Her Majesty, The Queen!

Her Majesty, The Queen!

Blog post by Rusty
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

By Susan Rittereiser

The Queen Theater was located at 700 Congress Avenue, right across the street from the Majestic Theater (now known as the Paramount). Originally called the Lyric, it was bought by banker and cattleman Major George W. Littlefield, who also purchased the Casino Theater next door at 702 Congress Avenue. Pictured here is the “old Queen” in March, 1920, around the time Littlefield announced his plans to tear down both theaters and build a new Queen Theater. Littlefield died before his plans were realized, but the project was completed under the leadership of the old Queen’s manager, Jay J. Hegman. “Hegman’s Queen” opened in February 1921 to the tune of $200,000—that’s nearly $2,600,000 today! Touted in the Austin Statesman as a “first-class theater house” built specifically for showing “high class motion pictures,” provisions were made for accommodating vaudeville acts as well if future need arose.

[Queen Movie Theater], C02261, Chalberg Collection of Prints and Negatives.

Designed by Walsh & Geisecke, no expense was spared in order to make the average theater-goer feel like royalty. The construction featured elaborate marble wainscoting around the perimeter of the building as well as throughout the auditorium and the foyer, pictured here. The foyer was tinted baby blue and contained statues placed in arched niches in the walls on both sides. 

[Queen Movie Theater Doors], AR.2012.009-007, J.J. Hegman Papers. 

There were a total of 900 seats, 560 of which were on the first floor featuring seat coverings with the theater’s embroidered initials and upholstered spring air cushioning, complete with hat racks (everyone wore hats in those days!) and expansion bolts. The flooring had countersunk rubber for eliminating sound when walking down the aisles. In order for every customer to have an unobstructed view of the screen, the floor was constructed at an incline of seven feet from the stage to the entrance, as can be seen in the photograph below. Immediately underneath and to the center of the balcony is the fireproof (concrete) projection room. This location enabled films to be projected onto the screen without interference from bodies passing in between the projector and the screen of those looking for seats, a common occurrence in movie houses during this time period. (PICA 06728; PICA 36764)

[Aditorium of Queen Theater], 1921, PICA 36764. 

[Screen of Queen Theater], 1921, PICA 06728. 

The Queen was the first Austin theater to show movies on Sundays. From 1919-1923, Jay J. Hegman bucked the courts over the Sunday Closing Laws or “Blue Laws,” as they were called, which forbade most commerce from occurring on Sundays for religious reasons. Angry that the law turned a blind eye to other businesses operating illegally on Sundays, such as drugstores and confectioners, Hegman openly defied them by advertising Sunday movie showings. Hegman continued his resistance with his screening of The Christian, boldly advertised in the Austin Statesman as opening for an indefinite run on Sunday, March 4, 1923, (AR.2012.009(015)). Although the majority of Austin citizens favored Sunday movie screenings, the courts eventually ruled to close all businesses on Sundays to ensure equal enforcement of the law. John Beckham, projectionist for the Queen, pictured here around 1921, would routinely get arrested and thrown in jail along with Hegman and other theater employees for working on Sundays, in violation of the Blue Laws.

[Jonny Beckham standing in front of the Queen Theater], circa 1921, PICA 36774. 

By 1924, Jay J. Hegman had sold his interest in the Queen and moved to Galveston to manage the Grand Opera House. The Queen, Austin’s first theater wired for sound, finished the 1920's on a high note with its screening of The Jazz Singer, Hollywood’s classic first feature-length “talkie” starring singer Al Jolsen.

The years following World War II were not so kind to the Queen; it became largely a B-movie house and fell into disrepair. By 1952, it was acquired by former ITC manager Louis Novy’s new company, Trans-Texas Theaters, Inc. In the summer of that same year, tragedy struck when the ceiling collapsed during a Saturday matinee screening of Tarzan’s Savage Fury. Over 100 children were in the theater at the time. Although no one was seriously injured, several lawsuits resulted. The theater had become more of a liability than an asset. This photo was taken in 1955, the same year the Queen took her final curtain call.

[Exterior view of the Queen Theater], circa 1910s, C00553, Chalberg Collection of Prints and Negatives.

Fast forward to today, the Queen is long gone, but part of the building and the inside structure have been saved. It is now an art museum, the Contemporary--a merger between the Arthouse at the Jones Center and the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA). The Contemporary has been known to occasionally show movies on its rooftop garden. 

[The Contemporary], PICA 38622.