A history of San Antonio’s Westside would not be complete without examining its cultural institutions. Perhaps none had greater presence in the 1940s and 1950s era than the Progreso and Guadalupe Theaters on the intersection of Guadalupe and Brazos streets. The Progreso Theater opened in the late 1920s just as the film industry converted from silent to “talking” movies. Former Texas State Senator Joe Bernal grew up a block from the barrio theater district and remembers selling candy to customers entering Progreso in the mid-1930s.
Bernal loved watching movies at the Progreso and would stand near the entrance on Tuesdays and Thursdays when “dos por uno” (two for one) promotions were in effect. He got in free by convincing someone attending the movie alone to include him. On the weekends the Progreso offered popular Hollywood movies such as “Tarzan” and “Flash Gordon.”
Bernal called the corner of Brazos and Guadalupe the “center of my universe.” His father’s cousin operated the Progreso Drug Store and his family frequented the Mexican restaurant next door owned by Santos Villarreal. A major Federal Housing project came to San Antonio in 1938 and changed the landscape of the Westside. By 1939 land had been acquired to build two large public housing structures in the Guadalupe Parrish church area. The Alazan Courts were competed in 1941 and the Apache Courts followed that same year. Green Peyton, author of San Antonio: City in the Sun, wrote that the “two projects covered about sixty acres– ten city blocks” housing 1,180 families or nearly sixty-five hundred people. My own family moved to the new Apache Courts on the southern edge of the housing project in 1941. They did not stay long as my dad joined the Army Air Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and my mom moved in with my grandmother.
In 1941, a construction crew had already demolished Juan Vidauri’s tire shop on the corner of Guadalupe and Brazos streets and had started building the Guadalupe Theater. The famed theatre opened its doors in 1942, just as America was sending its sons and daughters to fight in World War II.
The theater took the name Guadalupe to compliment the well-known Guadalupe Catholic Church located one block north on El Paso Street. Centrally located, the Guadalupe Theater stood at the hub of a newly created commercial zone west of downtown, and its opening prompted the establishment of several nearby grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants.
During the war years, Hollywood made fewer movies because of the war rationing of cellulose. The few American movies produced were war movies designed to boost American patriotism. The Mexican film makers, seeing a void in films dealing with life—romance, drama and comedy—began offering movies in those genres. There had never been a better time to open a Spanish language theater than in the 1940s. The Guadalupe Theater opened as “La Epoca de Oro” (the Golden era of Mexican Cinema) was underway. In this famous cinema period,1936-1958, Mexico’s film industry flourished and Mexican films gained great popularity in the barrios of the United States as well as in South America and Spain.
For the Spanish speaking world, Mexican films featuring great singers, beautiful actresses, and entertaining comedians more than filled the movie void. The Westsiders flocked to see Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Maria Felix, and Dolores de Rio, but for many movie fans, young and old, the films by Cantiflas and Tin Tan delighted fans the most.
In the age before television, everyone went to the movies. San Antonio had opened numerous theaters in the 1930s in the central area of downtown. While the trio of downtown Spanish-language theaters—Alameda, Nacional, and Zaragoza, all located near the old Market Square— offered movies in Spanish, going to the center of town with a family on the city bus was not feasible for many in that era.
The early success of both of the Progreso and Guadalupe Theaters demonstrated that Westsiders appreciated neighborhood entertainment venues. Theater patrons from the Westside actually had a choice of two excellent movie houses on Guadalupe and Brazos streets. However, the Guadalupe Theater featured only Spanish language movies, while the Progreso Theater offered English language movies on the weekends.
By the late 1950s, the golden era of barrio film entertainment was coming to end as television replaced movies. For Latino families in the Westside, television was certainly cheaper and more convenient. Moreover, by that time the Mexican film industry had lost many of its stars. With that misfortune Mexican movies lacked their luster and appeal. But as the barrio movie entertainment era came to an end, it would soon realize a new beginning as artists in the late 1970s started planning a community cultural arts center.
Today, the Guadalupe Cultural Center is a large complex with offices and exhibit space in two prominent barrio locations—the Guadalupe Theater and Progreso Drug Store. The establishment of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is impressive and what they have accomplished is the subject of a future story.