Theater came early to frontier Texas, but was often found with saloons, gambling and rowdy behavior. Usually, it was not considered appropriate for ladies to attend. But some of the earliest Texas performances were religious or moral dramas presented by the Spanish missionaries.
The missionaries also initiated a new type of performance, a combination of native dance and Catholic theater. These performances were recorded as having occurred near El Paso in 1598 and at San Antonio in the 1770s.
English-language theater was found as early as 1836 in Columbia (Bell’s Landing) and professional theater was in Houston by 1838. Professional actors came by ship from New Orleans to play the major roles, with amateurs completing the cast. These amateurs included Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar from among the leaders of the Republic of Texas.
A few of these performances were serious plays, but more were racy, causing the citizens of Houston to debate the morality of the theater in the 1840s.
By 1845, traveling troupes had reached Galveston, Jefferson and Matagorda. During the Mexican War, these road shows entertained U.S. troops in Corpus Christ and the Rio Grande valley. From 1845 to 1860, professional theater was mainly confined to the Gulf Coast, and Galveston was added to the New Orleans-based touring circuit.
After 1850, German-language theater and opera flourished in German-colonized towns such as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. The Casino Club in San Antonio was chartered in 1857 with a membership of 106 men, all German-Texans. This club was also the site of a shoot-out in 1882 in which the owner, Jack Harris, and the outlaw, King Fisher, were killed.
Starting in 1848 with the Bastrop Casino Hall, theaters, then called “opera houses,” were built in a few other cities. These opera houses had full scene-changing equipment and trap-door stages. Some of these opera houses had balconies or boxes where women or negros were allowed segregated seats.
In 1857, J. M. Crandall built a two-story “opera house” in St. Mary’s of Aransas on Copano Bay, near the hotels and the saloon. There is no record of any theater or operas in the Crandall house, but it was popular for dances.
With the coming of the railroads in the 1880s, Texas joined the transcontinental theater circuit. The performers traveled in special railroad cars that stopped in any town with a theater. These traveling companies included the stars, supporting cast, costumes and sets and played to avid audiences.
Celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lilly Langtry and Edwin Booth performed in Texas. Booth was a famous Shakespearian actor and brother to John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin.
The performances were a mix of melodrama, Shakespeare, minstrel show, and vaudeville, or a variety show for the respectable audience. With the opening of the Galveston Grand Opera House in 1894, Texas was able to attract the top theatrical talent from New York and Chicago.
After 1905, theaters began to show silent films as novelties. Soon a number of theaters were alternately featuring movies, vaudeville and legitimate plays. The rising popularity of movies resulted in the decline of the theatrical tours and the building of special movie theaters, starting in the 1920s and 1930s.
Today some of the old movie theaters have been restored to act as performance venues, such as the Rialto Theater in Aransas Pass, which offers a year-round program of drama, comedy, classic movies and musical concerts..
Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of the book, “Texas Gulf Coast Stories”, published in December 2010 by The History Press. His second book, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier”, was published in May 2013. His third book, “Luju and the Curious Wolf Cub” was published in 2019.