Escaping to a Theater Near You

Dallas & the Movies
Credit: Michael Cagle

On a freezing night, our ocean liner catastrophically crashes into an iceberg, and we rush to find a lifeboat before drowning. 

Suddenly, flying down a narrow space station trenchway, we close our eyes and take a shot to save our fleeting rebellion. 

Clicking our heels together, we chant three times, “There’s no place like home!” 

Yet for all intents, we have left home. We have escaped it in our minds with the help of movie magic.

The rise of streaming programming may be reshaping the motion picture experience, but the emotional escape provided by movie theaters is hard to replace. Since the first U.S. movie theater opened in 1896 on Canal Street in New Orleans in a retrofitted storefront, the public imagination has been captured by the thrill of sitting in a dark auditorium and watching a film. 

As local theaters pivoted from actors on stage to film projectors, architects played a crucial role in the development of movie theaters as a typology. An evolving program as cities began to urbanize, silent movies gave way to talkies, and artificial lighting and air-conditioning became the norm. 

In Dallas, Theater Row, a stretch of playhouses lining Elm Street, reflected the success of the American Century: a place of optimism, excitement, and cultural creativity. But it also showcased the disparity of segregation, with primarily Black-owned, -operated, and -patronized theaters clustered near Deep Ellum.

Today, most of these Dallas theaters are gone. On Elm Street, only the Majestic Theatre remains. Constructed in 1921, this 112-year-old vaudeville theater remains relevant through a variety of programming, public support from the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and, largely, a sense of pride and awe for its architecture.

The 92-year-old Texas Theatre, on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, is a landmark movie house with a place in national history. On Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas police apprehended Lee Harvey Oswald inside it after the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Architect W. Scott Dunne designed the theater, owned by billionaire oilman and film producer Howard Hughes, as an “atmospheric theater” – a term coined by architect John Eberson with the creation of the 1921 Hoblitzelle Majestic Theatre in Houston.

In his book Historic Dallas Theatres, D. Troy Sherrod describes the Texas Theatre:

“The auditorium was decorated with three-dimensional scenery to create the atmosphere of a 16th-century Italian village, complete with night sky, clouds, and twinkling star effects in the ceiling.” 

Sadly, most of the Texas Theatre’s splendor was removed or covered over in a 1965 remodeling, partly an effort to rid the shame that the city felt in the aftermath of the assassination.

The theater changed ownership multiple times before suffering an extensive fire in 1995. In 2001, the Oak Cliff Foundation purchased it, and Aviation Cinemas redeveloped it in 2010. Today it has operated regularly for over 10 years, and there are plans for growth.

Architectural designer and visual artist Douglas Dover sat down with Barak Epstein, CEO of Aviation Cinemas, a filmmaker and movie buff, to talk about what it means to escape to the theater. 

Dover: I’d like to start with the notion of “escape.” What does it mean to escape to the theater?

Epstein: Movies are an escape by definition, right? You go to a theater, you sit in a dark room with other people that maybe you don’t know, and you watch something that takes you somewhere else. You don’t look at your phone; there are no other distractions. Escapism is part of it, and it’s been like that for over 100 years. 

Dover: We’ve had some conversations about the atmospheric theater. Do you have a lot of history with that? 

Epstein: Scott Dunn, the architect of the Texas Theatre, built a lot of theaters back in the ’30s. In that era, he was using that atmospheric style. A lot of the theaters in Texas that were called “the Texas” were designed by him. 

Atmospheric usually meant that you felt like you were outside when you were inside. So when you went into the theater, the ceiling would sparkle and there would be clouds that moved. Often there would be opera boxes that were shaped like pillars or looked like an Italian cliff village. In the end, the original Texas Theatre style was atmospheric. However, the current design is not so much like that anymore, but it’s definitely a part of our history. 

Dover: The architecture of these atmospheric movie houses is as much a form of escape as the experience of viewing the movie. Was there a perfect example of an atmospheric theater in Dallas?

Epstein: The Majestic is officially classified as atmospheric and baroque. Regarding a perfect atmospheric theater, I’m going to vote for the Texas and Majestic. A lot of the theaters that were built later in the ’40s were different. 

Dover: The Texas has gone through a number of changes throughout its history. I know you’ve tried to bring back much of its original character. Do you see life for the Forest Theater? Or some of the theaters that are not being used? 

Epstein: The Forest Theater (on Martin Luther King Boulevard just north of Interstate 45) was built in the ’40s. It, along with the Lakewood Theater, were more art deco.

Dover: The Lakewood Theater was recently adapted for general entertainment. I think that is a valid option to help these theaters find life. Do you agree with that? 

Epstein: 100 percent. The Lakewood Theater is an entertainment facility. They have bowling, a bar, and they have musical shows. The Lakewood is moving forward. The Forest Theater is looking to get that as well. It’s been closed for a number of years, but they recently had an ownership change. They are planning a renovation as they want to do community events and perhaps music again. 

Those are great examples of theaters that are able to be used again. 

At the Texas Theatre we are still primarily a movie theater, which may be an anomaly of old school, one-screen theaters, except that we also do music events and other sorts of performances. We have added a second screen inside the theater so we can show more movies. We’re bullish that people like to go to movies, but also that they will come to events. Multiuse is the big ticket in a historic theater. If you want sustainability, you’ve got to handle different sorts of events. 

Dover: Early theaters did that as well. They had vaudeville, and they had musical acts. 

Epstein: Vaudeville was big until basically the 1930s or so. Maybe late ’20s. But you’re right. Vaudeville was live performance and then mixed with movies on other days. A lot of the big theaters, probably starting in the 1940s and on, were just a movie theater. 

Dover: Would you consider the 1920s and 1930s the golden age of theater growth? 

Epstein: Yeah, the ’20s and the ’30s. Maybe until World War II would be the golden age of the movie palace. The glamorous and the glorious movie palace. Even through the war, because people didn’t have TV, movies were the only place to see what was going on. We didn’t have Twitter in 1942 so you had to go to the theater and watch the newsreel. Even when television happened in the ’50s, people would still go to the theater as their main form of entertainment and escape. 

“These fantastic movie palace theaters were built all over the country, and movies were the No. 1 reason to leave the house.”

At the height of development, theaters were all built downtown. Eventually the growth of the suburbs would change that. The movie palace transformed into multiplexes: buildings that had two, three, even 4 screens. Now we have a return to the core for many large cities. That’s not building giant movie palaces again, but you are seeing interest in restoring movie palaces and an increasing interest in building movie theaters in the downtown area.

Dover: How did the golden age manifest itself in Dallas? 

Epstein: If you dig into the history of Theater Row of Dallas, it really started in the ’20s, and it was prominent through the late ’60s. Theater Row in downtown Dallas lasted for over 50 years. The ’60s saw the decline of those theaters, and by the early ’70s, they were all gone. 

Dover: What was the main cause of the decline? The introduction of television or the increase in cars?

Epstein: First there was the TV. Later we had home video, followed by DVD. Now we have Netflix. All of these things have impacted theaters, but people still go to the movies. There’s always a reason to leave the house. 

The real reason why the downtown theaters declined in the ’60s was the car. People were not living near downtown anymore. They were living in the Park Cities or Lakewood or other parts of East Dallas, so that is where the theaters were built. In the early 1970s, two-plexes and four-plexes were built in other parts of Dallas. If you lived near NorthPark Center in 1971, you probably went to a theater at NorthPark, not downtown. The sprawl of the city was a huge factor, and you saw that throughout Dallas.

Dover: You can see that the movie theater started to become the beacon for small suburbs, like Lakewood and Oak Cliff.

Epstein: It’s mixed. Some were movie palaces built in the ’30s and ’40s in neighborhoods. But in the ’60s and the ’70s expansive development went farther north. At NorthPark, they built a famous two-plex: Northpark West I and II. It was a prominent theater, and it was not very far away. However, in relation to downtown, it felt like you were going to Frisco at the time. 

In Oak Cliff, where the Texas Theatre is, most of the theaters were single screen and built from the early ’30s to the early ’40s. Oak Cliff didn’t have multiplexes until the Wynnewood Theatre in 1951.

Around the early 1960s, that was happening farther out from downtown and consisted of adding more than one room in the building. But in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, people are still in the core. People are still going downtown. People are still going to places like Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, which was basically the downtown of Oak Cliff, to see movies. Jefferson Boulevard was basically the NorthPark Center of Dallas in the ’40s. There were lots of shops here and higher-end shops. And this is where you went to Sears, then go to dinner and then go see a movie. 

Dover: Tell us more about you. Have you always been in this industry?

I work within various channels of the film industry. That’s what I’ve always done: movie exhibition, movie production, and video and film production. I have had to study the history of theaters over time. 

Besides running the Texas Theatre, my partners and I are also involved in a restoration of the fine arts theater in Denton, and I have also been assisting the programming for the Majestic Theatre since 2015. We recently completed a 100-year anniversary documentary about the Majestic for KERA. 

Dover: What kind of future do we see for theaters? 

Epstein: At the Texas Theatre, we are in the middle of a renovation. We are adding capacity, we are adding another screen, but we’re also trying to keep the history of that one-screen theater feel. Filmgoers will be able to sit in the original balcony and watch a movie on the downstairs screen even after the upstairs addition. A lot of our work is upgrading technology. We are re-installing equipment for high-definition surround sound. We will also have RGB laser projection, which is basically the highest quality of digital cinema projection. We’re also focused on 35 mm projection so that we can still show movies on film. 

We believe we can compete in presentations with any new multiplex, but within a building where you feel something emotional when you are inside versus going into a chain film house to, say, Theater 17.

“You should feel something different when you go into a historic theater, but you shouldn’t have to settle for low quality projection.”

Dover: How about the trend of adding a lounge or a bar to a theater? 

Epstein: It is definitely a nationwide trend. It’s in the mainstream theaters, beginning with Alamo Drafthouse and City Movies serving hamburgers and beer. For historic venues, many needed to add beer and wine or even liquor. We decided to have a full-service bar that you would want to go to regardless of the movie. We are actually adding a second bar upstairs in the mezzanine, so we’ll have two bars at the Texas Theatre. 

The Inwood Theatre split its lobby to include a bar forever ago, and it is a great bar. We actually went to the Inwood Lounge for inspiration when we were designing our first bar. 

Dover: What other things are the Texas Theatre, as well as other theaters, doing to futureproof yourselves from obsolescence?

Epstein: We are in the business of people wanting to leave the house. If you were to tell us that the movie industry is over, well, we have podcast performers, we have funk bands, we have other touring shows. People still are going to leave the house. I do not think all these industries are ending as much as you read about the death of entertainment. People want to go to movies. People want to go to live music. People want to go to live cultural events. They always will. 

You may have the makings of a fine dinner in the fridge, but you still go to that favorite restaurant. Sometimes you want to leave the house. It is expensive to go to the opera or to go see a concert.

But a movie ticket is still inexpensive.

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