Charline McCombs has made a name for herself

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When Charline McCombs was growing up in Corpus Christi, she and her family would often visit San Antonio for shopping and fun, which always included movies at the Majestic Theatre. It was the place to go to, she says, “so beautiful to us coming from Corpus.” She even has a photo of herself and a friend in front of the theater. Never “in her wildest dreams” could she have imagined back then that one day she would be involved in the restoration of that unique performance hall and its sister theater around the corner that now carries her name — the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre. But life presents us with surprising twists and turns. As an active board member of the Las Casas Foundation for more than two decades, Charline has helped raise the funds for the restoration and continues to support all aspects of the organization’s work, which still includes the supervision of the two historic theaters now collectively named the Joci Straus Performing Arts Center. For her dedication and generosity, Mrs. McCombs will be honored May 21 at a two-part gala, which will start with dinner at the Majestic and end with a show at the Empire emceed by six-time Emmy winner Bruce Vilanch. The proceeds benefit Las Casas Performing Arts Scholarship Competition.

“I am grateful and honored, but I don’t feel deserving,” says the unassuming, low-key woman, who with her legendary husband, B.J. Red McCombs. has had a considerable impact on San Antonio and beyond. It was their donation of $1 million that made the completion of the Empire renovation possible. It all started with a phone call from Las Casas founder Joci Straus asking if Charline would be willing to host a reception for the then-new nonprofit “to introduce people to what we are doing.”

Profile1“I knew nothing about Las Casas, but after listening to Joci and all the plans she had, I was hooked,” recalls Charline. “’Could I join?’ I asked her. Joci’s one of the most incredible ladies I’ve ever known. I am blessed to have her as a friend and mentor actually. I have learned a lot from her, just seeing her in action and how she approaches various challenges, and we have had many challenges along the way.” Among them was the dilapidated state of the Empire. Built in 1914 as a venue for “moving pictures, vaudeville or stock performances,” the hall closed in 1978, a victim of changing mores and suburban flight, and it remained dark for 25 years. “It looked terrible; you couldn’t even imagine that it could be restored,” says its benefactress. “Not only had it been closed for so long, it had previously been painted and plastered, and you couldn’t see at all what it looked like when it was new.” Undaunted, Las Casas went forward with the project, but fundraising stalled at one point. When Charline returned home from a board meeting one day, her husband inquired about the progress of the project. She explained the situation to him, and within days the McCombs decided to make their pivotal donation. The Empire is not the only place named after her, but it’s the only one in San Antonio, and it has a special place in her heart. “My husband has his name on a lot of things, but I never thought of having my name on anything,” she admits. “This one is special because I have loved the work we have done there, and the results are just awesome. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finish the Empire. And look at what it has done for the city of San Antonio. Downtown has come alive again. I love to go to shows there and at the Majestic and see all the people walking around.”

Nowadays, Charline remains on the board because she believes in Las Casas’ more recent educational initiatives that assist performing arts students in achieving their goals. For the last six years, the organization has run the aforementioned scholarship competition for college-bound Texas students wishing to pursue careers in acting, dance and vocal performance within the framework of musical theater. To honor the Empire’s centennial, the nonprofit will award $100,000 in scholarships in 2014, bringing the total amount awarded so far to $485,000. New this year are two other educational programs: Behind the Scenes, a year-long effort to expose theater-loving youth to aspects of professional theater; and Camp Broadway, a summer camp for ages 10-17.

Family is No. 1
Born Charline Hamblin, Mrs. McCombs grew up in Corpus in her grandmother’s house. Her father had died when she was 2, so “my grandmother raised both me and my mother.” She credits grandma for teaching her everything she knows. “I find myself quoting her all the time,” says the lady who’s now not only a grandmother herself but a great-grandmother as well. “She was an astute woman, and she taught by example. She had gone to college for a year — very unusual for that time — and she taught school until she married. And she was big on taking care of other people, so that has stayed with me. She was also very thrifty, but I didn’t get that from her,” she says with a chuckle. Growing up, young Charline dreamed of marrying and having a family of her own, and, she says, “things happened just right.” With marriage in mind, she majored in home economics at Southwestern University in Georgetown, a school that Red attended as well but not at the same time as his future wife. The two met one day in 1948 while waiting in the registration line at the Del Mar Junior College in Corpus. “I was standing in line to ask for a Southwestern catalog,” recalls Charline. “He heard me and since he had gone there, he came over to say hello. We started going out together and had fun. Then over time, things developed.”

The couple married in 1950 and drove to San Antonio on their wedding night, talking about their future. As Charline recalled years later in the book Red Zone: Cars, Cows and Coaches, Red said, “I don’t know what life holds for us, but it’s going to be great. Someday I may come home and tell you we are going to South America, and I expect you to be supportive.” To which his bride replied, “I’ve always wanted to go to South America.” In my 2008 interview with her, she confided that while Red prospered in business, her focus was primarily on the home and her three daughters. “I let him make all the decisions in the business world, and he lets me make all the decisions at home,” she said back then. As the two of us are again sitting in her spacious living room on a sunny March day in 2014, she reaffirms her commitment to the family: “My family is still No. 1 and always will be.” However, one of Red’s business interests was very close to her heart. The spouses share a passion for sports and over the course of their marriage have owned several professional teams, including the Spurs. Charline got involved with all of them and developed friendly bonds with players and their wives. So why did they sell the Spurs? “I think I asked that question myself,” she says. “It was time to move on to something else, I guess. Red may consult me (about business decisions), but that’s his job and I know he knows best.”
Of their three daughters — Linda, Connie and Marsha — only the latter is involved in her father’s business on a daily basis (in fact, she runs McCombs Enterprises), as is her own adult son, Joseph. “All three are in Florida on a business trip today,” Charline tells me. “He (Red) loves having her so involved. We also have another grandson in the business.” Altogether, the McCombs have eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “It never occurred to me that we would see great-grandchildren,” she admits. “It took me a while to be able to even say it. Think about it! Great-grandchildren! Good heavens!”
Naturally, they are all welcome in her home where, among other things, they can get to see a playroom where their parents — the eight grandkids — played years ago, their painted images still looking down from the walls.

Together, the three daughters are in charge of the McCombs Foundation, which has awarded nearly $100 million so far to educational, charitable and health organizations, including causes their mother has supported. Besides Las Casas, those have included the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, UT Austin women’s athletics, the United Negro College Fund, the American Heart Association, the McNay Art Museum, her alma mater, Southwestern University, and many others.
Given that she’s been happily married for 63 years, could she share some insights about marital harmony?

“Respect for each other is important. Things come up in life, but you have to be able to have fun together. We enjoy each other, we laugh a lot, and both of us are very family-oriented,” she notes, then ponders for a moment before adding, “We have different but complementary personalities. My husband is very outgoing, enjoys interacting with people. I am more low-key. It’s good to have different personalities. It would be boring to be the same.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photography by John Huskin