Did you know that actress and singer Rita Moreno had a hand in helping to save and restore The Plaza Theatre?

Marcos Rey

This is the brief story of how legendary actress and singer Rita Moreno helped save El Paso's Plaza Theatre.

According to Jay Duncan, Founder and Director of the Sunset Film Society, The Plaza Theatre was once considered the largest theater of its kind between Los Angeles and Dallas. It was so modern for its day that it also was the first theatre in all of the United States to feature air conditioning.

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The owner, Louis L. Dent, had initially purchased the property on Pioneer Plaza in 1927 with the hope of giving back to the community and hired W. Scott Dunne to design the Plaza and H. T. Ponsford and Sons to build it.

Finally built on September 12, 1930, the Plaza was known for its elegant and ornate 18th-century interior décor and Spanish Colonial exterior style. Because of its grand interior, The Plaza Theatre was nicknamed "The Showplace of the Southwest."

The first movie to ever be screened was the 1930 musical rom-com Follow Through, which drew in about 2,400 spectator’s opening night. Two decades later, the advent of technology, new suburban communities, and drive-in movie theatres drew audiences away, almost pushing the once lavish theater into extinction.

Enter the formation of the El Paso Community Foundation and EGOT winner Rita Moreno. (EGOT is the designation given to actors who have won all four: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards for outstanding achievements in television, recording, film, and theatre. As of 2020, Rita Moreno is one of just 16 artists that have won all four.)

Austin Hargrave

In 1986, The El Paso Community Foundation invited Moreno to headline a fundraising concert that raised $1 million to purchase and preserve The Plaza Theatre.

Thanks to Moreno and the Community Foundations efforts, The Plaza Theatre was designated as a National Historical Building of Significance, fully restored to its original atmospheric theater splendor in 2006.

In 2007, Moreno was invited back to perform at the newly restored theatre and headlined the Plaza Classic Film Festival in 2013.

Jay Duncan

Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the fiery Anita in West Side Story (1961), was also set to return this year for the Plaza Classic Film Festival, but unfortunately, a scheduling conflict resulted in her appearance cancelation.

While we’ll miss her at this year’s film fest, we are eternally grateful to her for helping to save and restore one of El Paso’s most beautiful gems, our historic Plaza Theatre.

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