My week in jail and a visit to the Aztec Theater for "San Antonio Rose Live"

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Because this is a long entry, you'll need to click the "Continue reading" link to see the whole thing. Clicking any of the photos will take you to a bigger version and my full set of San Antonio streetscape photos. If you're interested in hotels, restaurants, historic preservation, and entertainment in San Antonio, read on....

Aztec Theater, San Antonio, MDB10710

Once again last week, business took me to San Antonio. It was a productive trip. We worked second shift instead of third, which was much more pleasant. I was awake enough during the day to get out and enjoy the sunny 60-degree weather.

One of the things I love about San Antonio is the strong commitment to historic preservation, a commitment that dates back almost 90 years. The San Antonio Conservation Society was founded in 1924 "to preserve the 'antiquated foreignness' embodied in San Antonio's charm and character," and it has been successful in that regard, but as a happy side effect, the society's efforts have also succeeded in preserving the early 20th century commercial buildings that were brand new or not even built when the society was founded. The result is a bustling urban downtown as an attraction for tourists and conventioneers.

The story of the San Antonio Conservation Society is worth reading. Like a similar organization in Savannah, it was founded by prominent and wealthy women who were outraged at the threatened destruction of a historic market. And as in Savannah, San Antonio's preservationists lost their first battle but went on to create a culture where history is cherished.

The ladies of the Conservation Society came up with creative ways to make the case for preservation:

In September 1924, after sketching the Commissioners at their weekly meetings, the ladies presented a play called, "The Goose with the Golden Eggs." They performed their play after the commissioners' regular meeting with puppets crafted to look like the men themselves. The commissioners of the play were called upon to arbitrate an argument between Mr. and Mrs. San Antonio over whether San Antonio's character and charms should be killed to achieve prosperity more quickly. Of course, the Conservation Society members in the audience responded, "NO," and many cheered. Preservation of the city's character and charms would reap greater long-term benefits, including civic pride, than the mere accumulation of money.

Their response to the notion of filling in the Great Bend, which had been a recommendation in an engineering report, was to take the City Commissioners on a canoe ride on the bend just to show the men how beautiful it was. Many of them had never seen the river from that perspective before and were greeted along the way by children waving and pitching flowers to them from the bridges.

O'Brien Historic Hotel, San Antonio, MDB10134Whenever practical and budget permitting, I like to support businesses that make creative use of historic buildings. It's easy to do in San Antonio. On a previous trip, I stayed at the O'Brien Hotel, a small three-story hotel (formerly the Navarro Hotel), built c. 1915 and renovated in 2003.

Holiday Inn Express, Old Bexar County Jail, San Antonio, MDB10676This trip I stayed in what was once the Bexar County Jail but is now a Holiday Inn Express. (In Boston, they've turned the old Charles Street Jail into a hotel.) It was comfortable, fairly quiet, and not too far from the Riverwalk and Market Square. The hotel's free breakfast was, however, loathsome. The Holiday Inn Express in Altus had taken the same ingredients and made them fairly appetizing. Here in San Antonio, everything seemed to be watered down, including the orange juice and the sausage gravy for the biscuits and gravy.

Blue Star Arts Complex, San Antonio, MDB10659Many of my meals were at historic locales, too. Blue Star Brewing Company is in the Blue Star Arts Complex, a collection of lofts, studios, and a bit of retail in what was once the MKT Freight Terminal, on South Alamo Street at the river, near Southtown, the King William Historic District, and the historic Pioneer Flour Mill. This brewpub offers about a half-dozen beers, as well as a selection of its own handcrafted sodas, made with real cane sugar. At lunch one day, I had the chile verde stew and their cola; for a late dinner another night, I had carne guisada tacos and a King William Ale, a delicious "barley wine" that reminded me of the Belgian quadrupel beer St. Bernardus Abt. Blue Star Brewing Company has free wifi and plenty of convenient power outlets. There's a bike rental shop next door.

Another evening I had dinner with my colleagues at Mi Tierra, a historic Mexican restaurant (since 1941) and conveniently open 24 hours a day. It's located in an area that has been the city's Market Square since the 1890s. The carnitas were delicious. One day, lunch was at the Cadillac Bar Restaurant, a sixty-year-old establishment in an 1870s general store building. The Pollo a la Monterrey (with bacon and cheese) was tasty and the portions were generous.

MDB10720

MDB10716

The last full day I was in town I was able to start and end work early, so that evening I bought a ticket to see a live music performance in one of San Antonio's historic downtown movie palaces. (Tulsa used to have those, but they were all torn down.) The Aztec Theater was built in 1926, and it has been restored to its former glory. It is now home to a classic country music revue called San Antonio Rose Live.

(Another historic downtown movie theater was hosting a performance the same night: Tuna Does Vegas, the latest satirical, small-town-Texas, two-man show by Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, was playing at the 852-seat Empire Theater, built in 1913. The city bought it in 1988 to save it from demolition. It and the ornate, Mediterranean-style, 2311-seat Majestic Theater next door are owned by the city but leased to a foundation. They serve the same purpose as our Performing Arts Center, hosting the San Antonio Symphony and touring Broadway productions and countless concerts, plays, and events. The two theaters were restored with private funds and receive no operating subsidy from San Antonio taxpayers.)

The ticket was not cheap. The first 10 rows were $40; the back of the orchestra section was $35. I bought a $35 seat and used a $5 coupon from the local tourist magazine.

But the chance to see the interior of this restored theater was worth most of the price of admission by itself. The three-story tall lobby is lined with elaborate Aztec-style carvings and figures and is dominated by a chandelier that was the largest in Texas when it was first installed. The theater itself is just as impressive, with gilded organ screens guarded by two pairs of giant carved figures with glowing red eyes. If the intermission had featured a human sacrifice it would have seemed in keeping with the decor.

MDB10709

A nine-piece band performed more than 40 classic country songs (from the '30s to the early '80s) over a two-hour period. They were all excellent musicians and seemed to be having a great time. Steel guitarist Tommy Detamore switched between lap steel, pedal steel, and slide guitar as appropriate for the song and is a virtuoso on each. Jerry Maynard has just the right voice for the George Jones favorites he performed, and Brennan Leigh was the right match for Tammy Wynette's hits. ReBeca could turn the twang way down for a Patsy Cline number and back up again for a countrypolitan classic. I particularly enjoyed pianist Steve Maynard's performance of Floyd Cramer's "Last Date" and his solo take on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Twin fiddlers Kenny Penny and Rodney Smith nailed the sweeping glissandos on the chorus "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Penny played guitar through most of the show; I particularly enjoyed him on Jerry Reed's hit instrumental "Jerry's Breakdown." Bassist Todd Brumley and drummer John Stacy provided solid rhythm throughout.

The band did a few Buck Owens tunes in memory of Tom Brumley, a steel guitar player for the Buckaroos and, later, for Ricky Nelson, and father of the band's bass player. Tom Brumley helped organize this band, but he passed away in early 2009. Tom's father was gospel music great Albert Brumley, and the band's performance of I'll Fly Away was one of the most moving parts of the show.

The repertoire included the hits of Jim Reeves, Ray Price, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, the Everly Brothers, and more. The musicians changed costumes and instruments to fit the various eras. They used a big video screen behind the band to show film clips and TV-style closeups of band members during their solos.

I enjoyed the show immensely, but there were a couple of disappointments. Given the title, I had hoped for more than two western swing numbers, and I was surprised that a classic country review would completely omit songs by Johnny Cash. (I have to think there was a licensing issue involved -- perhaps they only did BMI or ASCAP songs, but not both.) The repertoire and sound was definitely more Nashville than Texas. (A more Texas-oriented revue might have included western swing artists like Milton Brown, Hoyle Nix, and Adolph Hofner as well as a selection of "outlaw" music -- Willie and Waylon and the boys.) It was odd that the intro to the show placed classic country in the 1950s to 1980s, and then the first two songs were from the early 1940s.

The show seemed well received by the audience, but there were only about 80 in attendance. I had to wonder about the show's price point. They have to charge enough to pay the bills, but not so much that it deters people from attending. The obvious market is tourists and convention-goers -- people who are in San Antonio already and looking for something to do at night. It's a bit more expensive than a typical Branson show -- you can see Andy Williams or Paul Revere and the Raiders for $30. (Shoji Tabuchi appears to command the biggest ticket price in town.) I suspect you could put a lot more behinds in seats for a $25 net ticket price ($30 face less $5 with a widely available coupon).

Here's the set list, with the artist and date of the original version:

New San Antonio Rose (Bob Wills, 1940)
Walkin' the Floor over You (Ernest Tubb, 1941)
Tennessee Waltz (Patti Page, 1950)
Please Help Me I'm Fallin' (Hank Locklin, 1960)
Forever and Always (Lefty Frizzell, 1952)
Hey, Good Lookin' (Hank Williams,1951)
Steel Guitar Rag (Leon McAuliffe,1936)
Jerry's Breakdown (Jerry Reed, 1972)
Orange Blossom Special (Bill Monroe, 1938)
Walkin' after Midnight (Patsy Cline, 1957)
Don't Worry 'bout Me (Marty Robbins, 1960)
If Teardrops Were Pennies (Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, 1973)
Am I Losing You (Jim Reeves, 1957)
Crazy Arms (Ray Price,1956)
Coal Miner's Daughter (Loretta Lynn, 1969)
Walk through This World with Me (George Jones, 1969)
Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young (Faron Young, 1955)
Last Date (Floyd Cramer, 1960)
Mule Skinner Blues (Jimmie Rodgers, 1930)
All I Have to Do is Dream (Everly Brothers, 1958) / Wake Up, Little Susie (1957)
The Race Is On (George Jones, 1965)

INTERMISSION

So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams,1949)
Blue Moon of Kentucky (Bill Monroe, 1946)
[At this point, they played the chicken version of "In the Mood" (recorded) as a time killer during a set change.]
Buck Owens Tribute:
Buckaroo (Buck Owens Show theme) (1966)
Act Naturally (Buck Owens, 1963)
Together Again (Buck Owens,1964) (tribute to Tom Brumley)
Just Walk on by (Wait on the Corner) (Jim Reeves, )
Once a Day, All Day Long (Connie Smith, 1964)
Mama Tried (Merle Haggard, 1968)
Stand by Your Man (Tammy Wynette,1968)
Golden Ring (Tammy Wynette and George Jones,1975)
Linda on My Mind (Conway Twitty, 1975)
Silver Threads (Wanda Jackson, 1956)
Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn,1973)
Is Anybody Going to San Antone? (Charley Pride, 1970)
Rose Garden (Lynn Anderson, 1970)
Pure Love (Ronnie Milsap, 1974)
He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones, 1980)
I'll Fly Away (Albert Brumley, 1929)
Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes? (George Jones, 1985)

More about San Antonio Rose Live and the Aztec Theater:

Previous BatesLine entries on San Antonio:

MORE: A note for future reading: Saving San Antonio: The precarious preservation of a heritage by Lewis F. Fisher:

Few American cities enjoy the likes of San Antonio's visual links with its dramatic past. The Alamo and four other Spanish missions, plus a host of additional landmarks and folkways surviving over the course of nearly three centuries, still lend San Antonio an "odd and antiquated foreignness". San Antonio's heritage has not been preserved by accident. The wrecking balls and headlong development that accompanied progress in nineteenth-century San Antonio roused an indigenous historic preservation movement - the first west of the Mississippi River to become effective. Its thrust has increased since the mid-1920s with the pioneering work of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Lewis Fisher peels back the myths surrounding more than a century of preservation triumphs and failures to reveal a lively mosaic that portrays the saving of San Antonio's cultural and architectural soul. The process, entertaining in the telling, has significant lessons for the built environments and economies of cities everywhere.

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4 Comments

Yogi said:

I belong to an organization that has their convention in San Antonio every other year in the month of March and I really do love going there. Last year I took the family for the first time and we had a great time.
They have done an outstanding job of preserving their buildings and character instead of kowtowing to the developers at every turn and ironically it seems to be working for them.
Great post

route66news said:

Your post sparked a reminder to me that you may really enjoy an album that I recently purchased on iTunes. It's called "Live on the Air! The Texas Plainsmen with Yodelin' Donnie Walser."

It's live-in-studio recordings of a band with distinct western-swing chops for a station in Midland, Texas, in 1964. The album includes the commercials (including for Bozo's restaurant in Midland). The recordings were unearthed only about 10 years ago.

Walser gained some fame during the 1990s in Texas when he retired from his National Guard gig and went into performing music full-time, including some great shows I saw in Austin and Nashville. Walser died a few years ago from diabetes complications, and I miss that sweet, sweet man with that amazing voice.

Anyway, I thought you or your readers might be interest in this most enjoyable album.

Don Walser, the Pavarotti of the Plains! Thanks for letting us know about that. He made some wonderful music, and I love seeing these long-lost radio airchecks and transcriptions getting back into circulation.

mark said:

Wow! That Aztec is outstanding. I've been to San Antonio recently, but obviously missed it. It will be at the top of my list next trip. In my book, there's no better pairing than great (restored) regional architecture and classic country music!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 27, 2010 11:29 PM.

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