Rose Marine Theater filled a void for Spanish-language entertainment in Fort Worth

Marie Burkhalter, a manager of the Rose Marine Theater, with singer/actor Tito Guizar.
Marie Burkhalter, a manager of the Rose Marine Theater, with singer/actor Tito Guizar. Rose Marine Theater

In 1943, a teenage Esperanza Padilla Ayala handed out admission tickets, 10 cents for children and 25 cents for adults, at the Rose Marine Theater, featuring Mexican peliculas.

The Mexican cinema, from the 1930s through the 1950s, reveled in its golden age with stars like Pedro Infante, María Félix, Cantinflas, and Dolores Del Río, drawing crowds eager for Spanish-language entertainment. Ayala recalled the Fort Worth Latino Northside families during World War II, while many men fought overseas, found joy at the Rose Marine.

Addison and Marie Burkhalter, theater managers, recognized in 1942 the growing Fort Worth Latino population as a lucrative market overlooked by local movie houses. Traveling to Mexico and San Antonio, they signed with the biggest Mexican cinema companies and stars. The photo published with this column shows Burkhalter standing next to singer/actor Tito Guizar.

Ayala described Marie Burkhalter as firm, well organized, amiable and eager to please Latino customers. Although she didn’t speak Spanish fluently, she knew enough to communicate her wishes and to host Mexican stars when they came to the Northside.

Ayala’s mother, Mary Felan Padilla, who lived a few blocks from the theater, allowed Infante and other visiting Mexican stars to rest at her home between shows. As a current comparison, consider hosting Garth Brooks in your living room before going on stage. Ayala described Infante as friendly but pressed for time to rehearse, to meet with ardent fans and to don his charro suit. In the 1940s, Fort Worth hotels didn’t allow Latinos, despite their international popularity, to occupy rooms.

Eager admirers lined the sidewalks in front of the theater for a glimpse of Infante, Cantinflas and the other Mexican stars. Ayala remembers hearing a woman say about Infante, “Si le tocaba su bigote, me conformaba.” If I touched his mustache, I would be contented.

When the war ended in 1945, most of the men came home, some wounded, and eager to reunite with their families. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Northside Latino families overcame discriminatory housing practices and moved to the west side of Main Street.

Rose Herrera, former FWISD school board member and an original board member of the Latino Arts Association, said the Burkhalters didn’t see any division. They viewed the theater as a means to include the Latino community in Fort Worth. She said, “If you go back to when the Mejicanos couldn’t cross over North Main Street, how was this theater in its heyday? It makes you wonder. How was this happening?”

By late 1960s, she passed the theater riding the bus home from school. “It was all boarded up. There was trash all over the place.” The sight saddened her, recalling the exuberance of families watching drama and comedy in Spanish, the chance to see live performance, to mingle with stars.

In 1998, she joined Jim Lane, Louis Zapata, Robert Cortez, Steve DeLeon, Robert Figueroa and others to persuade the City of Fort Worth to purchase the property, secure federal funds and renovate the Rose Marine. On Oct. 28, 2000, visionaries hosted a grand reopening of the 254-seat, historical theater, renaming it Rose. From a wheel chair, Marie Burkhalter partook in the celebration. During a time of war and isolation, she brought a bouquet of entertainment to Fort Worth Latino families that continues to bloom today.

Author Richard J. Gonzales writes and speaks about Fort Worth, national and international Latino history.

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