There was a time that the round, domed building with 12-inch-thick concrete walls stored much of Weslaco’s water supply. But for almost half a century, the historic structure has served as a community theater. Now, following a renovation with the help of the Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, the Tower Theater has a new lease on life.
Constructed in 1928, the ground-level water storage facility was replaced in 1941 by the iconic concrete water tank that towers above it. The city cut doors into the original reservoir space and used it for storage until the 1960s. This is when a vision came to a city manager with a college theater background to transform the building into a community theater.
The Mid-Valley Civic Theater group, under the direction of educator Shirley Atkins, staged the first performance in what became known as the Tower Theater of Weslaco in April 1970. The theater contained 100 seats situated in a circle around the performance area. Mid-Valley Civic Theater produced plays such as “Oliver” and “The Sound of Music” here. It also became a place where young theater students could attend acting workshops and practice their acting skills.
Risë Morris, Atkins’ daughter, worked with her mother and performed and directed shows at the Tower Theater for 47 years. Her retirement in 2017 set the stage for the next act in this long-running story.
Morris had approached ITheatre, a fledgling nonprofit acting company, about taking over the Tower Theater. One of ITheatre’s founders, Steve Urbina, had a long history with the place. “I first came here in 1993 in high school,” he said. “We came to do summer theater here. Back then they had stage lights made out of Texsun fruit juice cans and an Army surplus parachute across the ceiling to help with acoustics.”
ITheatre began by producing plays in a local coffee shop and the Weslaco library’s Braught Memorial Theater before moving in. “We produced our first play here two years ago and tapped into the loyal Tower Theater audience,” Urbina said.
One of ITheatre’s productions made an impression on an audience member, Weslaco EDC Board President Joe Olivarez. However, he was concerned about the building’s deteriorating physical condition. “He came to a play and noticed that there were people from all over the Valley,” Weslaco EDC Director Steven Valdez said. “He realized it was a quality of life resource with an economic value to the community, so he pushed for the EDC to get involved and help fix up the building.”
The EDC invested about $70,000 in building upgrades, Valdez said. Tri-Gen Construction owner Jorge Gonzalez donated his time to plan the work and find the needed subcontractors. Improvements included fixing leaks, new air-conditioning, fresh paint, flooring, landscaping, plumbing and electrical work, Valdez said.
Joining Urbina at an April grand opening to show off renovations were his wife and more than a dozen volunteers. Urbina believes the partnership with the EDC gives new life to the old theater. “We share a vision of this not just being a community theater, but being a venue for music, a venue with multiple uses,” he said. “And then maybe it can become an anchor for an arts district in Weslaco. The Tower is already a symbol, so why not make it more of a center spot of what Weslaco is.”