The Majestic Theatre of Eastland
Eastland, Texas, in 1920 was a bustling oil boom town, population 25,000. C.U. Connellee, one of the town’s founding fathers, had just completed construction of the new Connellee Theatre, built on the former site of the Connellee family home. Times were good in 1920, and apparently little expense was spared. The theatre seated 1,000 – some sources say 1,200. As was customary, the building was outfitted for complete stage productions. The large orchestra pit with private conductor’s entrance, the 50-foot “fly space” for scenery storage and the seven understage dressing rooms were not considered extras, but necessities for the many traveling road companies which were to perform there.
A gift shop and beauty parlor – the town’s first, called the Mary Louise – occupied what is now the upstairs mezzanine, and a newsstand was just to he left of the street entrance. Refreshments were sold on the sidewalk from portable concession stands, and folding A-bards displayed posters of the current and coming attractions.
BLOSSOM TIME, THE VAGABOND KING, UP IN THE CLOUDS, THE STUDENT PRINCE and GINGRAM GIRL were some of the live shows enjoyed by Eastland audiences. C. U. Connellee played host for a Texas-style barbeque for the cast of IRENE, the show which introduced the popular song, “ALICE BLUE GOWN”. Raymond Hitchcock and his original cast appeared in HITYCY-KOO, direct from a smash Broadway run.
The Connellee also featured that new technological marvel, moving pictures. They were silent’s at first, accompanied by a trio including violin, drum and piano supplying mood music for the orchestra pit. (Hallie Morris, Clara June Kimball, Horace Condley and Wilda Dragooo were featured local musicians.) The sequence seldom varied: a newsreel, then a comedy short followed by the main feature.
The Connellee’s first talking picture was THE COVERED WAGON, but the talkies appeared about the same time the oil boom made it’s exit, so elaborate gimmicks were used to attract crowds. Bank nights, family nights and door prizes helped people forget there was a Depression going on, if only for a little while.
As Eastland grew smaller in the 30’s, the big Connellee couldn’t compete with the smaller Lyric Theatre (located between today’s Perry’s and Mode O’ Day, in the spot occupied by Louise’s Café) and was finally forced to close its doors, opening them for several well-remembered events sponsored by local people.
A little theatre group was organized by Ed and Elizabeth Freschlag, Bernice Stephen, Judge O.C. Funderburk and others.
The summer of 1939 saw the formation of a group of talented young people whose ability to put together a production with lightning speed earned them the name, Preso Players. The play was the Pulitzer prize winner ICEBOUND. Another play they performed was “DRAMA FOR BOREDOM”. 12:15, a one-act play written by the mysterious playwright, George Spelvin, was produced for a Free Show filling The Connellee. (“Spelvin” was actually Eastland’s own Virginia Russell, nee Weaver, a graduate of the prestigious YaleDramaSchool. Mrs. Russell has continued to occupy a leadership role in the community’s activities.
In 1946, the Interstate Theatre chain, then under the leadership of Karl Hobitzelle and R.J. O’Donnell, negotiated a thirty-year lease on the Connellee with Mrs. Sam Butler, widow of C.U. Connellee, and began remodeling the structure. The new theatre, renamed the Majestic, looked much as it does today.
It was decorated in futuristic Art Deco style, featuring sweeping curves and rounded corners which may still be observed in the scalloped proscenium arch that frames the stage, the curving walls in the lobby and recessed lighting in lobby and mezzanine.
The ceiling was lowered and the walls narrowed by more than a foot on either side of the auditorium. Two aisles replaced the single central one. The beauty parlor, gift shop and box seats over the exits were deemed obsolete and taken out. The projection booth was moved forward and modernized. Room was made for the present-day lobby and concession stand by reducing seating from over 1,000 to 850. Special painters climbed high scaffolds and created the cowboy mural on the walls and ceiling. The new Majestic, under the management of Mr. Aubrey Van Hoy, came to be called ‘the finest theatre between Fort Worth and El Paso.”
Interstate staged a dramatic grand re-opening February 13, 1947. The feature movie was MARGIE. Highly coveted engraved invitations were sent to dignitaries all over the state. Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Anne Sheridan and Ginger Rogers sent congratulatory telegrams. The Ranger Band gave a concert before the show and invited guests attended a glittering gala atop the Connellee Hotel next door.
The story of the Connellee/Majestic is the story of feast and famine. After a number of successful years, the theatre once again was threatened with closing due to lack of business. Community leaders, notably the Eastland Civic League and the Eastland Music Club, tried some creative ways to help, including an educational film series for area school children, selling season tickets to assure adequate attendance. In the fall of 1986, the Majestic as a commercial theatre ended a long struggle against TV and VCRs and closed its doors.
In early 1987, a meeting was held in the Majestic where an exciting announcement was made. The City of Eastland, with the help and generosity of the Whittington family, heirs of C.U. Connellee and owners of the theatre, had purchased the Majestic at a considerable saving. Funds for the purchase came from the hotel/motel tax which was specifically earmarked for improvement of local attractions. Earl and Billye Bradley purchased the fixtures, including the screen, seating and modern projection equipment, donating it to the group formed to administer use of the theatre, the Eastland Fine Arts Association. Anticipation ran high as people eagerly volunteered to help turn the dusty antique into a vibrant civic center.
The Kiwanis put the Majestic to use right away, sponsoring a gospel music concert and later, THE SOUND OF MUSIC was shown in honor of the TRAPP Family Singers, who performed here in the early fifties.
The subsequent development of the theatre is a tribute to the civic spirit of Eastland. In the months that followed, countless volunteers donated literally thousands of hours of professional skills. They repaired plumbing; repaired and traced mysterious wiring; sanded, patched and painted walls and floors; patched roofing; removed old carpeting; re-hung the huge movie screen; tore downs walls; dismantled old seats and re-assembled newly covered ones; conducted tours of the theatre; donated free radio time and newspaper coverage and much, much more.
Civic groups chipped in enthusiastically. EastlandHigh School alumni were contacted and responded generously, sharing memories of the Majestic along with money. Hundreds of people “adopted” a seat, enabling the EFAA to have all 850 of them recovered and repaired. Local merchants donated merchandise.
All these efforts were recognized by a sizable grant from the Hobitzelle Foundation, owners of the Interstate Theatre chain. The grant was used to purchase the beautiful new curtains for the stage. In late summer, 1987, the Eastland Fine Arts Association appointed Gary Ford manager of the Majestic, and Eastland’s dream of a civic center is about to come true. It’s been exciting, but there’s still much to do. The theatre now belongs to all Eastland. If you haven’t already, why not join the fun and find out where you’re needed!