Three years after reopening as a downtown source for movies, food and concerts, the Waco Hippodrome will boost those offerings with a $3 million addition that will start opening next month.
The three-story addition to the historic theater on its Eighth Street side includes a street-level restaurant, the Raleigh; three film screening rooms with reclining seats and push-button food service; the High Top, a rooftop dining area and bar; and more second-floor restaurant seating for event rentals.
The Raleigh restaurant and bar are expected to open next month with the new theaters following later in June or July.
The addition fixes some of the problems encountered after the film and performing arts venue reopened in late 2014 and builds on its successes, developer Shane Turner said. Turner owns the Waco Hippodrome with his brother Cody and sister-in-law Casey.
Not long after the $1.7 million renovation that led to the theater reopening, the Turners found themselves evaluating the success and future of their investment after unexpected challenges.
A business plan built on screening first-run films for part of the week, with classic films, family movies and live performances for the rest encountered problems when film studio contracts tied down the Hippodrome’s main and balcony screening spaces for weeks, even as audiences tapered off after the first week.
Sound systems intended for multi-channel film soundtracks did not work in a large theater built for unamplified, natural acoustics. Movie sound often bled into restaurant and bar spaces, hampering customer conversations.
A third-floor kitchen hurt food service, with wait staff having to climb up and down stairs to serve diners in the balcony, main floor or outside patio areas.
“After the first two years, we had to look and decide whether this would work,” Shane Turner said. “We decided yes, it will work.”
The Hippodrome expansion aims to solve some problems with extra space. A ground-level kitchen will serve the first and second floors, with the existing kitchen reserved for catering. Three film screening rooms — two with 78 seats and screens as large as the Hippodrome’s main screen, the third with 49 seats and a smaller screen — will free the main theater and balcony for more concerts and other live performances.
The film rooms feature digital projectors, sound systems designed for the spaces, reclining seats and push buttons to call servers for food and drink orders, Shane Turner said. Moviegoers also will be able to buy tickets in advance with reserved seats.
The rooms are named for former Waco movie theaters, the Orpheum, the Imperial and the Strand, with exterior signs displaying the theater names.
The Hippodrome’s main floor and balcony screens still will be used when needed, giving the venue up to five screens for movies, Turner said.
Hippodrome operations will use electronics to speed customer service in the months ahead. Customers can use lobby kiosks to buy tickets, and the box office and food service staff will take orders on electronic tablets, allowing them to send drink orders electronically rather than walking an order to the bar or kitchen.
The Hippodrome addition also will increase visibility for its restaurant and expand rental and catering opportunities.
Casey Turner, who handles some of the Hippodrome’s programming and operations duties, said opening a ground-level restaurant and giving it a name, The Raleigh, should help establish it as a separate destination for dining and drinks.
“Before, our restaurant lacked a separate identity,” she said.
With window-side booths, tables and bar giving a diner-like feel, the Raleigh will be a place for a laid-back nice meal, she said.
The Raleigh name is a tip of the hat to the Hippodrome’s longtime Austin Avenue neighbor, the former hotel across the corner that now serves as a state government building. There is a personal connection for Casey Turner. Her great-grandfather Ben Hough was head chef at the hotel’s restaurant, the Purple Cow.
The Hippodrome regularly draws rental inquiries for rehearsal dinners, corporate meetings, Chamber of Commerce events, and graduation and birthday parties. The addition will expand the second-floor dining area with three spaces that double restaurant seating and can be rented individually.
“We’ll have up to three dining-style event spaces. That’s huge for us,” marketing director Carina Yebra said. “I’ve already booked my birthday party.”
The addition tops it all with an open-air patio and bar, the High Top, that provides customers with a view of downtown, making the Hippodrome the latest venue with a rooftop patio for patrons. Casey Turner said the new space may lend itself to live music, which the Hippodrome previously offered at its sidewalk patio.
The extra theater and dining spaces will open up the Hippodrome’s programming with more concerts added to the calendar. The months ahead will feature performers Connie Smith, John Anderson, Ronnie Milsap, The Bellamy Brothers, Branson entertainer Shoji Tabuchi, comic William Lee “Cowboy Bill” Martin, Frank Sinatra tribute singer Dave Halston and more.
“We’re looking to one to two concerts a week … and bigger and bigger shows,” Casey Turner said.
The current concert lineup skews to an older audience, but she said that is where the Hippodrome has had success.
“Proximity to fun stuff, that’s why people want to be downtown in the first place,” Henderson said. “An increased ability to offer those things in a variety of tastes is definitely a boon to those people who live downtown.”
While many know the Hippodrome as a movie theater and performance venue after its reopening, its restaurant and bar also became a downtown place to meet and talk, something that should not be underestimated, she said. Professional groups, dining clubs, social organizations and birthday parties brought people together downtown.
Though Waco’s uptick in tourism has boosted the downtown economy, fueled by “Fixer Upper’s” Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia Market at the Silos, Shane Turner said much of the Hippodrome’s customer base has been locals, a growing number living downtown.
“Our support comes from local people,” he said.
A little-recognized aspect of the out-of-town interest in Waco has been how it has rubbed off on Waco residents, Henderson said.
“Wacoans are sometimes the last to get excited about Waco,” she said. “But when we see (visitors) looking around with an expression of appreciation for what they see … it shows us how good we have it.”
With the increased entertainment that an expanded Hippodrome will offer, Henderson said she would not be surprised to see downtown entertainment expand even more. Downtown would benefit from a bigger arts anchor, perhaps one that combines performance space with other arts opportunities, and more performance venues, she said.
“Generally, the more entertainment opportunities you have, the bigger your capacity to attract additional entertainment,” Henderson said. “We’re capable of more than we knew.”
With a couple years’ experience after its 2014 reopening, the Hippodrome and its new addition is better positioned for the future, Shane Turner said.
“We definitely know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
The Waco Hippodrome Theatre is expanding, and the work will include installation of three more screens for first-run movies, reclining theater…