Texas Theatre 'crown jewel' of Palestine

Published on Sunday, 2 March 2014 21:38 - Written by BETTY WATERS blw@tylerpaper.com

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PALESTINE — Like the Phoenix, an almost century-old, historic movie theater here that burned twice literally rose from the ashes.

But in its latest revival, it has come back strong from oblivion and a neglected, vacant facility into the home of Palestine Community Theatre, a nonprofit, live performing arts group.

The Texas Theatre, which local residents refer to as the “crown jewel of downtown Palestine,” had its beginning as a lavish Spanish Colonial style movie house. It opened Oct. 31, 1930, on Crawford Street on the site of its predecessor, the Best Theatre, believed to have been built in 1917.

At that time, the Texas Theatre was reputedly the most expensively built movie theater in the state, costing approximately $150,000.

It was part of a chain of more than 150 theatres and drive-ins owned and operated in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas by R&R Corporation, also known as Robb and Rowley Theaters.

The Texas Theatre in Palestine was a grand structure with a large entrance lobby and an auditorium that would sit 1,200 people.

The auditorium, according to a historical account, was designed as an Italian garden with balustrade walls and garden pagodas, flanking a proscenium arch adorned with lush, green velour drapes, trimmed with silver fringe.

Large bathrooms, smoking and lounging rooms also were on the main floor, while two terraced stairways in the foyer led to the balcony.

On the mezzanine were theater offices, switchboard rooms and balcony. A projection room, one of the largest in the state, was on the third floor and was said to have been equipped with the latest projection and sound technology.

The ceiling was blue fading into a deep rust color to imitate a dusky sunset and there was an illusion of twinkling stars while trees and flowers were painted on the theater walls.

Although air conditioning was rare in those days, the Texas Theatre had the latest heating, ventilation and cooling equipment.

The magnificence of the Texas Theatre went up in flames a month and a half after its grand opening. According to reports, 75 percent of the theater was destroyed when fire broke out on Dec. 8, 1930.

“It was an electrical fire in a hot water heater closet,” Dana Goolsby, marketing director for the Texas Theatre, said.

A night janitor discovered and attempted to extinguish the blaze and then ran to the fire department. By the time he and firefighters got back, the theater lay in ruins.

About four months later, the rebuilt Texas Theatre had a second grand opening on April 10, 1931. It operated for about a decade until a second, smaller fire caused by a malfunctioning air condition unit on June 8, 1940.

Once again, the Texas Theater was restored and Robb and Rowley continued to operate it many years until it changed ownership. A local family named the Schulmans took over, managing it as a movie theatre until the 1970s.

At some point, the Schulmans opened at another location and removed the seats from the Texas Theatre, leaving it to sit vacant and abandoned for years.

Eventually a local theatre group began utilizing the theatre and produced “The Sound of Music” during the summer of 1980, Ms. Goolsby said.

In 1983, Sandy Hanson, who had appeared in “The Sound of Music,” purchased the theatre and later a group called the Texas Joint Venture who loved the arts and loved the building purchased it, Ms. Goolsby said.

Partners in the group included Jim Boone, Patsy Green, Peggy Kenner, Bob Jamison and Jesse Ramsey.

Hanson formed the Dogwood Players, which later became Palestine Community Theatre. The latest group, a nonprofit 501c3 corporation, purchased the Texas Theatre from the Texas Joint Venture in 1990.

Palestine Community Theatre produced plays in the theater until 1997, when unsafe conditions forced it to shut down, according to a history of the theater. It states that the theater was once severely flooded.

Since then, volunteers and the community have steadily worked on restoration and refurbishing the theater. Inmates from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were brought in to do much of the work and members of the theatre fed them two meals a day.

Nearly eight years after closing its doors, the history states, the Texas Theatre reopened during the Dogwood Trails Celebration in 2005 with live performances by the Palestine Community Theatre group.

Work on restoration continues. The latest project was restoration of the façade and on the drawing board is a plan to install new doors.

“The citizens of Palestine have been extremely generous throughout the years and worked alongside of the Palestine Community Theatre Group in order to preserve the building,” Ms. Goolsby said. “We have large support here in Palestine for live performing arts.”

Audiences often pack the theater for performances and the community gets behind the theater group and help keep the building up to code, Ms. Goolsby said.

“There have been times when it would probably have been cheaper to find a newer building, but you cannot replace the historic and romantic aspect of this building,” Ms. Goolsby said. “It makes it more unique every time we open the doors.”

The theatre now seats 500 people and typically Palestine Community Theatre produces four shows a year in the theater.

Upcoming shows are “A Ghost of a Chance” March 29 and 30 and April 4 through 6; “Forever Plaid” on May 29 through June 1; and “Shrek the Musical” on July 24 through 27, July 31 and Aug. 1 through 3. Shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday shows are at 2 p.m.