Hippodrome weekend draws crowds, memories

Constance Atton I Lariat Photographer
Constance Atton I Lariat Photographer
By Jon Platt

As local bands played and crowds gathered in front of the Waco Hippodrome on Saturday evening, Melissa Green and her team put final touches in place to give Wacoans exactly what many are asking for: the reopening of the historic downtown theater.

Unlike the Hippodrome’s original grand opening 100 years ago in February 1914, Saturday’s entertainment did not include a five-piece band, a magic show or a performing seal act.
Instead, local artists put on an outdoor concert, while inside the theater country group Restless Heart and artists Lorrie Morgan and Mel Tillis performed for an audience of about 700, theater programming director Green said.

Green, who grew up in Waco seeing shows at the venue, said being a part of the monumental task was a dream come true.

“It’s so great to be on the ground floor of building this theater back up again,” she said. “The Hippodrome made a huge impact on me as a kid, and I want to do the same for future generations.”

This reopening will be the tipping point for reawakening downtown Waco, said Blake Batson, owner of Common Grounds.

In July, the coffee shop opened a portable trailer, called the Container, at Sixth Street and Franklin Avenue, because of the potential Batson saw in downtown, he said.

Kyler Griffith, a native of Waco, worked the Container’s evening shift at its relocated perch on Ninth Street. The move was intentionally made for Saturday’s concert and events.

Griffith said he thinks having the theater open will only bring good fortune to downtown.

“The more that’s around you, the more you’ll draw in,” he said. “I think everything they’ve done here is going to move downtown forward. This is awesome. It’s definitely the coolest thing to happen here in a long time.”

Both Griffith and Batson said they see the theater as a hub for further development downtown.

“We would like to be a part of every event with the Hippodrome,” Batson said. “Anything Waco is doing is special, especially downtown.”

Batson grew up in Lorena and attended events at Waco’s theater throughout his childhood. He said he has eagerly watched the movement toward a strong nightlife in downtown, and he does not think he is alone.

“People in Waco are itching for something like this,” he said. “They’re ready for it.”

In a stroke of luck, Batson said he and his wife were the first to purchase tickets to the Hippodrome’s opening concert. As a business owner and as a Wacoan, Batson said this is something he will brag about for ages.

Along with regular concerts, live bands and production entertainment on weeknights, Green said the theater also plans to show first-run screenings of new movies on the weekends.

After retiring from the Austin real estate market, Carole Player-Golden moved back home to Waco to find the city in a completely different state than when she had left.

But major changes have been made in the 12 years since her return.

“I am so thrilled to see downtown Waco coming back,” she said.

Player-Golden said she remembers frequenting the theater when a quarter would buy both the show and a dessert from the store next door.

However, her ties run deeper than a mere regular of the venue. Her mother performed and sang with country western groups years ago in the downtown Waco auditorium.

Now Player-Golden is a part of reopening that very theater.

“Waco is fixing to bust loose,” she said with a grin. “When I walked outside to leave last night, seeing all the lights on in downtown and seeing all the stores open and the people walking around, well, I just – there was an excitement I felt that gave me goosebumps.”

Over the years, Waco’s playhouse has seen many great attractions and entertainers, including Elvis Presley and John Wayne. Therefore, no expense was spared in reviving the century-old building, Green said.

She also said bringing back that tradition of excellent entertainment and flair to downtown was a major goal of the restoration team.

“What’s happening now is the beginning of a whole new city dynamic,” Batson said. “I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Upcoming events include two showings of “The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 1;” a performance by The Gladsome Lights and Joel Sprayberry; and a special replaying of the 1954 American classic “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which starred Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe and David O’Connor. For more information on future shows, visit www.wacohippodrometheatre.com.

Currently, no performing seal acts are scheduled.