News and Features

The Texas Theatre Rises Again

(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to our September Think TV interview with Jason Reimer.)

A piece of Dallas history is being reintroduced to the public. Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre – the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was captured in 1963 – has been restored as an art house movie theater. KERA’s Stephen Becker spoke with the team behind the revitalization.

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On a clear day, the sun reflects brightly off the Texas Theatre’s gleaming white façade. Even now, it’s hard to believe that the darkest day in Dallas history ended within these walls.

The theater’s demise can be blamed on its association with the Kennedy assassination. Or the economic struggles of southern Dallas. Or the larger challenges independent theaters face. Whatever the reason: the Texas Theatre has largely gone unused since the United Artists chain closed it in 1989.

And for some, that was a shame.

REIMER: “To me it was criminal to take a building this wonderful and not utilize it because of something that happened here. No one was murdered here – nothing horrible happened. It was just a great building that was sitting here not being utilized. To me, what we’re doing here is a wonderful thing for this building.”

That’s Jason Reimer. He and three partners have been the driving force behind the theater’s recent restoration. And while they had a lot of work to do, they also had plenty to work with. The Texas Theatre harkens back to a day before cookie-cutter chains took over the movie theater world. An old-timey glassed-in ticket booth still stands at the entrance. And painted tiles lead to a grand staircase that moviegoers once ascended into the balcony of the first air-conditioned theater in Texas.

Since 2001, the theater has been owned by the Oak Cliff Foundation. In the spring of this year, Reimer worked with the foundation to begin showing movies again in the theater as an experiment. That’s when Eric Steel, along with fellow movie producer Barak Epstein, took notice.

STEELE: “When I saw this space, I saw a potential not only for what Barak’s plan was in terms of the movie theater and a repertory and independent theater that could be I think really successful in Dallas, but also a creative space for filmmakers, for writers, for actors, where there is none really right now in Dallas.”

In the summer, Epstein and Steele approached Reimer about restoring the theater into the movie palace it once was. And by early September, the trio, along with a fourth partner – Houston producer Adam Donaghey – put the plan into action.

But as Epstein and Reimer tell it, there’s no blueprint for how to renovate a 79-year-old theater. Even when you have the actual blueprints.

EPSTEIN: “It’s just a slow process. It’s a slow process sometimes to do all these things. To build a bar – oh, you need to run plumbing to the bar. Where’s the plumbing in the city? I don’t know – we have to dig a tunnel …”

REIMER: “…The plans for this were sometimes decades old or even older. This building’s been here since 1931, so it’s changed hands a lot, lots of contractors have been in and out. Lots of things were inaccurate. So, that was the discovery process.”

Among the improvements are a new snack stand and a full bar. Painter Clay Stinnett’s movie poster canvases hang on the white stucco walls. Future projects include an overhaul of the projection room and a larger screen to show the movies on. And the balcony is in need of major work after being completely gutted.

Those updates will partly depend on how many people come to see movies. The theater held a soft opening in September and a grand re-opening in December. But it’s still too early to tell how audiences are embracing the mix of repertory classics and newer under-the-radar films.

Still, Epstein is confident that if other big cities can support independent theaters in the age of DVDs and digital downloads, Dallas can, too.

EPSTEIN: “Dallas is a big enough city where I think there’s a market for repertory cinema. If you look in New York and L.A. and Chicago – I was just in Chicago for business, and I picked up one of their Time Out Chicago’s and they have repertory listings. It’s four pages of repertory film listings.”

And of course there will always be the Kennedy connection. Assassination buffs still stop by the theater daily to check out the place where Oswald was captured while watching War is Hell on Nov. 22, 1963. And many of them are looking to take home a piece of history.

EPSTEIN – “So now we sell them T-shirts.”

  • Greg

    Wow! Being restored as an arthouse theater. Not unlike the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. – scene, of course, of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, being converted to a public high school.

  • Don Lewis

    Hello…..Did anyone do a feasibility study to do determine who the potential clientele are that would possibly dare to support and bring this dead horse back to life. It has been beat to death and you are in the middle of Oak Cliff in case you haven’t noticed!