Yale Theater set to return to center stage as Capitol Hill anchor
Recently, members of the VeloCityOKC editorial staff sat down with Oklahoma City developer Steve Mason to discuss his renovation of Yale Theater in the Capitol Hill District. Mason and his business partner purchased the theater in December 2016 with plans to bring life back to what was once a premier entertainment venue for residents of south Oklahoma City. Read on for more of Mason’s thoughts about the renovation ahead of Yale Theater’s grand opening later this month.
I'm excited about the vision that we're going to create a gathering place for everyone, especially those of Hispanic heritage.
VeloCity: What can you tell me about the history of Yale Theater?
Mason: This opened as an open-air theater in 1910, just on a lot. And then in 1918, the first theater was built. Then post World War II, it was expanded to this [current structure]. The Capitol family started the theater in 1910 and owned it until the 1970s.
And it was in operation that whole time through the ‘70s?
So then the theater suffered the same decay our urban core suffered through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. We bought it about four years ago. When we bought it, there was a championship wrestling ring down there. It was being used for championship wrestling.
Well, you could bring that back, I guess. That'd be fun.
And then we set forth to renovate it. The best way to imagine the vision for this place is the Tower Theater style for uses. South of the river, except for church sanctuaries, there are no gathering places compared to north of the river where you have lots of choices. So a lot of quinceañeras leave this neighborhood. I believe, they will now stay here.
This neighborhood is a gathering spot for Oklahoma City’s Hispanic community, but they don't have any venues here right now. This one is as beautiful as the Tower Theater. It's as beautiful as the Jones Assembly.
So I'm excited about the vision that we're going to create a gathering place for everyone, especially those of Hispanic heritage. One of my dreams is to put a quality Mexican band in here every Friday night, a house band. So everyone knows it's here, and you don't have to see, "Oh, do I like who's performing or not?"
I think Oklahoma City's actually... One thing we're missing are house bands. You go to Memphis, Nashville, Austin. Those are places that consistently have house bands. And the Jones Assembly and Tower Theater are wonderful, but you're going there to see an act. We'll put house bands in here, and I believe community members will be here to hear them. And then what I believe will happen next is those from other parts of Oklahoma City will hear it's fun and come to Capitol Hill and it'll help spark rebirth. Gathering places are so important to sparking rebirth. I mean, if the Tower hadn't been renovated on 23rd Street, Uptown 23rd would've developed, but not as fast. Tower Theater goes in and boom, six other things go in.
Gathering places are so important to sparking rebirth.
Three blocks around it are all changed, yeah.
And that's what will happen here. This is a theater. Experiences are becoming increasingly more important whether it's iFly, the Thunder or somewhere in between. People want experiences. Coffee shops are important. Retail that's experience-related is important because Amazon can't give you an experience. And, what we have to do in our theaters, in our retail spots, is to have experiences, because as humans, experience and connectivity is important, especially right now.
How did you first find this property? What drew your attention to it?
The architecture is here and the culture is here [in Capitol Hill]. It makes sense.
My partner on the vision of where we work is Aimee Ahpeatone. I'm the reluctant engineer. In the Plaza District, it took a couple of years for her to get me to say, "Okay." It took her a couple of years for it to cause me to say, "Capitol Hill makes sense."
You come to look at Capitol Hill and the proximity to downtown is incredible. We are five minutes from the Chesapeake Arena. Capitol Hill is at the same proximity to downtown as South Congress is in Austin. Same proximity. The architecture is here and the culture is here. It makes sense. It just took me a couple of years to buy into the thought to come down here. Now, we have nine buildings down here and this is the first one we'll go with.
Do you have concepts in mind for those eight other buildings already or are you just waiting to see?
Right now, you can't eat dinner in Capitol Hill because there's no demand. The Yale Theater will spark demand for dinner. It will spark demand for different types of bars. It will help spark demand for housing.
What helps Capitol Hill is they have a very strong main street program. These people care. They're involved, and they're engaged to figure out how to improve the neighborhood.
How has that group of people kind of influenced your plans for this place or any future property developments?
They're supportive. If you look at our body of work, it's redeveloping buildings for communities. And it's respectful redevelopment. It's protecting the Womb, instead of turning it into a parking structure. It's protecting [Plaza District retailers] Dig It and Bad Granny's with below-market rents because they're part of the culture. And if Bad Granny's left and some generic chain went in there the District wouldn't feel the same.
It's important to be respectful, and it's hard because you come here with money and things change. You redevelop stuff and things cost more, so that's the truth. We're fortunate that we have enough properties we can afford to have some of the restaurants, in effect, subsidize the Bad Granny's of the world. And that's okay.