NEWS | June 24, 2020

Historic Fort Sam Houston Theatre marks 85th anniversary

By Olivia Mendoza Sencalar 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The U.S. Army’s oldest theatre, the Fort Sam Houston Theatre on Stanley Road at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, marks its 85th anniversary June 30.

Records show that on Aug. 21, 1925, the War Department made plans to build a theater at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, at the projected cost of $139,000. Ten years later, on June 30, 1935, the building was completed and its name was changed to the “Fort Sam Houston Theatre.”

When it opened, the theatre seated 1,207 patrons and showed sound films, the so-called “talkies” that were a global phenomenon in the early 1930s.

The decade also marked the start of the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” with Technicolor and Kodachrome color films.

Retired Gen. William Freese Kernan, former Fort Sam Houston deputy post commander, purchased his first ticket at the theatre for the evening performance of “Anne of the Thousand Days” on the occasion of the theatre’s 50th anniversary in 1970.

“The theatre was a big part of a dependent’s life back then,” said Michael P. Kernan, the general’s son, now an assistant clinical nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center and a 1973 graduate of Robert G. Cole High School. “There were only three television stations, no cable television, DVDs, or Blu-Rays, and videotapes did not exist.”

The younger Kernan recalled that the theatre usually had one movie at a time, and it would show for a couple of days starting at 7 p.m. There would also be an afternoon kids’ matinee on Saturdays. He also recalled the movie ticket costing less than a dollar, and the concession stand sold popcorn for 25 cents.

“The movie I remember watching was ‘M*A*S*H,’ which at the time was not well received by career military,” Kernan said. “The movie was always preceded by the playing of the national anthem and everyone stood at attention.”

As the years went by, the interior of the theatre began to decline and the structure was left a bit weakened. To everyone’s dismay, the Fort Sam Houston Theatre was eventually closed and its doors were locked for more than two decades.

In 2009, the Army announced the old theater would reopen.

In an article written by Fort Sam Houston News Leader writer Minnie Jones that year, she interviewed retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Fred Burton, an electronics technician for U.S. Army Medical Department Television at Fort Sam Houston. Burton also worked part-time for the Army & Air Force Exchange Services as a projectionist at the movie theatre.

Burton had the privilege of walking one last time through the old Fort Sam Houston Theatre before the 2009 renovations began.

“This brings back great memories, you see, what I use to do before I started a film was to look through the porthole to see how excited the crowd was. I used to do this before every movie. This is great,” he said in the article. Burton has since passed.

On Dec. 17, 2011, the newly renovated Fort Sam Houston Theatre, with a seating capacity of 600, opened its doors to host its first town hall meeting.

In January 2012, U.S. Army Installation Management Command Headquarters G9, Army Entertainment Operations, established its home base at the historic theatre.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a $17 million renovation project, restoring the 85-year-old, 14,700-square-foot building, and added 18,000 square feet of office space, storage, and recording studios. Once renovations were complete, the theatre became the new home of the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command’s Army Entertainment Division.

The restoration retained the building’s Spanish Colonial Revival-style exterior and the traditional characteristics of the interior in the lobby and other areas, including the preservation of existing frescoes and wall murals.

The project included the replacement of interior mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; theater seats; soundproofing and reflective surfaces; and replacement of the original cinematic theater auditorium ceiling with a performance theater ceiling to meet the acoustic and lighting requirements of a performance theater.

Once the post’s main movie house, the Fort Sam Houston Theater served many Soldiers and their families over the years, showing the latest motion pictures and hosting the U.S. Army Soldier Show for many years. Over time, missions changed and space was needed for other purposes.

Today, the historical Fort Sam Houston Theatre is the second-oldest theatre in the country, and it continues serving its purpose, hosting a wide variety of functions at JBSA, including special events, concerts and show performances for military members, their families, civilians and retirees.