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Galveston Monthly

Two Visions, One Purpose

Oct 31, 2019 10:13PM

In a city such as Galveston, where the history is not only captivating but also a distinct facet of the cultural identity, the buildings are as storied as the community. When these two evolve together, rather than demolishing one at the whims of the other, ideas come to be planted in seemingly illogical places - banks become restaurants, warehouses become retail centers, and theatres become churches.

  Sitting quietly on the corner of 18th and Postoffice Street is a seemingly forgettable structure, its greyish, monochromatic stucco no match for the kaleidoscopic gingerbreads that surround it. But this demure exterior is a mere façade for the wellspring of hope and enthusiasm that has been nurtured within its walls for nearly a century.

  

 1801 Postoffice Street has been the home of the East End First Assembly of God Church since the 1960s. Founded in July 1959 as Mision Asamblea De Dios, the church was first established in a modest wood-frame building at 5915 Broadway before moving to its current location.

  “We changed the name because we wanted to be more inclusive, more welcoming to all people,” says Pastor Lily Rodriguez who has been at the helm since 2004. Her dedication and tenacity is nothing short of inspiring, as her efforts are fostered by both a heart for the island community and a sincere love for its history.

  “In the 90s, I was employed by Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF) as a receptionist and a docent at Ashton Villa and the Samuel May Williams home. This prepared a great foundational education in preservation,” she says.

  Now, the church building has given her the opportunity to parlay her experience with her current ministry - she has worked for over a decade to restore the building, a task made difficult by significant modifications in the 1970s as well as Hurricane Ike.

  Lily continues, “My experience with GHF in turn defined my focus with the church, when I was looking at this hidden treasure after the devastating effects of an 8-foot storm surge that would have ended the vision once placed on the location by others so long ago.”

  But even after all this time, only about one-third of the building’s interior is functional, yet Lily continues undaunted, determined to see the church’s vision fulfilled. Fortunately, she has history on her side, as the building already holds a legacy of resolute occupants seeking not wealth or status, but only to make a difference.  

 The Little Theatre movement began in Paris in 1887 when Andre Antoine opened the first playhouse to fully realize the concept of intimacy between the audience and the actors. The movement spread to the United States around 1911 and was adopted in large part to save theatre from outright extinction at the hands of cinema.

  As movies were quickly beginning to replace live performance as the preferred source of large-scale entertainment, small theatre companies began to form and collectively rallied to rescue the theatre merely for the sake of theatre itself, to preserve the most persistent of art forms.

  In addition to providing a unique theatre-going experience, Little Theatres served as experimental centers both in form and in content. The were non-commercial, not-for-profit, and often composed of reform-minded, envelope-pushing members.

  An uncredited essay on the topic states definitively, “Little Theatres are established from love of drama, not from love of gain. The workers are drawn together by the same impulse - they are artists or potential artists in the craft of acting, play-writing, stage decoration or stage management.”

  The purity of this intention galvanized the movement, completely revolutionizing theatre in the United States and most importantly, gifting it with posterity. The Little Theatre movement was the precursor to Off-Broadway established in the 1950s, as well as the template with which college laboratory theatres and open-air theatres were created. 

 Community theatre is also noted as a distant off-shoot of Little Theatre, although the present-day equivalent is more likened to the production houses officially known in the theatre realm as “semi-professional,” such as the Island East-End Theatre Company (ETC) in downtown Galveston.

  Galveston caught its first glimpse of the movement at a meeting of the Wednesday Club, a women’s club that met regularly at the Rosenberg Library to discuss papers on a variety of topics. They invited Oliver Hinsdell, director of the Little Theatre in New Orleans, to speak at the home of Mrs. William L. Moody, Jr., wife to the president of American National Insurance Company and matriarch of one of Galveston’s premiere families.

  This presentation was followed by an invitation to Howard Jones, a University of Texas professor and the director of a Little Theatre called Curtain Club, to speak at a PTA meeting.

  His compelling case for perpetuating the art of theatre through this movement allowed the Wednesday Club to enlist the support of another ladies’ social club called the Round Table of Galveston, and thus was formed the Galveston Little Theatre. The efforts were also assisted by Mrs. I.H. Kempner who was later elected the second President of the theatre’s board and remained in the position for several years.

  Jones had suggested that the group hire a director and produce one play to see if Galveston would support the concept. One of his set designers from the Curtain Club, Peter Ames Vincent was chosen to direct the experimental production.

  The women worked tirelessly and gathered 179 original subscribers before a location for the first play had even been chosen. They decided upon Garten Verein, and in the spring of 1923, an estimated 800 people attended two showings of The Truth starring Mildred Oser, secretary to the Superintendent of Schools.

  Ames returned in the fall and began work on a second play, Rollo’s Wild Cat, and followed that with a presentation of three one-act plays during the Christmas season including In the Zone by Eugene O’Neil, a personal friend of Peter’s. A handwritten letter from O’Neil to Vincent presently housed at the Galveston & Texas History Center reveals that the playwright happily waived his royalty fee for his friend. Galveston Little Theatre’s production of In the Zone was the first time one of his plays was produced in Texas.

  As the popularity of their productions grew over the next few years, the board of directors began actively seeking to acquire property. At their meeting on June 8, 1926, Mrs. Kempner announced that a building had been found at 18th and Postoffice for a price of $7,500; an additional $5,000 would be needed for the remodel.

  Mr. Kempner loaned the purchase amount at 6% over six years through his First Texas Prudential Insurance Company. Three days later, on June 11, the Galveston Little Theatre Corporation was officially chartered.

  From that point forward, even though any given board member could have simply asked their husband to write a check, Galveston Little Theatre was self-sustaining via the concerted fundraising and publicity efforts of the women in charge.

 Built circa 1887, the newly minted theatre property was originally a boarding house. The main building sat on the northern half of the corner lot and behind it, a carriage house was located on the southwest quadrant. These two buildings were connected by a two-story porch and breezeway.

  The sleeping rooms on the second floor of the main building were maintained and rented out to tenants, and the carriage house was converted into the backstage area with storage and dressing rooms. The main floor was built out into an auditorium measuring 39 feet by 40 feet by 13 feet.

  The walls were painted “orchard” and a stage was placed against the south wall, flanked by a false proscenium arch painted deep blue. Theatre goers would be seated in special-order chairs with a walnut finish that could be arranged into rows sloping downward toward the stage for maximum visibility.

  Peter Ames Vincent was hired as the permanent director, although he gave himself a new title, that of “Regisseur” meaning the one who “must know all and do all in the theatre” (the modern equivalent of a Producer).

  Vincent was bold and passionate with an uncanny eye for detail and the subtleties required for good theatre. Beloved by the board and the company members, he became a well-known resident and was heralded as a champion of the arts for his thought-provoking productions and skilled maintenance of Galveston’s theatre scene.

  Although he received many offers from theatres in other cities, Peter Ames Vincent remained with the Galveston theatre until his death in 1930, producing 34 plays in six years. His obituary in the Galveston Tribune stated, “Under his direction, the Little Theatre group of Galveston became recognized throughout the country for their high degree of artistic excellence in productions.”

  The artistic integrity of the theatre faltered after Vincent’s death, but his fate seemed almost kind when the vice grip of the Great Depression choked out expendable income and the theatre began to struggle financially. In 1934, the Kempners and the board of the Galveston Little Theatre reluctantly agreed to sell the building to W.L. Moody, Jr., who announced upon the completion of the sale that he would keep the building open for dramatic performances by any group interested in producing one.

  Two separate groups were formed by former Vincent proteges, one of which did officially incorporate as the Galveston Little Theatre, Inc. These groups were responsible for initiating a brief revival of local theatre, until they were again forced into an untimely intermission in 1944 by the ripple effects of World War II.

  Four years later, Galveston Little Theatre returned one last time for a Silver Anniversary performance that would be its last, a production of Front Porch, a play that would later open on Broadway as Picnic in 1953. From its inception in 1923 until its curtain call in 1948, Galveston Little Theatre amassed a repertoire of 89 plays brought to life by 1,042 local actors.

  In the 1970s, after the building was acquired by the church but before Galveston had fully grasped the fact that its “old” buildings were fast-approaching “historic” status, significant alterations were made to the entire property. An addition was constructed on the southeast quadrant, closing in the carriage house and the back porches to create one large building.

  The south wall behind the stage was demolished and a baptismal was placed where the first-floor porch had been located. The new construction housed a dining hall, and the old carriage house/backstage area served as the pastor’s office and living quarters.

  The original slope and theatre chairs were still part of the church when Lily Rodriguez began attending, but a beautiful, winding front staircase had been entirely sealed off and drop-down ceilings were installed which significantly dwarfed the auditorium-turned-sanctuary. 

  Then in 2008, Hurricane Ike provided for the East End Assembly of God as it had for so many across the island - a canvas of creativity stretched by destruction. The roof was obliterated, leading to widespread water damage on the second floor; an eight-foot storm surge did the same to the first floor.

  Since then, Pastor Lily has dedicated a large part of her life and livelihood to implementing repairs and reclaiming the building, a journey that continues to this day. “It has been difficult, but it has been rewarding,” she says.

  “We’d get a ‘yes,’ then we’d get a ‘no,’ we would make progress and then and obstacle would come along, but after every obstacle, there was an even bigger blessing.”

  The 1970s addition was demolished in the aftermath of Ike, but Lily says cheerily, “That actually restored the building to its original footprint.” During that demolition, the baptismal was removed and the south wall was replaced which now boasts beautiful bay windows and a sunlit view of East End architecture. The front staircase was discovered and uncovered, the drop-down ceilings were removed to reveal a beautifully lofted main floor, and support beams were placed to reinforce the second floor.

  In 2012, the building’s windows were restored to their original condition. Designs for the carriage house and former boarding rooms have been drafted, and work has begun on converting those into kitchen and bathroom facilities and classrooms, respectively.

  “We have had an amazingly supportive community since Ike in the way of guidance and direction. The ‘RV-ers’ came and performed repairs free of charge, and the City of Galveston Landmark Commission and permit department have been a blessing to us as well,” Lily says.   

  “My good friend Greg Lewis has been one of our biggest supporters, an amazing donor of time, experience, and expertise. Vera Green and Luke Pronker with Frame Design as well have provided structural engineering needs, advice, and drawings. We also received a grant from the Moody Foundation.”

  Indeed, Pastor Lily does not seem like she has been at this for eleven years, rather it seems like her first day on the job, brimming with hope and keenly focused on the church’s mission.

  “I even had an offer from Galveston Historical Foundation to purchase the building after the storm, but I just couldn’t do it. Not only did I know the true value of this building once it is restored, more importantly, I could not sacrifice the vision of this church. Those first members, who saw this building and wanted to make it their home, I could not abandon their dream.”   

  Just like the theatre that came before, the East End First Assembly of God has only one form of currency- a heartfelt combination of purpose, hope, and persistence.

  To find out how you can help Pastor Lily restore the Little Theatre Building, contact her directly at [email protected] or 409.939.9632.