By Kat Worrall
Today marks the 100th birthday of one of Waco’s oldest buildings, the Waco Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome, first opened on Feb. 7, 1914, has survived fires, tornados, openings and closings, and is expecting another grand opening in 2014. Owners Shane and Cody Turner began renovating the Hippodrome in 2013. Dean Riley, spokesman for the Waco Hippodrome, said it is expected to open in mid to late summer.
“It won’t be on the 100th birthday, but in the 100th year we’re going to bring it back and it’s going to be something all of Waco can be proud of,” Riley said.
Wilton Lanning, lifelong Wacoan and Baylor alumnus, has seen the Hippodrome in its various life stages.
“It’s had a rich history,” Lanning said. “Of course, it has had its times. It survived the tornado, the decline of ticket sales and being closed.”
Lanning said some of his earliest memories are of Saturday matinees. Children’s movies were screened and Lanning also recalls a talent show for the children. While in high school in the 1950s, Lanning would often “make the drag” up and down Austin Avenue with friends and said going to the movies at the Hippodrome was the big thing.
“It’s where you aspired to go to the balcony and sit with your girlfriend,” Lanning said.
On top of the regular movies and live performances, an unusual fact about the Hippodrome was its weekly Sunday school classes, Lanning said.
“The Columbus Avenue Baptist Church held Sunday morning Sunday school services there in the Hippodrome and often times they were to have several hundred, maybe four to five hundred, in there,” Lanning said.
The theater closed in the late 1970s but reopened in 1987 after a major restoration.
Bill Falco, a former planning director for the city of Waco, worked on the Hippodrome’s — or as it was called at the time, Waco Theater’s — restoration project in the 1980s.
The Junior League of Waco worked with the Cooper Foundation on the first-class restoration, which cost more than $2 million, Falco said.
The building was in poor shape at the time, with holes in the roof and animal occupants, but the restoration, led by an architect from Austin, transformed the theater.
Then the Waco Performing Arts Co. took over operations. Falco said he remembers attending weeknight Broadway musicals, but what stands out the most to him was a Texas-themed fundraiser in which community volunteers put on a performance.
“Some of them were just silly performances, but some of them were people who actually had talent,” Falco said.
His favorite memory of volunteering was doing a spoof with a few other men, including an appraiser, attorney, school principal and a future sheriff, where they dressed up for a “drag queen scene” and sang a chorus.
After two decades, the theater closed again in 2010, but the revitalization headed by the Turner brothers has many Wacoans excited for this piece of history.
“You don’t want to unrealistically raise expectations, but I don’t think it is unrealistic to say this is one of the most significant projects downtown Waco has seen in a while,” Megan Henderson, executive director of Waco Downtown Development Corp., said.
The new building will boast indoor and outdoor venues suited for first-run films and live performances. An upstairs restaurant and lounge will be open throughout the day, making the Hippodrome a “full destination,” Riley said.
Falco said he believes the Hippodrome is the “anchor” in the revitalization of downtown.
“I think they got a venue that will sustain itself commercially and still meet the needs of the community,” he said.
Falco, who can recall some of the early movie and stand-up comedian performances, said he hopes for more classic dramas to be performed in the fall.
Lanning said he believes there is a “synergistic” movement throughout Waco, with the restoration of buildings like the Dr Pepper Museum, which he founded, and the developments of areas like Cameron Park and McLane Stadium.
“There was a time of decline, but that’s part of a life cycle for cities,” Lanning said. “Right now it’s a very positive thing to observe.”
As construction continues on the Hippodrome, Riley, as well as many Wacoans, have high expectations for the future.
“The Hippodrome has been big and it has been small and it has been refurbished,” Riley said. “We’re looking forward to the next 100 years.”