theater (214 E. Cano Street) and the Valley Theater (222 E. Harriman). In May 1939, the Aztec screened the folkloric comedy La Zandunga, which featured the beautiful Lupe Vélez. The film’s evocative music and dances from the Tehuantepec Isthmus gave viewers a chance to celebrate the culture and traditions of old Mexico. Still, the Aztec and Valley theaters exhibited American films mostly. Only every once in a while did they play Spanish-language movies. For this reason, Cecilio B. García, a local entrepreneur, started to build a new theater for the Mexican people. An article appearing in San Antonio’s La Prensa, emphasized the need for such a theater in Edinburg: ”The company that runs the two American movie houses in town barely exhibits films in Spanish; starting at 11 p.m. and ending at around two in the morning, which is not an appropriate hour for the public and much less for families.“ Cecilio B. García opened his Teatro Juárez on December 22, 1939. After seven months, he announced that he would make improvements to the theater. It certainly needed them, as the Juárez was not ample enough for its growing clientele. Meanwhile, the Valley Theater stopped operating. Its owner, Velma Montague, was fatally shot by her husband in what seemed to be a crime of passion. A little later, though, the Valley Theater reopened as the Teatro Juárez.
For many years, one of the most popular entertainment spots for Hispanics was the Juárez Theater. Doctor C. E. Montague continued to own the building. In 1942, when the new manager was Mrs. B. M. Sohn, the theater announced a classic sentimental movie. Starring Fernando Soler and Sara García, Cuando los hijos se van, recounted the joys and sorrows of a family as the children grow and become independent. The following year, the smash hit ¡Ay Jalisco no te rajes! drew enormous crowds to the Teatro Juárez. It made $670 at the box office during its four days of exhibition, charging only fifteen cents adults and five cents children. Much of the appeal of this charro movie was its music, interpreted by Jorge Negrete, Lucha Reyes and the Trío Tariácuri. The Juárez probably got more money from the concessions sales than from the ticket sales. Popcorn, sodas and candies made up a good source of income for any theater. Another hit with Jorge Negrete was Así se quiere en Jalisco, which opened at the Teatro Juárez in May 1943. The distributor of this film (Clasa-Mohme of San Antonio, Texas) proudly said: ”We have never had a better picture in the history of this company than Así se quiere en Jalisco; it is truly magnificent and will give your audience an idea of the beauty and colorfulness of Mexico.“ Next to Negrete, other popular singers like Luis Aguilar were also cast in charro movies. His most celebrated film was Yo maté a Rosita Alvírez, which played at the Teatro Juárez in 1948.
Without a doubt, the most popular Spanish-language movie that came to Edinburg was El derecho de nacer (”The Right to be Born“), which opened in August 1952 at the Teatro Juárez. The cheerful crowds that gathered at the doors and inside of the theater can be seen in several photographs that have survived. The capacity of this theater was modified and it now seated 575 people. El derecho de nacer was preceded by an effective publicity campaign that emphasized: ”Following the highest moral standards of the Catholic Church“. And also advancing: ”The story concerns a Cuban doctor that is visited by a young girl who wishes to renounce her unborn child. He refuses to comply with her request and then proceeds to impress her with the sacredness of motherhood.“ The movie’s tremendous pull was largely due to a radio serial of the same title that had seduced listeners for many months in preparation of the film’s release.
The Juárez Theater was one of the most important Spanish-language movie houses in the Rio Grande Valley, as is made evident in surviving box-office records of 1952. Twenty-four Spanish-language theaters played here the highly successful drama El derecho de nacer. According to the records, Edinburg’s movie house grossed $3,030.72 in eight days of showing. Only Brownsville’s Teatro México made more money ($4,748.34) because of its larger capacity. The Teatro Juárez sold 5,418 adult tickets at fifty cents each, and 1,287 children admissions at twenty-five each. Other theaters in the list making above one thousand dollars were the Grande in Harlingen, the Cine El Rey in McAllen, the Rio in Mission, the Nacional in Weslaco, the Rio in Mercedes, and the Palace in San Benito.
Every week, the Teatro Juárez attracted hundreds of film fans. People also went to the Roxy and Alameda, two other theaters located in Edinburg. Besides alluring movie posters, the management of these houses displayed big names on the marquees: Pedro Infante, María Félix, Dolores del Río, Pedro Armendáriz, Luis Aguilar. Above all, audiences enjoyed watching the latest comedies of Cantinflas, Tin Tan, Resortes, and Clavillazo. There was always a new attraction billed in combination with a second or third-run Hollywood movie. Occasionally, theaters offered live entertainment by professionals, who would take the stage at the conclusion of the film. Other times, though, amateurs and local artists competed to win prizes during popular talent shows.
The Juárez Theater prevailed as the best business in town catering to Mexicans; it released the newest films from south of the border. The Roxy Theater, on the other hand, exhibited older movies. Still numerous customers, mainly Mexican laborers or ”Braceros,“ attended it. For instance, this house made excellent business in 1949 when it announced two smash hits: A volar joven and Los tres García, featuring Cantinflas and Pedro Infante respectively. Precisely that summer there was a ”raid on wetbacks by truckloads by immigration,“ which caused attendance to drop at many theaters. Toward the end of the year Pedro Infante’s follow-up, Vuelven los García, drew large crowds to the Roxy. Several newsreels complemented the program. A popular serial, Calaveras del terror, featured the virile Pedro Armendáriz and his pal, the comedian ”El Chicote“. This gripping twelve-chapter serial thrilled customers.
Miguel Benítez Jr. owned the Roxy and Alameda Theaters. The Alameda began operation in 1952 and had a large capacity: 866 seats. It soon became a serious competitor to the Teatro Juárez. Benítez was a shrewd entrepreneur that worked in conjunction with his father and three brothers. Starting in the 1920s, this family controlled a chain of theaters, which eventually became the largest Spanish-language circuit in the Rio Grande Valley. A film distributor once said of this enterprising family: ”The Benítez circuit always tries to make long-range plans for the right kind of pictures… They have had countless years of experience that show that unless they can offer either action pictures or comedies, they can’t make the kind of grosses that the presence of many uneducated laborers demands.“ By 1960, the Teatro Alameda had become a focal point for Hispanic audiences. La Cucaracha, a drama of the Mexican Revolution starring María Félix and Dolores del Río, opened that year in the Valley. It was a very successful movie, judging from the records of fourteen local theaters that played it. Only the Alameda grossed $1,198.75 in one week, getting a sixth place in box-office receipts in the Valley.
Since 1956, a new entertainment center operated in Edinburg: El Patio Drive-In Theater, which was owned by Fred Crowson. One of the best Mexican films that came to this outdoor theater was El Siete Leguas, a color movie about the Revolution featuring the charro singer Luis Aguilar. The Patio Drive-In exhibited El Siete Leguas in June 1957, making $445 in just two days, an exceptional gross for an open-air theater. Valley residents liked movies with abundant ”ranchera“ tunes. The Benitez knew that their regular customers only enjoyed these movies, as they did not care for the more fashionable rhythms portrayed in recent films. At the same time, they tried to make happy the younger generation of viewers. For example, Miguel Benítez wrote to his film suppliers: ”These CHA CHA CHA, CALYPSO, MAMBO titles have been more than enough in the market. The only one that proved to our satisfaction was El castillo de los monstruos, because it had El Vampiro, Dracula, Frankestein, La Momia, La Gorila and all these monsters that appealed to teen-agers.“
The business of movie entertainment suffered deeply as a consequence of the arrival of television. Already, in the mid-fifties, picture shows and broadcast programs were competing for the attention of viewers. Moreover, with the construction of drive-in theaters throughout the Valley, many traditional movie houses began to close. To save money, families preferred to go to the drive-ins and pay only one dollar per carload. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Edinburg’s El Patio charged no more than fifty cents for each automobile. Walk-ins were welcomed, too. However, by the mid-eighties the popularity of Spanish-language films was waning. Accounting for their demise were the changing tastes of a new generation. The innovations of cable television and video rentals really hurt theater receipts. In due time, the old movie houses and drive-ins closed for good and were replaced by strip malls and flea markets.
But the fond recollections of moviegoers are still intact, making up for an invaluable testimony of the history of local filmed entertainment. Today, people in the Rio Grande Valley remember with nostalgia going to a local theater and watching a Mexican film. They even retain the images of their favorite stars and the stories that impacted them most. The movies expanded their everyday experience, bringing laughter, sadness and excitement to every member in the family. Looking back, attendance at any of these theaters was a central feature of the social life of the community.
Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr. is the author of Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters and Audiences, 1920-1960. (McFarland Publishers, 2006.) Information for this article comes mainly from the records of Clasa-Mohme Distributors, which are deposited at the Agrasánchez Film Archive.
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