Austin’s Congress Avenue played a major role in the city’s rich movie theater history

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Though home to a number of theaters over the years, the first movie houses – and the most lavish – sprung up along Austin’s famous “main street.”

AUSTIN, Texas — The intersection of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue in the heart of Downtown Austin has a lot of history going for it. Turn back the calendar 125 years and the most prominent building would be the city’s first movie theater.

Opened in 1896, the Hancock Opera House primarily offered live stage productions. According to the theater’s history, the Hancock staged the story of Ben Hur that featured six live horses and a chariot race – on stage!

But it was the early Edison Vitagraph movies that drew the curious to the Hancock to view short film clips made by Edison’s photographers. Still, movies, such as they were, played a minor role compared to the theater’s sometime lavish stage productions.

Eventually, the Hancock was transformed into a full-time movie theater in 1935 and renamed The Capitol, where it presented movies until 1963. Despite efforts by preservationists to save it, it was demolished in 1968.

The first theater to play movies exclusively was The Crescent Theater at 920 Congress Ave., opening in 1913, now long-gone.

Austin’s first true movie palace opened in 1915 and was named The Majestic. It lived up to its name, with a lavish interior and seating for 1,300. And although many early Austin movie houses have come and gone, The Majestic is still with us and is known now as The Paramount – a true jewel of theater that has offered generations of Austinites live shows and classic movies.

Legend has it The Paramount is haunted by ghosts. A couple of years ago a pianist visiting the theater snapped a a series of pictures of what appeared to be a ghostly figure – a woman – near a balcony door. 

But that didn’t surprise the Paramount Executive Director Jim Britt. 

“What we believe the history is, is that next to the Paramount Theatre originally was the War Department of the Republic of Texas,” Britt said in a 2019 KVUE News interview. “And the belief is that her husband had been a soldier who was missing and that she is constantly trying to get back over to the war department to find out the fate of her husband.” 

Britt said the mysterious woman is one of several ghosts that haunt The Paramount. And like all ghost stories, it’s hard to prove, but a part of the history – and legends – of Austin’s remarkable old Congress Avenue theaters.

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