For Military History Buffs
San Antonio's military installations are crucial to the city's economy, and testaments to their past abound. Those who aren't satisfied with touring Fort Sam Houston can also visit the Hangar 9/Edward H. White Museum at Brooks Air Force Base, Southeast Military Drive, at the junction of I-37 (tel. 210/536-2203; www.brooks.af.mil). The history of flight medicine, among other things, is detailed via exhibits in the oldest aircraft hangar in the Air Force. Admission is free, and it's open Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, except the last 2 weeks of December.
Lackland Air Force Base (12 miles southwest of downtown off U.S. 90, at Southwest Military Dr. exit; www.lackland.af.mil) is home to the Air Force History and Traditions Museum, 2051 George Ave., Bldg. 5206 (tel. 210/671-3055), which hosts a collection of rare aircraft and components dating back to World War II. Admission is free; it's open Monday to Friday 8am to 4:30pm. At the Security Forces Museum, about 3 blocks away, at Bldg. 10501 (on Femoyer St., corner of Carswell Ave.; tel. 210/671-2615), weapons, uniforms, and combat gear dating up to Desert Storm days are among the security police artifacts on display. Admission is free; it's open Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm. Inquire at either museum about the 41 static aircraft on view throughout the base. With current security measures in place, the bases are sometimes restricted to retired military, their families, and those sponsored by someone who works at the base. But you can try phoning the museums or the Public Affairs Office at Brooks (tel. 210/536-3234) or the visitor center at Lackland (tel. 210/671-6174) to inquire about visitation status. In any case, phone ahead to find out if anyone is permitted on the base on the day you're planning to visit. As may be expected, the museums are closed all national holidays.
For Those Interested in Hispanic Heritage
A Hispanic heritage tour is almost redundant in San Antonio, which is a living testament to the role Hispanics have played in shaping the city. Casa Navarro State Historic Site, La Villita, Market Square, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and the Spanish Governor's Palace, give visitors a feel for the city's Spanish colonial past, while the Nelson A. Rockefeller wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art, also discussed earlier, hosts this country's largest collection of Latin American art. The sixth floor of the main branch of the San Antonio Public Library hosts an excellent noncirculating Latino collection, featuring books about the Mexican-American experience in Texas and the rest of the Southwest. It's also the place to come to do genealogical research into your family's Hispanic roots.
The city is in the process of exploring its Hispanic roots and evolving Latino culture. The Centro Alameda cultural zone on downtown's west side includes the old Alameda Theater at 310 W. Houston St. This theater dates from 1949 and has many great features of the old grand movie palaces. First, there's the spectacular 86-foot-high sign adorning the marquee. Lit by rare cold cathode technology, not neon, it's one of a kind and a spectacular sight at night. Other features are mentioned above. The Alameda was one of the last of its kind and the largest movie palace ever dedicated to Spanish-language entertainment. It has been described as being "to U.S. Latinos what Harlem's Apollo Theater is to African Americans." The theater is scheduled for restoration. The work is to be done by an arts organization called the Alameda National Center of Latino Arts and Culture, which also operates the Museo Alameda. For additional information, log on to www.thealameda.org.
Cultural events and blowout festivals, many of them held at Market Square, abound. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center organizes many of them. In HemisFair Park, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano/Casa Mexicana, 600 HemisFair Plaza Way (tel. 210/227-0123), sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hosts Latin American film series, concerts, conferences, performances, contests, and workshops -- including ones on language, literature, and folklore as well as art. The institute also hosts shifting displays of art and artifacts relating to Mexican history and culture, from pre-Columbian to contemporary (free admission; Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun noon-5pm).
For information on the various festivals and events, contact the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (tel. 210/225-0462; www.sahcc.org). Another roundup resource for Latin cultura is the "Guide to Puro San Antonio," available from the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/447-3372).
Old Movie Palaces of San Antonio
In the first half of the 20th century, Old San Antone was a movie-going town, and four grand old movie palaces have survived. Each deserves to be an attraction in its own right. Back then theaters were in the business of selling glamour and fantasy. They were also expressions of local pride, so the fantastical decorations most often had some tie-in with the heritage of the city.
Two of the theaters -- the Empire and the Majestic -- have been fully restored to their former glory and now function as venues for a wide range of performances and entertainment. Unfortunately, no one gives tours of them; to see them you would need to attend an event, many of which are fun and worth seeing. Both theaters were designed and decorated with exuberance. Just to get an idea, visit the website www.majesticempire.com. The Empire is smaller and older (1913) and is on the historic registry of buildings. The walls are thickly textured with molded plaster and gold leaf. The Majestic (1929) is larger and grander. Its imaginative decoration incorporates Moorish and Spanish design. Any performance here will feel like a special occasion.
The old Aztec Theater was built in 1926 and completely refurbished in 2006 (tel. 877/43-AZTEC [432-9832]; www.aztecontheriver.com). The theater lobby is a fanciful rendition of an Aztec temple, with pre-Columbian iconography blanketing the columns and walls with great Art Deco touches.
Finally, there is the Alameda, which is not yet open to the public, but might be the most original of the four theaters. It was built much later than the others, in 1949, and was a center for the Hispanic community. In the late '40s, Mexican cinema was in its heyday, and big stars would come from Mexico to attend film premières. The only part of the theater you can see now is the exterior decoration, including a marvelous terrazzo mosaic on the sidewalk that flows into the theater lobby, a beautiful and unique tile facade made here in the city, and a large marquee that's brilliantly illuminated at night. Inside the auditorium are two black-light murals in need of restoration. Revolutionary in their day, the murals had a deep blue background decorated in Day-Glo paints.