Grand Illusions

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Once the building was under way, Eberson brought in a group of specialists to assemble the interiors. This thirty-member team moved from theater to theater, installing the plasterwork, trees, birds, and other details and painting the walls. The ornamentation for the walls and ceilings was produced in plaster from clay molds by the Schmidt firm in Chicago, then shipped to the construction sites in two- and three-foot sections. Hundreds of bulbs were dipped in pink paint to achieve the proper glow for Eberson’s lighting fixtures, while his wife and daughter made the banners for the auditoriums. The furnishings, many of them real antiques, came from around the world. Drew Eberson coordinated the various elements as they arrived at the sites, and as the installations progressed, he also placed the statuary and mapped out the stars.

If all went well, it took just over a year to complete an Eberson theater. For all their seeming extravagance, these theaters were, surprisingly, less expensive to build than their more mundane counterparts. The architect had learned his lessons well at St. Louis, and the massive, ancient carved-stone walls of his movie houses were in fact made of staff, a mixture of plaster and straw developed for fairground architecture. In an age when many theaters were designed in the grand style of European opera houses, with red plush carpeting, marble staircases, and crystal chandeliers, Eberson’s plaster casts and Brenograph special effects were cheap by comparison.

More and more people have now become aware of Eberson’s flamboyant legacy.

But they were not cheap enough to weather the Depression. San Antonio’s New Majestic Theater, which opened in 1929 (“Matchless in Beauty and Comfort,” said the San Antonio Express , “Is Beacon of Progress and Symbol of All That Is Worthy and Fine”), was one of the last atmospheric theaters ever built. Their demise did not end John Eberson’s career. The architect quickly mastered the Deco style, though he thought it too severe for his inventive spirit, and continued to build movie houses until his death in 1954. By that time many of his atmospheric theaters had begun to decay, and some had already been torn down.

In recent years more and more people have become aware of Eberson’s flamboyant architectural legacy, and his surviving theaters are beginning to be taken up by preservation groups. In 1989 investors spent $5.1 million restoring the San Antonio Majestic to its former splendor. Now a new generation can sit beneath the twinkling electric stars and drifting clouds and experience the Eberson magic.

FROM BEAUX ARTS . . .
. . . TO DECO

The Silver in Washington, D.C., shows that Eberson was fluent in the Moderne style even if he didn’t like it as much. The 1938 tropical-Deco movie house is listed in the National Register.