Waco’s movie history stretches back to the 1890s, when the first “magic lantern” shows were cast on improvised screens of bedsheets, hung in vaudeville variety halls.
But the black residents of Six Shooter Junction had to wait for decades longer to have their own entertainment venues. They either went to the segregated balconies of the white-owned flicker palaces set aside for their patronage, or rented an auditorium for a matinee.
The Gem, an exclusively “colored theatre” that opened in the 1930s on the south side of the old courthouse square, could seat more than 550 people. It was operated until the late 1950s by Bijou Amusement Co., a North Carolina company chartered in 1915 that owned a chain of theaters in the South catering to blacks.
But three black GIs from Waco — Heyward Weaver Jr., Edward D. Bonner Jr. and George L. Pryor — dreamed of establishing their own movie house for their friends and neighbors after they returned from duty in World War II.
While stationed on Saipan, Weaver (1921-2005); Bonner (1919-86) and Pryor (1918-63) drew up plans for their cinema, which they dubbed the Alpha.
“Waco’s 25,000 Negroes had only one movie house and two balconies in white shows. The idea seemed a natural to the tan Texans beached on the Pacific isle,” reported Jet magazine in its issue dated Dec. 27, 1951.
Jet covered the entrepreneurial trio as part of a story on the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a Depression-era federal agency that made loans to small business.
The publication noted that when the returning veterans asked local bankers for backing, the financiers “all but laughed in their faces. The idea of three Negroes asking for loans to crash into the movie theatre business seemed absurd to them.”
But when one white banker suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that they ought to seek out the RFC “which is quick to hand out the dollar bills,” the three partners disregarded the sarcasm, applied for and were granted start-up funding of $36,500 (about $327,000 in today’s dollars).
Their total investment was $50,000 to launch the Alpha, which was located at 221 Clifton Road for almost 20 years.