Call it an eyesore or a landmark of North Waco, but time is running out for the abandoned 25th Street Theatre.
The city of Waco’s legal department is preparing to take the 68-year-old theater’s owners to court to make them tear it down.
The art deco-style theater has been unoccupied since 1993 and has only deteriorated since the city tagged it as unsafe in 2001. City officials say the building is structurally unsound, some of the roof has collapsed and mold covers the inside.
“It’s horrible,” city code enforcement supervisor Robert Pirelo said. “It’s beyond a doubt infeasible to repair.”
Following a closed-door discussion with the Waco City Council this week, the city attorney’s office is gearing up for a nuisance abatement lawsuit under Chapter 54 of the Texas Property Code, though nothing has yet been filed.
The city could ask a judge to order the owners to bring the building up to code or demolish it, City Attorney Jennifer Richie said. But she said the building appears to be too far gone to bring up to code.
The city has inspected the building and sent code violation notices to the owners as recently as Feb. 18, but it has received no response, Pirelo said. The owner is listed as the estate of Richard Olsen, which has a Clifton address. No one representing the owners could be tracked down for this story.
Some neighborhood leaders are exploring possibilities for rescuing the theater, which is part of the landscape of North Waco.
Sanger-Heights Neighborhood Association president Fernando Arroyo said the group’s board would discuss the theater’s future at a Thursday meeting.
“I would love to see it become a place that’s thriving and that’s a destination point, something that could bring back some of the nostalgia but also move it into the new era of neighborliness,” he said.
Arroyo said the cost of renovating the building may turn out to be “prohibitive,” but local entrepreneurs might find a way to salvage at least some of it.
He already has talked to Raul Vallejo, a 29-year-old businessman who recently renovated several derelict nightclub buildings on North 25th Street, turning them into an ice cream parlor, tortilleria and barber shop.
Vallejo, who also runs Vallejo Car Sales and Used Tires on North 25th Street, said he would be interested in buying the property and creating a new business there.
“I’d take it on,” he said. “If I could get hold of it, I would rebuild it. That would be an achievement that would last a lifetime.”
Vallejo said he would like to tear down most of the building but salvage the tall facade and the green neon sign that loom over 25th Street. He said he would be interested in building a “family event center” for the Hispanic market, hosting wedding receptions, quinceaneras and other functions.
Vallejo said his idea might cost up to $2 million, and he doesn’t have the money to do it by himself. But he said it’s worth a try, if only to save a neighborhood landmark.
He said the market is strong for businesses along North 25th Street catering to North Waco’s growing Hispanic population. “When a business opens here, it doesn’t close,” he said.
The 780-seat theater was advertised as “Waco’s first suburban theater” when Interstate Theaters opened it in November 1945. It offered air-conditioned comfort and murals of Roman charioteers inside, and for decades it showed first-run movies, including “Star Wars.”
After years of neighborhood decline and suburban competition, the theater closed in 1982. Richard Olsen and Richard Keiffer bought and renovated the building in 1986 and created a popular nightclub, but it closed after Olsen was murdered in Dallas in 1993.
Pirelo, the code enforcement official, said he recalls going to the theater as a child in the 1970s and ’80s to see movies, including a “Planet of the Apes” marathon. He said it’s a shame to lose a part of Waco’s movie theater history, but he considers it unrealistic to try to save it.
Pirelo estimated that the abatement and demolition of the building would cost $200,000, though he still doesn’t know whether it would be safe for asbestos abatement workers to go inside the building.
“I would not go into the theater area,” he said. “I’d consider it too dangerous. I’m pretty bold, but there’s no need to take an unnecessary risk.”
Chris McGowan, urban development director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the 25th Street Theatre is part of North Waco’s visual character.
“Those are the types of things that define a neighborhood,” he said. “I hope we can figure out a way to save it, but when a building sits that long, it’s pretty tough to do.”