Wartime park for soldiers in training

A friend in this column who usually helps answer your questions has offered one of hers.

Sarah Reveley, a collector of Alamo and Texas Centennial memorabilia, along with other local history interests, was working on an Alamo Heights project when she came across an advertisement for November 5, 1917, in the San Antonio Light for “Ron-de-Voo Park”, where the public was invited to view World War I re-enactments as the “Great War” continued: “Spend an evening with (General John J.) Pershing (covered here March 28, 2020) and the Sammies (Uncle Sam’s U.S. Troops) over there,” with the promise of a $1,500 air show and fireworks display, all from a “comfortable seat in the largest amphitheater in San Antonio”.

Reveley said she had never heard of this amphitheater or an outdoor theater until the Sunken Garden Theater, completed in 1932. The park, she said, “seems to have been created for the Entertainment of WWI Soldiers” at Camp Travis, a part of Fort Sam Houston that was used as an introductory training facility.

Not a city park but an exclusive attraction, the wildly spelled name was no doubt intended to conjure up “over there”, which was then France, meeting place, or designated rendezvous and eventual destination many Camp Travis recruits. It could even have been said to be a theme park, and the theme – for the soldiers, at least – was “dancing with strange women engaged for this purpose”.

The “amphitheater” was pretty dubious too, but that was to be expected for the time, when wooden bleachers put together for a car show or any semi-circular space to lay a blanket deserved that name. Other advertisements for Ron-de-voo note that Manning B. Pletz was the manager. A self-proclaimed “promoter”, he appears in the 1915 San Antonio City Directory, most recently from Kansas City, Mo., with previous short stops in New Orleans; Little Rock, Ark.; Macon, Georgia; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Springfield, Illinois.

Pletz was already with us a few years ago. According to The Light, on April 28, 1913, that year’s Fiesta San Jacinto queen, Mayme Storey, was crowned twice, once at Beethoven Hall and the next day in front of movie cameras at Glen Marie, a home located at Fifth and Oakland streets whose “spacious lawns and wooded glades” were converted into an amphitheater that could seat 3,000 people, with standing room to watch the coronation, all under the supervision of showman Pletz (1868-1933) .

In Ron-de-Voo, “amphitheater” refers to the “permanent stand” built to accommodate 10,000 people to watch “The War of the Nations”, live from the Texas State Fair. A 500-foot-long outdoor stage was under construction, says the light, on October 21, 1917. It was to be ready for November 3, 1917, the opening of the new park “between the northwest corner of Camp Travis and Queen Anne Court” near Avenue C, now Broadway.

The show was to be intended to build public support for the distant war the United States had entered months earlier. Besides the air show, the vaudevillians as French villagers cheered on the troops, and after an interlude of European and American circus acts, there was a mock dogfight and air attack on the village which left it in what appeared to be smoldering ruins. Nevertheless, the 400 actors all gathered to perform American patriotic tableaux from 1776, 1861 and 1917 when the show ended.

Ron-de-Voo was a project of San Antonio businessmen, says The Light, who invested $50,000 in the “new amusement center for citizens, soldiers and tourists” and collected fees entry fee from 50 cents to $1, plus rent to dealers. The amphitheater (tiers) and the stage were built in less than two weeks. By comparison, some buildings were still under construction when Camp Travis was deemed ready for occupation on August 25, 1917, eventually accommodating some 34,000 troops in structures built for speed, not comfort or sturdiness.

As a private commercial development, Ron-de-Voo Park was not within but near or adjacent to Camp Travis. “about where the Hung Fong Chinese Restaurant is today” at 3624 Broadway, said Bryan P. Howard, Ph.D., curator, Fort Sam Houston Museum.

If the attraction for the general public was the spectacle on stage, for “the veteran in khaki for two or six months” it was the dance pavilion. There, to the beat of “real Dixie jazz music,” say Ron-de-Voo’s newspaper advertisements, the soldiers—banned civilians—would fine “willing partners…the kind he had lied with.” used to walk around his house. These were hired by local ladies, Howard said, noting that Air Journal 1918 said this part of the park was under the same management as Idle Hour Park, an open-air pavilion on San Antonio’s south side. A photo with an infomercial published in The Light, May 19, 1918, shows about 50 women, lined up in two rows in what looks like office attire. “Ron-de-voo is all the name implies,” the story goes, observing that there were “few rules laid down by management.”

It is not known exactly when Parc Ron-de-Voo closed, but the war and fireworks spectacle appears to have taken place from November 1917 to May 1918. The First World War ended with the armistice signed on November 11, 1818, after which Camp Travis transformed into a demobilization center.

After World War I, “Camp Travis and the land on which it was built was retained for post-war use” by For Sam, said John Manguso, author of “San Antonio in the Great War” and of several stories of local military installations. “Some barracks and hospital wards were converted into apartments for officers and married soldiers, and in 1922 the camp was incorporated into Fort Sam Houston and ceased to exist.”

Due to the emergency of the war, the buildings of the old Camp Travis had been designed to last only seven years. On schedule, Manguso said, “by 1925 all of the temporary World War I buildings here and around the United States had become quite dilapidated. This prompted Congress to pass the Army Housing Act of 1926 to replace wartime construction with permanent barracks, married quarters, post exchange and industrial facilities for a modern military post.

This program was the origin of the buildings that gave Fort Sam its distinctive visual style, with the Spanish Colonial Revival style suggested by local architect Atlee Ayres. Construction, Manguso said, began in 1929 when the Camp Travis buildings were gradually cleared. The last to survive was the brick portion of the Camp Travis laundry room, demolished in 2006. A service road at the south end of the old Camp Travis has been named Camp Travis Road, Manguso said, “to preserve the memory of this First World War mobilization camp”.

Pletz, a longtime Rolling Stone and career showman, spent the last 20 years of his life in San Antonio. He died of a heart attack at age 64 and is buried at Mission Burial Park South.

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Evelyn C. Tobin