The Waco Hippodrome reopened with a grand six-day celebration in November. But the Hippodrome, which marks its 100th year, is still crackling with activity as it steps out in its new role as a place for first-run movies, live events, a restaurant and much more.
The Hippodrome re-emerged after lying dormant since 2010 when financial problems forced the Waco Performing Arts Company to close the venerable theater.
It gained a new lease on life when Waco developers Shane and Cody Turner bought the facility from the nonprofit and began a two-year, $2.6 million renovation. The reopened Hippodrome is the latest addition in efforts to revitalize downtown.
The Hippodrome was a frenetic scene Nov. 14-19 for its grand opening week. A gala celebration opened the theater Nov. 14, followed the next night by an indoor concert with Restless Heart, Lorrie Morgan and Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis while a street party went on outside. On subsequent days, there were family movies, a children’s theater performance, a classic film (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”) and discussion, and a Christian music concert.
“I think the grand opening was a big success,” said Hippodrome general manager Brandon Cockrell. “It was a great way to show the diversity of the venue and to commemorate the reopening of the Hippodrome.”
It also gave longtime Waco residents a chance to reconnect with the theater, which began in 1914 as a vaudeville house.
“I had a 80-year-old telling me about the first time she was in the Hippodrome when she was 6,” Shane Turner said. “She was pointing out things she remembered about the Hippodrome from then. Or we’ve had someone tell me that their first date with their husband was at the Hippodrome. We like hearing those stories.”
After the grand-opening activities, the Hippodrome quickly moved into its regular routine of offering first-run movies, beginning with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1.”
That had a great response, Turner said, noting that four of the first five showings sold out. There are two places to view movies in the Hippodrome, the larger main floor and the balcony, which is near the second-floor restaurant. In-theater dining also is offered, similar to the Alamo Drafthouse.
Because the balcony can be sealed off with a retractable screen and movable sides, it can show a second film independent of the entertainment happening on the main floor.
Two new Sony digital cinema projectors, one for the balcony and the other for the main floor, show digital movies on wide screens.
When plans to renovate the Hippodrome began, Turner said showing first-run movies wasn’t really considered.
But once they learned the requirements to show first-run films weren’t as daunting as they thought, that became an option, he said.
“It’s easier to build an audience with first-run films,” Turner said, but he also wants to maintain diverse offerings.
“Tuesday nights, which are not big movie nights, we hope to have something different,” Turner said, “like a comedy show that will draw people here. The important thing is making sure we can accommodate everyone.”
The bar and restaurant are new features for the Hippodrome. They are open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and overlook Austin Avenue.
The food items on the menu play off movie titles, with offerings such as the “Some Like it Hot” burger, which includes jalapeños, or the “Rocky,”
a Philly cheesesteak.
The Hippodrome is already in the process of the revamping its food choices, Cockrell said.
“We want to elevate our theater menu, and take our dinner menu and differentiate it from the theater menu,” he said. “We’ll have more upscale offerings for the restaurant.”
To that end, the Hippodrome in early December brought on board new chef Corey McEntyre from Nashville.
“He’s going to bring a cuisine and plating to Waco that Waco doesn’t have,” Cockrell said.
The restaurant has been another eating option for downtown workers, who have come in for lunch, happy hour or dinner.
Marketing and sponsorship director Lara Robertson said she’s excited about what the Hippodrome offers and where it’s headed.
“It’s been exciting meeting people who have a history with the building,” she said. “And for those who haven’t been here before are taken aback by the natural beauty of this place. For a lot of people it was closed up since they’ve been in Waco.”
Robertson said she loves occasionally looking out the front windows to “people watch” and view their faces as some appear curious as to what’s happening inside the Hippodrome.
“People come out of Muddle or Portofino’s and they see the lights are on and people are here,” she said. “We’re open, and we tell people to come on in and check us out.“
She especially hopes people see the Hippodrome as a place for fun. Part of that new spirit led to the creation of Hippodrome’s mascot: a top-hatted Humphrey the Hippo.
Humphrey was created mainly as a fun connection and experience for kids when they visit the Hippodrome, Robertson said, but he’ll also make appearances for special events.
Many people jokingly referred to the building as “The Hippo,” and Humphrey is an homage to movie star Humphrey Bogart, she explained.
The first floor of the Hippodrome has a different layout than past patrons will remember. What was the box-office area to the right is now part of an expanded lobby that features Hippodrome merchandise for sale, a concessions window for movie treats and, around the corner, an elevator to the second and third floors. The upper floors also have expanded restroom facilities.
Obtaining the land next door to the Hippodrome was key to expanding what the facility could offer, Turner said. “We were able to add six extra restrooms and the kitchens, and instead of tearing it up much we were able to keep the integrity of the Hippodrome building.”
Eric Houston, 32, had a special perspective when he went to the Hippodrome in November.
Houston, a 2000 graduate of Waco High School, is quite familiar with the theater. As a member of the school’s drama department, all of his high school plays were in the Hippodrome.
The Richfield Performing Arts Center where the high school now holds its plays was built the year after he graduated, he said.
He attended a first-run showing of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1.”
“I actually was sitting where the sound booth used to be,” he said. “It was a nostalgia trip for me, too. I was really impressed. They kept a lot of the originality to it.”
Much of the Hippodrome’s theater interior was as he remembered, he said. The biggest change was the updated seating. For movie showings, it has tables in front of the seats to allow theater-goers to eat a meal that they can order from the restaurant. The seating can be changed to more traditional layouts for events such as concerts.
“I’ve been to Alamo Drafthouse, which is kind of a similar experience,” he said, adding that he was impressed with the renovations.
“The bones (of the building) were still there,” Houston said. “It had that old Hippodrome feel to it, which was kind of nice. But it also was updated. It was a great mix of the new and old.”
He said he liked the modern look of the restaurant and the ability to enjoy the outdoors in the adjacent patio area.
Houston said he definitely plans to return, not just for a movie, but to take in a concert.
The next concert opportunity is Feb. 9 when singer Kat Edmonson and guitarist Robert Ellis are scheduled. Edmonson is a Texas native who has toured with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Amos Lee. Ellis is a Nashville-based songwriter and guitarist.
The Hippodrome is being utilized even beyond its entertainment schedule. Harris Creek Baptist Church has its “downtown campus” at the Hippodrome with two services there on Sundays. Bridge Street, a young adult ministry with Antioch Community Church, has been meeting the first Tuesday of each month.
And starting in January the Baylor college ministry Vertical will meet in the Hippodrome on Monday nights.
The Hippodrome staff continues to brainstorm ideas on what to offer, Robertson said, as they seek to provide diverse options.
The Hippodrome plans to show a classic film on Wednesdays. For example, “A Christmas Story” was shown in December.
Robertson said they are exploring having fun, themed nights on Thursday evenings, similar to what is done at Alamo Drafthouse. A “chick flick” night might be among the options, she said.
“We want memories to be made when (people) come here,” she said.
For Cockrell, who oversees operations of the Hippodrome, change is to be expected, especially in the early stages of this new direction for the building.
“We’re continuing to tweak things,” he said. “Every day is growing for us, and we’ll take on new things.
“I don’t think we’ll be done evolving for a long time.”