History of the Texas Theatre
Once the heart of the southwest Dallas community—a grand, palatial gathering place marked by a brightly lit sign that spelled T-E-X-A-S, touting top-of-the-line acoustics and appurtenances, the Texas Theatre was opened at 231 West Jefferson Boulevard with fanfare on April 21, 1931 by billionaire Howard Hughes. The Texas Theatre was the novelty of long time Oak Cliff resident and entrepreneur, C. R. McHenry, better known in the community as “Uncle Mack.” McHenry’s dream was to build a theater with state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment.
McHenry partnered with four Dallas area businessmen to help him realize this dream: Harold B. Robb, E. H. Rowley, W. G. Underwood and David Bernbaum. Together they hired renowned architect W. Scott Dunne to design the Texas. The men spared no expense and boasted that the theater was “fireproof”—constructed entirely of concrete. The theater’s opera seating cost $19,000, the projection and sound system cost $12,000, the 1,240 yards of the finest grade carpet cost $5,000, and the Barton organ, the second largest in the City of Dallas, cost $10,000. However, McHenry was most proud of the cooling and ventilation system, which blew 200,000 cubic feet of air per minute through a water-cooled system pumped from a 4,000-gallon tank. The cooling system made “The Texas” the first theater in Dallas with air conditioning.
However 72 years later, as a Dallas Morning News writer suggests, it may be safe to speculate that few care about the historic details of the Texas Theatre-if not for its significance to the events on November 22, 1963.
On November 22, 1963 at approximately 1:45 p.m., nearly 15 Dallas police officers converged on the Texas Theatre in search of a man who had entered without paying. That man was Lee Harvey Oswald—President John F. Kennedy’s accused lone assassin.
Photo provided from the R.W. “Rusty” Livingston Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
President Kennedy’s assassination marked a violent end to the Age of Camelot and forever scarred the American psyche. As the Texas Theatre rocketed into the international spotlight, an urgency to hide, deny and destroy it tore its way through Dallas. Shortly thereafter—in what is coined locally among preservationists as the most comprehensive architectural cover-up of the Twentieth Century—the theater’s vibrant designs, false bridges, towers and campaniles, decorative wood railings, and star and cloud painted ceilings were sealed from public view under a mass of lath and spray applied plaster.
Even today, a sense of culpability for the President’s assassination lingers, and with it, residual inclinations to resist renovating the theater. As such, the very reason for which it qualifies as a nationally historic landmark poses a substantial threat to its restoration. Despite this, the theater has managed to repeatedly escape the wrecking ball.
As technology in moving, talking, and color pictures progressed and drive-ins and multiplex cinema became the rave, the Texas Theatre’s patrons slowly moved on to other entertainment venues. Failing to capture a considerable audience, United Artists closed the theater in 1989. In an attempt to save it, the Texas Theatre Historical Society (TTHS) bought the theater in 1990. Acknowledging its importance to the President’s assassination, TTHS allowed Oliver Stone to remodel the exterior façade for his 1990 film, JFK. However in 1992, the Society was no longer able to make the mortgage payments and the theater closed once more. Shortly thereafter, former usher and sign changer Don Dubois of Texas Rosewin-Midway Properties saved the theater from the wrecking ball. Nevertheless, two years later in 1995, it was nearly destroyed by a five-alarm fire, forcing the doors shut yet again.
In 1996, Pedro Villa rescued the theater from demolition when he learned of plans to convert it into a furniture warehouse. However, as Villa’s resources were exhausted and his pleas for investments went unheard, the theater defaulted back to Texas Rosewin-Midway Properties. The tattered and torn building remained vacant for three years, succumbing to vandals, stray animals, and hostile weather.
Even then, however, Michael Jenkins of Dallas Summer Musicals (DSM) believed the Texas Theatre could be Oak Cliff’s “crown jewel.” As such, DSM made a proposal to the City of Dallas in latter 2000 to develop the theater into a critically needed community performing arts center. Preferring to stay in the theater management business as opposed to theater ownership, DSM, along with the City of Dallas approached the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce and its philanthropic arm, the Oak Cliff Foundation, with a plan to manage the theater if the foundation would purchase it.
In 2001, the Oak Cliff Foundation was awarded $1.6 million from the City of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance Partnership Program to purchase and renovate the theater. The foundation agreed to raise additional funds to complete the renovation and contract Dallas Summer Musicals to manage the performing arts center. Unfortunately, the Oak Cliff Foundation purchased the theater just a few weeks before the horrible events of 9/11, which has hindered the fundraising process. In fact, the terrorist attack’s impact has proved devastating for many non-profit cultural arts-related organizations 1 .
Nonetheless, in 2002, Komatsu Architecture, Inc. and Phoenix I Restoration and Construction, Ltd. were selected for the project based on their substantial experience in historic renovation and restoration of old courthouses, performance halls, and movie theaters. Together with DSM and the Oak Cliff Foundation, Komatsu and Phoenix created a master plan to first renovate and then restore the Texas Theatre. This plan provides that live performances will begin after renovation and before restoration 2 . Restoration will occur during dark periods of the theater to minimize the impact on performances and the profitability of the venue. To date, approximately $1 million has been spent toward select demolition, electrical, plumbing and other “bare bones” essentials.
1 -For an in-depth discussion on 9/11’s impact on charitable giving and its particular influence upon the arts, theater, and non-profit theater-related organizations, see September 11: Perspectives from the Field of Philanthropy, The Foundation Center, 2002.
2 -Renovation focuses on readying the theater for adaptive re-use whereas restoration focuses on the retention of materials from the most significant time in the theater’s history.