Heritage, Volume 13, Number 3, Summer 1995 Page: 7
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SITTING PROUDLY ON MAIN STREET IN DOWNTOWN ALBANY, A TINY TOWN WITH MUCH SPIRIT AND DETERMINATION,
THE RESTORED AZTEC THEATER IS A BRICK AND MORTAR MONUMENT TO WHAT (AN BE A((OMPLISHED
BY EVEN THE SMALLEST COMMUNITY -- WHEN EVERYONE WORKS TOGETHER.
t times, working within the confines
of small town politics can be
as difficult as raising large sums of
money. In the beginning, while pondering
a future for the Aztec Theater of Albany, it
looked as though both obstacles would be
too great to overcome. In the end, neither
The history of this small town movie
theater, its glory days and gradual demise,
is told in countless other small Texas towns.
With the advent of television in the '50s
and its steady growth in popularity, the
once-charming old theater was on the skids.
Even a valiant effort in 1971 by a dedicated
group of citizens to provide proper movie
entertainment for Albany youths failed.
Albany has a population hovering near
2,000 and is situated 35 miles northeast of
Abilene. By 1979, the Aztec Theater located
on Main Street (Highway 180) had
permanently closed its doors. Six years later
it was almost in ruins. The leaking roof
provided a stagnant pool of water on the
floor near the stage and part of the ceiling
had caved in covering the seats with trash
and happy housing for rats and termites.
When the theater was built in 1927 by
local businessman Frank Whitney, its Spanish
style stuccoed exterior and Mediterranean
red tile roof provided a unique look.
Four years later, after Whitney's tragic
suicide, H.S. Leon of Haskell bought it. He
undertook extensive renovations to the
interior in 1939, changing it from a "simple
shoebox design to a West Texas vernacular
version of a Spanish courtyard. Evaporative
coolers were installed, and cool air
blew through the newly added 'castles' to
either side of the stage." Shades of maroon,
pale sand, royal blue, and silver gave an
elegant feel and carpet was added. Stars
sparkled overhead, and faux windows on
the side walls showed scenes of desert life.
By 1985, the Aztec's beauty had faded. It
stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a group
of 1878-1920 structures, most of which
were restored and built of limestone, brick,
and wood. All were made part of the
Shackelford County Courthouse Historic
District in 1974 and listed on the National
Register of Historic Places. In short, the
theater was a misfit and a run-down one at
that. The last of several owners had given
up on it.
About this time an act of salvation
occurred for what had once been billed as
"West Texas' Most Beautiful Small Town
Theater". Two members of the Harold
Brittingham Family not living in Albany
bought the Aztec. The late Mrs. Harold
(Lucille Matthews) Brittingham of Fort
Worth grew up and was part owner of the
historic Lambshead Ranch north of Albany.
She had supported the restoration of
Lambshead structures and the production
of the "Fort Griffin Fandangle", a histori
cal musical extravaganza presented by
Albany citizens each summer in June. The
new owners put a new roof on the building
and waited for local people to get organized.
Meanwhile, rumors spread that it would
cost up to $3 million to restore the Aztec
and make it usable again. Frankly, it was
beginning to sound like an impossible
project. No one made a move until Watt
Matthews, Lambshead rancher, brother of
Lucille Brittingham, and local benefactor
of every cause in Albany, and Clifton
Caldwell, a local businessman and devotee
of Texas history and historical preservation,
put their heads together. They made
an on-the-spot decision that it could be
done and for much less than the figure
being circulated. Matthews asked Caldwell
to form a board, get the tax exempt status,
and, in short, take charge.
The Aztec of Albany, Inc. formed in
1990, was composed of civic leaders repre
The entire community of Albany joined in on the restoration of the Aztec Theater. Here workers are shown
applying paint after the stucco repair on the exterior of the building was completed. Photo by Donnie Lucas.
HERITAGE * SUMMER 1995 7
From center stage, the restored interior of the
Aztec recaptures its original elegance. Photograph
by Clifton Caldwell.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 13, Number 3, Summer 1995, periodical, Summer 1995; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45409/m1/7/: accessed March 30, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.