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The Majestic returns-at last
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Over the years, darkness may have done some of its best work downtown at the Majestic Theatre-folding down quickly into noisy audiences before showtime, extracting startled gasps and silencing conversations. For some productions, its entrance was itself the first act-the lights came down and purple blackness darted in, the prime dramatic movement of the evening. It may have reentered on cue once or twice during the show-to seal a moment on stage, to reinforce a mood-but certainly it was there at every performance for 52 years, claiming the last word as the final curtain fell.

When darkness last took the stage of the Majestic on July 16, 1973, the drama was there, but the lights went down with little glory. In those last days, the pitch-blackness was only cursed-by crazy old men chugging swizzle in the balconies and sentimental arts supporters mourning the theater’s “natural death.”

It was a death worth mourning, to be sure, but a timely passing, the papers said. The suburbs had sucked life from downtown; modern theaters were designed, prefabbed and flung together like matchboxes. The elegant stages that had once made Elm Street look like Las Vegas-among them the Hippodrome, the Melba, The Tower, The Palace and The Queen-gradually bit the dust as film distribution methods changed, customers became scarce and the rent bills kept coming. Some were torn down to make room for skyscrapers; others became parking lots, pawn shops, discount houses and strip joints.

But the suburban matchbox cinés weren’t nearly what they were cracked up to be. Their darkness brought less magic and more muffled sounds from the theaters next door. And the stages that remained in Dallas weren’t right for legitimate theater or some important smaller stage shows. The Music Hall was too large; McFarlin at SMU was too small. Tom Hughes estimates that Dallas missed out on 50 attractions a year because it had no proper stage.

Dallas needed the elegant old theater back. The Majestic had been the flagship of Interstate Amusement Co., a chain of southern theaters owned by the late wealthy Dallas businessman and philanthropist Karl St. John Hoblitzelle. In 1977, the Hoblitzelle Foundation donated the theater to the city with the promise that it would be restored. Also in 1977, the Majestic became the first Dallas building to be included in the National Register of Historic Places. A campaign to “Light Up the Majestic” began in 1978 but was defeated in the $5 million bond election. When the issue came up again in 1979 and the ballet promised to raise $1 million on its own, the voters overwhelmingly approved $4 million to bring the theater back.

So, happily, the 1973 closing of the Majestic was less a death than an uncertain intermission. Even with all the bond money in hand, the elegance of the Majestic’s early years would be hard to match -the grandeur of the “atmosphere theatre,” as it was called, is one of the city’s finest legends. It is said that people drove to Dallas from small towns all around to see shows at the Majestic and that they planned to arrive at least 30 minutes early just to sit and gawk.

Stuffed red peacocks were mounted over the stage boxes as if to mirror the elegance of the stage. The lobby was designed to resemble a European salon, with crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf columns, brass mirrors, lush ferns and a cherub-covered fountain.

The ceiling of the theater was glittered with twinkling stars, and clouds were etched on glass. In the basement was “Ma-jesticland,” a nursery complete with cribs, a merry-go-round and a petting zoo. A crying room was also provided for mothers and crying infants; the mothers could still see the show from the soundproof cubicle. And, fittingly, the Majestic was the first theater in Dallas to install a refrigerated air system.

Hoblitzelle was bucking his mother’s teachings when he opened the Majestic – he was taught that theaters were “the gateways to hell.” But he did his best to see to it that every production met “certain standards of respectability.” He dedicated the Majestic to “art, music and wholesome entertainment,” and screened most of the acts himself. If a vaudeville act wasn’t pure in his eyes, the troupe either changed its act or hit the road.

Hoblitzelle ran a tight ship with his staff as well. His “cathedral of the cinema” employed a uniformed house staff of 70 during its heyday. Twenty janitors kept the place squeaky clean, 24 ushers directed patrons to their seats and kept them quiet once they got there, and a soundman did nothing but sit in the back of the theater and listen, making sure the volume was set at a comfortable level. Every day before showtime there was a fire drill, and afterward, the ushers would line up like Marines, ready to have their haircuts, shoe-shines, fingernails and uniforms examined by a higher-up.

The 2400-seat Majestic was filled to capacity more often than not for acts including Houdini, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, Mae West, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Duke Ellington. Movies were shown alternately with vaudeville acts until 1930, when vaudeville began to decline with the beginnings of the Depression. Then the Majestic became exclusively a movie house.

The Palace Theatre was the Majestic’s chief competitor during those days, but it was known as a “woman’s picture house.” That meant that first-run movies starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (i.e., those with bullets) played at the Majestic, while those starring Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (i.e., the mushy stories) played at the Palace.

The new Majestic is lacking some of the amenities of the old -there’s no crying room, no Majesticland -but it holds the same enchantment. The theater itself, with its original black-and-white marble floor and mirrored lobby, its beautiful antique chandelier claimed from the old Baker Hotel, its Grecian columns and baroque moldings, is a fantasyland. The walls are painted to look like stage sets themselves, with combinations of colors, moldings and gold leaf used by professional artists to highlight different dimensions. The Majestic was originally painted in white and gold, but now a stone-colored paint is used so that with proper lighting it can be changed to any color.

The much-anticipated reopening of the theater is set for January 28 at 8 p.m., when the Dallas Ballet will present a mixed repertory program that includes Jeu de Cartes, a Dallas premier choreographed by the late John Cranko with a music score by Igor Stravinsky; Flower Festival at Gen-zano, a pas de deaux by Peter Schauffus and Karen Kain, members of the National Ballet of Canada, with music composed by Edvard Helsted and Holger Simon Taulli; Table Manners, choreographed by Peter Anastos and music composed by George Frederick Handel; Le Corsaire, another pas de deaux by Schauffus and Kain, with music composed by Nicholas Dochsa; and Texas on Point, choreographed by Flemming Flindt, with music composed by Chuck Mandernach.

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