Buildings can often serve as a miniaturized history of the city in which they stand. Oklahoma City’s Plaza Theatre is one example. While it’s now a state-of-the-art performance venue, this nearly century-old building has survived abandonment and indeed narrowly dodged destruction.
When the Plaza Theatre was built in 1935, the city was riding high on the prosperity generated by the discovery of oil, and the freshly built, industrially cooled 800-seat movie house was the gem of the bustling downtown Plaza District.
The building was designed in the Moderne style, a school of architecture characterized by smooth walls, scant surface ornamentation, and rounded corners. In the cooler months, a massive Spanish Deco fireplace warmed attendees. A Rock-Ola jukebox emerged from the front of the stage during intermissions to play radio hits of the day.
Oklahoma City was one of many U.S. city centers that suffered following the turn of the century. As the suburbs expanded and downtown contracted, theatergoers took their money elsewhere and the Plaza lost its customer base. By 1979, the theater was abandoned, and it remained so for decades. While historic hotels, theaters, and restaurants met the wrecking ball as part of the city’s long-term urban revitalization campaign, the Plaza sat empty, collecting dust.
Along the same timeframe, a performance group called Lyric Theatre was picking up steam. They started out in 1963 at the Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Auditorium, then expanded into the Civic Center Music Hall, but by the late 1990s were looking for a larger year-round residence. A $10 million fundraising campaign bought them the Plaza Theatre and enough renovations to make it worthy of world-class performance. It is now the official state theatre of Oklahoma.
Today as in 1935, the Plaza Theatre is a hub of the Plaza district, and visitors can still see the building’s original Moderne aesthetic, enjoy acclaimed entertainment, and experience some of Oklahoma City’s artistic character—all in the comfort of air conditioning, of course.