Vanished From Victoria: El Rancho Theatre

El Rancho Theatre burning. It is believed the fire started when some maintenance was being done on the air conditioning.

BY GARY DUNNAM

El Rancho Theatre was built during the winter of 1940 on Forrest Street. There is a photo dated Jan. 20, 1940 which shows the building under construction. It also shows Victoria covered in snow.

This great old barn of a theater seated at least 1,000 people. At least it looked that large. It was particularly long, front to back. The walls were adorned with paintings resembling seaweeds undulating in the sea.

El Rancho was built by Johnny Long, the proprietor of LCL Theatres, which were headquartered in Bay City. Long and Rubin Frels' father were dedicated rivals in the film exhibition business. All the film distributors loved to see competition, as exhibitors had to outbid each other for the right to show the distributor's films.

Frels and Long battled for years, in and out of court, but mostly around the plaza in Victoria.

Frels built the Uptown.

Long built El Rancho.

Long remodeled the Sibley building into the Rita Theatre, which sat smack upside the Uptown on the left.

Frels owned and operated two theaters in Bay City.

In Victoria, Frels Theatres operated the Uptown Theatre (1931), the Victoria Theatre and the ill-fated Queen/Venus/Princess Theatre (which burned in the fall of 1960).

Both El Rancho and Uptown featured terrazzo tile sidewalks reaching to the street. Frels operated the Tejas-Aztec Drive-In just north of Mockingbird Lane on the Hallettsville Highway (now North Navarro Street). Hurricane Carla blew the Tejas-Aztec to smithereens. The Twin Ranch was Long's drive in offering to Victoria. It would evolve into the Gemini Drive In, also on North Navarro.

In the 1950s Frels' son, Rubin S. Frels, flew around Victoria in his small airplane and spotted the property owned by the Tomforde family at the bend in Lone Tree Road east of town. He bought it and built the Lone Tree Drive-In there. The Lone Tree was planned to be a twin screen theater, but the air bases closed and the drive in business sputtered to a near halt.

Lois Beck Wagner ruled the kitchen with an iron hand, cooking up countless gallons of Frels' Chili, and Frelsburger sauce. She deftly flipped a million hamburger patties. Frelsburgers were so messy and so good.

The Playhouse Cinema was completed in 1965 and became the flagship of the Frels Theatres chain. In 1971, Frels entered the multi-plex business by adding two auditoriums on to the Playhouse. It was attractive and very well maintained.

Sadly, El Rancho failed to keep abreast with the times. In 1975, while Ben Gazarra was filling the screen of El Rancho as "Al Capone", workmen who were engaged in some sort of air conditioning work, ignited a blaze which brought the cavernous theater to its end. It was a spectacular blaze.

Within a few short years, First Victoria National Bank began its westward expansion on West Constitution Street.

The Uptown Theatre was sold and all the lights on that wonderful marquee went black. The character of De Leon Plaza changed dramatically without the countless lights on the large marquees of El Rancho and Uptown. The plaza became very dark between dusk and midnight.

As I have said many times before, it was the end of an era.

Vanished From Victoria is written by Gary Dunnam and submitted by Victoria Preservation Inc.