During the 1890s, the city of Waco was in a period of financial growth, and citizens were in need of a place to be entertained. Waco was home to several theaters and opera houses; however, local businessmen desired a large auditorium that would bring prominent stage productions, conventions, and money to the citizens of Waco. Respectable citizens called for a place to bring culture, as well as crowds and their wallets, to the young Brazos city.
After failed attempts to raise money for an auditorium in 1893 and 1894, due to the construction of the Texas Cotton Palace, a movement to build an auditorium began in 1899. A group of local businessmen, known as the Karnival Klub, strived to promote the interests of the city and presented plans for the Waco Auditorium. The Waco Auditorium Company was formed, and citizens of Waco donated money and bought stock in order to support the construction.
Plans for the building developed quickly. Built at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Columbus Avenue the Waco Auditorium held a prime location, sitting on top of a hill, and near the city’s businesses and hotels. On Thanksgiving Day, 1899, the greatly anticipated Waco Auditorium was dedicated. A heavily promoted opening included guests such as Governor Hogg and William Jennings Bryan to see the evening’s acts.
The building was originally built to seat about three thousand people, but by 1901, renovations cut capacity by half due to the lack of sold-out performances. The interior of the building was lush and elegant—dark red velvet covered seats, walls finished with terra cotta, crowned by a canary ceiling. Attending productions at the Waco Auditorium during its early seasons was a social and cultural event and was a place to socialize and to be seen by others. Visitors arrived by coach and wore their finest jewelry, and beautifully dressed women filled the mezzanine boxes.
The Waco Auditorium’s early seasons brought sophistication and refinement to Waco. Theatrical companies traveled to Waco in large numbers because of the large and modern facility, as well as Waco’s convenient location between Austin and Dallas. Acts included Shakespeare plays, opera, symphony orchestras, lectures, dances, musicals, minstrel shows, vaudeville, and magicians. By 1915, silent movies with orchestral accompaniment became a popular attraction. Prices of tickets ranged from ten cents to four dollars, depending on seating, time of the act, and caliber of performer.
By 1915, the Waco Auditorium had undergone many changes in management. Several previous theatrical seasons were slow, and ticket prices were reduced as a result. That year the auditorium’s longest manager, Gussie Oscar, took over the task of scheduling acts. Oscar traveled to New York City every summer to view and select performers. She organized more performances than any other manager at the Waco Auditorium and brought in big-name artists such as Fred and Adele Astaire.
With the decline of traveling acts during World War I, Oscar began booking controversial acts such as wrestling matches and chorus girls with flapper attire. Oscar also booked large amounts of vaudeville acts and movies to fit the needs of Camp MacArthur soldiers. Because of the level of popularity of movies such as The Birth of a Nation, Oscar violated Waco’s Sunday Closing Law resulting in her arrest. Oscar pleaded for a settlement and promised to never schedule shows on Sundays again, however, she was arrested once more in her career for the same offense. Oscar continued to run a strict business, though, and fired employees who showed up to work late or out of uniform.
The auditorium’s business began to decline during the 1920s for several reasons. New movie houses competed for consumer dollars and theater audiences declined. Camp MacArthur also closed its doors after the war, meaning soldiers were no longer a large source of revenue. The physical shape of the auditorium suffered due to the lack of funds from ticket sales to refurbish it, and it became difficult to schedule performances. The Waco Auditorium was sold in 1928, and torn down in 1929.
Because of the venue, Wacoans were introduced to Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, and many others. The Waco Auditorium entertained citizens with over 2,400 performances for thirty years, and brought sophistication and culture to the city.