EDINBURG — For more than 25 years, the historic Citrus Theater has sat empty save for a few relics of its entertainment days and legal materials that were stored there by owner Felipe Garcia.
But now, the old theater is being cleared of the latter as it prepares to be sold next month in a deal that could finally restore life to the venue, just as other projects to revitalize the city’s downtown area are already underway.
Garcia, 66, said he expects to finalize the deal for the sale in mid-November if all goes well.
“I have had it since 1994,” Garcia said. “(I) always intended that it be restored back to some type of an entertainment venue and these are some people that are interested in doing that so that’s why I decided that I’d go ahead and (sell) it. But that’s been my goal the whole time since I’ve had it.”
Garcia confirmed he was in the process of selling the property to Nick Cantu, a commercial Realtor. However, an attorney for the developers, Paloma Barreiro, would neither confirm the identity of the buyer nor plans for the theater.
“These are exciting times within the city of Edinburg, especially with the new courthouse that’s opening, so we’re thrilled to be part of the growth of the downtown Edinburg area,” Barreiro said in prepared remarks. “But at this time we won’t be answering any questions. We welcome the media; we ask you guys to stay tuned for the official, formal announcement.”
Garcia, an attorney, used the building to store law books and other materials but reiterated he always hoped that someone would restore it into an entertainment venue.
“It is a massive structure,” Garcia noted. “A lot of people think because it’s been empty for so long that it’s falling apart but that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
The first floor of the theater consists of 500 seats while the balcony holds 300 seats, according to Garcia.
Debuting in 1941, the theater went out of business in 1993 after more than 50 years of entertaining the community, featuring classic films such as “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca.”
Dr. L.J. Montegue, a physician, began building the theater in 1940 which would join the Valley Theater and the Aztec Theater, also in Edinburg, as the third venue of its kind.
Grimly, the Valley and the Aztec were operated by Velma Montague, the doctor’s wife whom he shot and killed in a fit of jealousy in April 1939.
During the ensuing trial in January 1940, Montague argued the shooting of his wife was accidental and that he was trying to shoot the San Antonio salesman who was with his wife, P.C. Humphrey, in self defense. Montague was acquitted of the charges.
Montague went on to officially open the theater for business on January 17, 1941, with the screening of “Hit Parade of 1941” with Kenny Baker and Frances Langford, according to an ad that ran in the Valley Evening Monitor the day before the opening.
“Built at an approximate cost of $80,000 this new house exemplifies the newest and latest from its cooling and heating plants its comfortable seats and sound equipment,” the ad read.
“The newest and latest pictures will be shown at all times together with news reels and comics,” the ad continued. “Remember you’ll always see a good show at The Citrus.”
First floor and Mezzanine seats for the night performance cost 35 cents while balcony seats were at 25 cents. Seats for the matinee show also cost 25 cents.
In 1978, the Citrus was purchased by Mike Benitez, the son of a theater-owner in Weslaco. At that point, the theater began showing family movies and then later became a dollar theater. Facing increasing competition from newer theaters, Benitez shut down the theater in 1993 and it eventually came into Garcia’s possession.
Over the years, Garcia said he received offers from at least one church group and said there were others that toyed with the idea of buying it.
“I was never impressed,” he said.
But the new developers’ plans for the venue align with his hopes for it, he said. Though, admittedly, there isn’t much that could be done with the theater besides that, he said.
“The only thing you could really do with it is open it up as an entertainment venue,” Garcia said, adding that tearing it down isn’t really a viable option for the building.
Still, he knew he would have very limited sway over its future once it was out of his hands.
“I know I couldn’t control what was being done with it in the end but I kind of wanted to make sure that it looked like something that I would think would be good for it,” he said. “As vague as that sounds, that’s the best I could get.”