In a city with so much history, there is no shortage of historic and beautiful buildings in San Antonio. Some of the most beloved historical places in town are the performing arts venues that have been entertaining South Texans for a hundred years or more. Three of the most ground-breaking and beloved theatres are currently under the direction of dynamic women committed to bringing the very best in music, art, and theatre to a diverse audience in our Alamo City.
“Wearing the Crown Means Wearing Many Different Hats at The Majestic”
If there were a queen of the theatre in San Antonio right now, Emily Smith would most definitely be wearing the crown. As the current General Manager of the Majestic Theatre and the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, Emily is proud of the history represented in these iconic theatres and looks forward to a long career of bringing the biggest and best theatre productions and concerts to San Antonio audiences.
2019 marked the 90th anniversary of The Majestic Theatre, and their “Majestic Moments” campaign sparked the memories and the imaginations of San Antonio theatre patrons as they recalled wonderful times spent at the theatre with parents, families, and friends. The Majestic opened in 1929 and is still considered one of the most beautiful theatres in the country. It was restored 30 years ago to its original glory, and today the twinkling lights that adorn the “night sky” in the theatre are in the exact place where they were installed when the theatre opened.
Emily was born in Ohio but moved to San Antonio with her family as a child and graduated from Churchill High School in 1995. She initially worked at the Majestic Theatre from 1999 to 2001 before moving to Austin for several years. However, she returned home and picked up her career at The Majestic in 2011 as the Marketing Manager, before moving into the role of Associate General Manager in 2016, and ultimately becoming the lead diva and overseeing both theatres. Between the two theatres, Emily and her team produced 260 events in 2019, bringing in some of the most popular Broadway shows, such as Hamilton, concerts, plays, and performing arts shows, as well as corporate and community events.
She states, “The most exciting part of my job is working as a team and collaborating to make it all come together to create a magical experience for each and every audience member.”
Emily loves to be in the crowd for a performance so she can catch the reactions of the audience and experience the moment as a patron. She says, “It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘business’ of running a theatre, and it’s easy to forget that our ultimate goal is to enhance our customers’ experience.”
The Majestic Theatre is the premiere theatre in San Antonio, welcoming top Broadway touring shows throughout their season. Last year, San Antonio finally caught “Hamilton” fever, and during the production’s three-week run, over 57,000 people came to see the musical. Every performance was sold out, and it was instrumental in bringing new patrons to the theatre, and those who may not have been to the Majestic in many years.
There is no argument that the Majestic Theatre is a San Antonio treasure, and it has been for many generations. It is loved by audiences and artists alike and is often chosen to host some very special events. One of the events that Emily and her staff are very proud of occurred in September 2017, when George Strait hosted a nationally televised Hurricane Harvey benefit relief concert. The concert raised over $44 million to aid those affected by the hurricane, and it was broadcasted on every major network. Another grand event aired on PBS in September of 2018 when the Majestic Theatre was chosen as the backdrop for a k.d. lang performance, which was shot as a segment of “Landmarks Live in Concert,” a part of the PBS Great Performances Series.
These two great theatres have an amazing history behind them, but it’s the vision for the future that Emily has that is most exciting. Backed by the Ambassador Theatre Group, the Majestic Theatre has initiated several new programs to enhance the customer experience. There is a new coffee bar showcasing coffee from Rosella, along with free wi-fi throughout the theatre, and an in-seat ordering service called Ordertorium. Patrons can order drinks and snacks online before they arrive and have them delivered to their seats when they arrive by texting the theatre when they have been seated.
Embracing this concept has resonated with theatre patrons, and the new programs have been very well received. There are some very big surprises in store 2020, and Emily and her team are poised to usher in the new decade with fresh ideas while staying true to the theatres’ traditions and histories. The Majestic Theatre will be 100 years old in just ten years, and as San Antonio continues to grow, so will the legacy of this great venue as new artists and young patrons experience the undeniable magic of The Majestic.
“Celebrating Diversity to Bring About Community”
The Carver Center opened its doors as the only community house for “colored people” in the early 1900s. It has quite a storied history throughout the years and is still thriving today, bringing some of the most diverse and creative artists from around the world to a unique and loyal audience. For nearly one hundred years, The Carver Center has been the center for the black community in San Antonio and even housed the only black library during segregation. It has always housed a theatre, and during segregation many touring artists would play the Majestic Theatre for the white audiences and then also do a performance at The Carver Center for the black community as well.
The theatre has become a much beloved and respected institution around the country for these very reasons. With its roots in the African American community and evolving with desegregation, the Carver continues to serve the people of San Antonio as it marches toward its organizational mission of celebrating what makes each of us unique. It’s our diversity that should bring us together to work toward a common goal of creating a community that works for everyone, and no one is working harder to realize this goal than Cassandra Parker-Nowicki, Executive Director of The Carver Center.
Cassandra has been an instrumental leader for the theatre and its organization for the past eleven years and was appointed Executive Director last summer. She is confident and friendly, and you can feel her enthusiasm and passion as she describes the vision of the Carver Center and its significance to the community.
“The Carver Center has a reputation of importance as a community theatre around the country. When I introduce myself at conferences as the Director of The Carver Center in San Antonio, there is an audible sigh of respect among the other directors. This organization is that important.”
Born in Tennessee, Cassandra moved to San Antonio when she was three. A graduate of Lee High School, it was there that her love of theatre blossomed under the tutelage of her drama teacher, Tammy Frasier. She states, “She was one of the biggest influences in my life. Learning from her made me fall in love with the theatre.”
Cassandra went on to study theatre at Southwestern State University, and she was fortunate to receive a well-rounded education in theatre arts and the business of running an arts organization. The curriculum allowed her not only to perform but also to run the box office, build the sets, manage the house, and organize the productions handling everything from costuming to cast management and rehearsal schedules. It was during these busy, but exciting, years that she really began to investigate becoming marketable on the practical side of the industry.
“I got to see and be involved, firsthand with how it all worked to create a production and run a theatre, and I wanted to explore a career where I could make the arts accessible to everyone.”
After graduation, Cassandra came home to work for The Majestic Theatre, honing her professional skills as she worked in different capacities. She oversaw the Front of the House for a while, before moving into the position of Patron Services, and then became the Director of Theatre Services before moving on to Corporate Sales. She then moved to Baltimore for a few years before returning to her roots to accept a position at The Carver Center.
When asked what she loves most about her position and the historic place that she represents, Cassandra will tell you that it is the patrons of the community that the Carver serves, and how loyal they are. She loves to speak with theatre patrons and hear the stories from families that have called the Carver Center home for generations. The Carver Center pulls in a diverse and eclectic audience, and the programming is unique and often ground-breaking.
When asked how she selects the artists that she brings to the Carver Center, Cassandra states, “I want to create a joyful space where people can come together and celebrate art in all forms. We want to create an experience, a cultural place where artists from around the world can collaborate with local artists, and together we can find a way to support and encourage the next generation of artists.”
Cassandra Parker-Nowicki has a palpable passion. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and along with her outstanding staff, she has created an arts organization that not only presents some of the most talented artists in the world to a community that embraces diversity, she has also been instrumental in helping local artists showcase their work. Hers truly is a labor of love, and along with her theatre’s namesake, Jo Long, Cassandra is setting the stage for a legacy that will continue to touch the artistic souls of San Antonians for many years to come.
“Bridging the Gaps Between the Venue and the Experience.”
San Antonio has so many amazing and historic buildings and venues that it seems overwhelming to highlight just a few of them. However, there is one local theatre that stands out as incredibly unique in its décor and history. The Aztec Theatre has been downtown gem since it was built in 1926 as an exotic motion picture house. It housed a massive organ that played along to the silent films of the day, but it is the heavy Aztec architecture and design that sets it apart. The venue operated as a movie theatre until the ’80s and sat lonely and vacant until a pair of local investors renovated it in the early 2000s. Now, it is a vibrant and successful concert hall, bringing in some of the most interesting and eclectic acts around.
At the head of the Aztec tribe entertaining San Antonio music lovers is Libby Day, a native of Washington state. Libby came to San Antonio to attend college at Trinity University, and although Libby studied Urban and Environmental Science, she has always had an interest in the local music scene. She realized that there wasn’t a comprehensive listing available for live music here in town, so she set out with a friend to create one. The SATX Music blog went live on TUMBLR in 2011 to support the emerging music scene and help artists connect with their fans.
Libby states, “Live music is an integral part of building a premier city, and we wanted to put San Antonio on the map.”
She continued to work in urban housing, and in 2016 she took a leap of faith and jumped at a chance to become the General Manager for DO210 as the program launched in San Antonio. She was responsible for the sales, digital marketing, and informational event platform that introduced San Antonio to a new outlet for a concert, festival, and event listings and information. Libby says, “It was an amazing learning experience, and it led directly into what I’m doing now.”
Today, Libby heads up a dynamic team of 10 people as the General Manager of The Aztec Theatre. She has worked hard to re-educate the public about The Aztec and its modern identity as a first-class music and events venue. Everything inside the Aztec is original, including the two-ton chandelier hanging over the lobby. It is a historic building, and with that designation comes many challenges to upgrading a facility that needs to grow with its audience. The national concert promoter, Live Nation, took over the operations of The Aztec in 2016. Since then, Libby and her team strive to show artists and management agencies that San Antonio is a city that should be on everyone’s tour schedule. They are also working to find new ways to enhance the audience experience so that each guest to The Aztec feels like they are important and special when they walk through the door.
“We, as a staff, spend 40 to 70 hours a week trying to figure out how to provide the absolute best fan experience.”
Libby is passionate about fostering an environment within the theatre where the entire experience can create an opportunity for artists and fans to connect, and her determination is paying off. Recently, The Aztec won Marketing Venue of the Year with Live Nation, and Libby points to her production team as making the difference and working hard to pull it all together for a performance. Currently, The Aztec hosts 150 shows a year, but Libby would like to see 200 shows and events come through the venue.
She is very expressive about how much she loves her job and the venue, and she says, “It is a pleasure to be allowed to come to this building every day, and I know that everything I am doing here is helping to build San Antonio and supporting the community as we uphold a professional standard for the industry to welcome visiting artists and showcase our great city.”
By Meredith Keller
Photography by Jason Roberts