Woodlawn Paradiso

A pair of young dreamers take on a Deco District grande dame

While most college grads are working to pay off their student loans and find a spot on the humdrum corporate totem pole, Jonathan Pennington and Kyle Wilson are busy making decisions about lobby decor, sound systems, movie-screen sizes, and impending rehearsals for their inaugural season. The rumors are true and if these two guys have their way, San Antonio will see the triumphant rebirth of the Woodlawn Theatre in the very near future thanks to the newly formed Amphisphere Theatre production company.

“I really do think that I was called by God to reopen this theater,” said Pennington. You can see by the earnest looks on his and Wilson’s faces that this is no mere pet project. They eat, sleep, and breathe this place. The amount of work they have done in the past 10 weeks is mind-boggling, and the sense of urgency is peaking now that opening night for the inaugural production, Little Shop of Horrors, is drawing near: the curtain will rise on Halloween night.

“It’s amazing seeing the amount of support from locals who are literally on the verge of tears over the renovation and reopening of the theater,” said Pennington. At only 26, this former singing waiter’s boyish looks are deceptive: Perhaps it’s just the appeal of overly optimistic youth, but his depth of understanding of both the artistic and business side of the theater seem impressive. He and Wilson, 23, studied music and music marketing at UTSA, consider themselves locals, and, most importantly, say they see San Antonio’s untapped potential for the fine arts. “We want to change the way people think about the theater,” said Wilson.

Designed by John Eberson and opened in 1946, the Woodlawn is a Deco District fixture that has served as a performance spot for such local legends as the improv-comedy troupe The OxyMorons and the drag-camp of Charles Bush’s Lesbian Vampires of Sodom. In its grander days, the world premiere of The Alamo (including star John Wayne) and Pink Floyd’s Laser Light Spectacular graced the Woodlawn’s marquee. John Santikos gave the theater a much-needed face-lift in 1975, but then, like San Antonio’s other film and stage palaces, it fell on hard times. It was split into two separate theaters (one smaller black-box stage upstairs and the main stage downstairs) and basically left to crumble. The current owner eventually leased out the space, which gave Wilson and Pennington the chance to put their ideas into action.

“The amount of work that needed to be done to the theater was incredible,” Pennington said. “People just ran.” Much of the original deco detail that Eberson put into the movie house was buried beneath sheetrock or chipped and decaying. With well over $150,000 already spent on the renovation, the Woodlawn is well on its way to a projected September 30 opening. Improvements include new lighting, a full bar, surround-sound and projection systems, and a new custom movie screen. The two stages have been recombined into one large auditorium offering both floor and balcony seating. Wilson and Pennington are currently working on getting the theater listed in the Texas Historic Registry, which could open up additional funding options, but they are also hoping that some San Antonians will reach out in return.

“We’re currently needing plumbing and electrical help,” said Pennington, as well as additional stage-lighting fixtures and speakers. The Woodlawn is offering corporate sponsorships with season options including VIP seating, corporate suites, in-seat drink service, valet parking, and exclusive previews. “We didn’t want to do anything in a small way,” Wilson added. “Restoring this place and giving it back to the community wasn’t just our decision: The community wanted it. This is an issue bigger than just us.”

When complete, Pennington’s dream is for the Woodlawn to be San Antonio’s only professional adult theater, producing and hosting a variety of musicals (including original works), movies, live comedy, film festivals, and dinner theater. A children’s series will eventually round out their offerings.

Amid the dust and construction, rehearsals have already started for Little Shop, featuring some of the best talent San Antonio has to offer. “Did you see Alissa Claridy in Dreamgirls?” Wilson asked excitedly. (I did, in fact, and enjoyed every second of her soulful performance as Effie.) “She’s going to be the voice of Audrey II `the plant`.” Little Shop has been produced several times around San Antonio in the past 10 years, but no theater company has cast a female in that role before. Other cast members include Peter Morlet, Selina Afrim, and Selina Hernandez.

“There are days when you just want to walk out and quit,” admitted Wilson, his young face a mix of dedication and exhaustion. But he quickly recovered and followed that confession with the cry of any startup business owner (and many a stage character): “... But my heart won’t let me.”

For those who can’t wait for Amphi-sphere’s inaugural production, you can get a sneak preview of the Woodlawn’s facelift September 30 during the Deco District’s Gran Dia De Los Artistas festival. Wilson and Pennington are offering an open house with live vocal entertainment in the revamped performance space. Pennington can be contacted at [email protected]
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