Oswald at the Movies
The Texas Theatre, Lee Harvey’s hideout, makes a comeback.
SIGN OF ITS TIME: Those working to restore the Texas Theatre hope it can blend the two cultures of Jefferson Boulevard and the Bishop Arts District.
photography by Brian Harkin
Brutus and Cassius toppled Caesar, Charlotte Corday stabbed Marat, and Oswald purportedly shot JFK; but only Dallas is infamous for an assassination. Needless to say, Rome and Paris have other events in their long histories. But Dallas? At the moment when JFK slumps forward in the open limousine on Dallas’ Elm Street, the city becomes synonymous with his murder. Later, when Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald in an underground parking lot, Dallas slumps deeper in shame. But even most Dallasites have forgotten the interlude: Oswald getting caught in the Texas Theatre on Oak Cliff’s Jefferson Boulevard.
For some, Oak Cliff will always figure as a criminal hotbed. Bonnie and Clyde met in Oak Cliff, and Oswald lived there at the time of JFK’s assassination. Rumors still circulate about the area’s safety. I remember the day about 10 years ago when I went into the 7-Eleven on the corner of Zang and Colorado to pay for gas. A young blonde on her cell phone was asking the cashier where she was. When she found out she was in Oak Cliff, her cell-mate got an earful of hysterical expletives.
In the past 10 years, that fear has dwindled. Lovers of both the urbane and the grass-roots congregate in Oak Cliff, jockeying for seats in the Bishop Arts District and at the Belmont, and popping into boutiques along Beckley Avenue and taquerias on Davis. But the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard, still the main thoroughfare for North Oak Cliff, remains a problematic emblem of Kennedy’s assassination.
Some stalwart lovers of the theater, conscious of its historic importance and cultural cache, have banded together to restore it. One such caretaker is Monte Anderson, chairman of the Oak Cliff Foundation. Anderson frequented the theater as a kid, but his efforts don’t just stem from personal nostalgia. “The theater’s crucial for all of Dallas,” he says. “Whether we like it or not, the Kennedy-Oswald connection is definitely part of our history, and the Texas Theatre is where some of that history happened.”
Last November, the Oak Cliff Foundation, in association with the Sixth Floor Museum and Dallas Summer Musicals, officially reopened the Texas Theatre with the documentary Oswald’s Ghost
—a sold-out event. This November 22—the 45th anniversary of JFK’s death—the theater will show Oliver Stone’s JFK
, partially filmed at the theater itself. The night of the 22nd, the theater will be a time machine. You’ll be sitting in a place screening its very surroundings as a backdrop for Dallas’ darkest day. But you’ll also be in a spot that’s hot on the trail of Dallas’ cutting-edge arts scene.
On a muggy day in August, Jason Roberts, chair-elect of the Oak Cliff Foundation and founder of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, takes me on a tour of the Texas Theatre. Roberts, an aficionado of new urbanism, gained interest in the theater when he first moved to Oak Cliff in 2000. As a musician (lead singer of the Dallas-based Happy Bullets), he’d always wanted to play in a space like the Texas Theatre. When Art Conspiracy kicked off its first opening there, he rocked away. Now, with his involvement with the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, Roberts is helping the theater become “the centerpiece for a walkable neighborhood, that core for what we need: a state-of-the-art community center.” It’s a way to keep Dallas “authentic” while mirroring the current trend of urban renewal across America.
When Roberts shows me into the theater’s foyer, he explains how, in the aftermath of the assassination, the theater’s owners plastered and whitewashed its walls, as if to cleanse it of its moral stain. The foyer walls, formerly Venetian in style, are now masked by minimalist white stucco, something like an art deco Alamo. The original floor tiles remain: rich, umber colors with the worn patina of a medieval cathedral’s flagstones. The atmosphere of canals and city squares still lingers in the foyer’s airy, open space, as if it’s a piazza leading to the palazzo of the auditorium. Outside, the Texas’ red, white, and blue lights beckon.
Roberts leads me through the theater’s rows (stopping to give an animated recap where Oswald was captured) as he talks of the renovation project. A little more than $3 million has buoyed the theater along to where it can hold functions: 667 seats wait in the auditorium. But more restoration work remains. For $3 million, the foundation can redo the balcony and fit 300 more seats; it can also install a state-of-the-art audio system. For $7 million, restorers can remove the stucco and unveil the underlying structure. In the meantime, the theater is hosting a few notable events. In September, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, which hopes to reintroduce a streetcar system in Oak Cliff, showed Contested Streets
, a documentary on transportation developments in London, Copenhagen, and Bogota in the 1960s. And on October 25, the Theater presents three silent comedy shorts. During the performance, an onstage pianist provides the soundtrack, and an orchestra in the foyer plays between reels. Dashed off with a bit of retro flair, these acts turn a neighborhood locale into a classic venue.
Michael Jenkins, president of the Dallas Summer Musicals, remembers watching the opening of Giant
at the theater. Some 50 years later, he has put his own mettle behind the venue. DSM Management Group, an affiliate of Dallas Summer Musicals but a separate company, has contracted to manage the Texas Theatre. Once the theater is finished and complete, DSM Management will take it over and program it. Jenkins sees the theater becoming an incubator for many arts groups, with bookings for small film festivals, ballet folklorica, art exhibits, and a theater consortium.
Meanwhile, local business is growing alongside the theater’s. Bob Stimson, president of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, sees the Texas Theatre attracting more retailers and restaurants while helping support the Hispanic business owners already there. “The theater is going to help blend the two cultures of Jefferson and Bishop Arts, and give people who don’t live in Oak Cliff an opportunity to get a flavor of what it’s like to be here,” Stimson says. The theater won’t just foster neighborhood intersections, though. Stimson sees it acting as the southern axis for the city’s arts. “The theater does nothing but good things for Dallas,” he says. “While we’ve got the new Center for the Performing Arts going on downtown, we need more spaces than we have, and this will help fill that void.”
Every day the pleasure domes of the Center for the Performing Arts mushroom downtown while the old neighborhoods along the Maple-Routh connection continue to disappear. Cranes stretching from Uptown to Victory Park dot the skyline. And Calatrava’s bridges promise to be the city’s architectural linchpins. But staying grounded while Dallas rises in stature makes for wire-walking even Philippe Petit (the Twin Towers funambulist) would balk at.
The theater’s own troubled history of burial and resurrection cautions against Dallas’ temptation to negate itself and indulge in self-adulation at the same time. Fifty years from now, will City Council members rethink Industrial Boulevards’s vanishing act and abracadabra it back from Riverfront Boulevard?
With these financial and cultural shifts, Oswald’s effect on the city fades. Yet the Texas Theatre, as the middle site between Elm Street and the underground parking garage, still bears his thumbprint. Precarious and unlikely as the theater’s survival has been, its transformation into a homespun arts center, an integral part of daily, communal life, points to a Dallas that’s more than its ritz and glitz. It’s a city that can carry its history whatever the costs.
The stewards of the theater are preserving a local theater, true; but even they are just realizing its potential. While we inch our way out of the Texas Theatre, Jason Roberts tells me a story. Some time back, Roberts was interviewing valets for the theater, and he met a candidate from Kuwait.
“He’s quoting me prices and giving me his spiel, and he sees Lee Harvey’s picture on the wall,” Roberts says. “He says, ‘Why is Lee Harvey’s picture here?’ And I explain, ‘This is where Lee Harvey was captured.’ The Kuwaiti stopped and said, ‘I am so honored to be in this building. Even in the Middle East, JFK is revered, and just knowing that I’m standing in a part of history right now is amazing.’ ”
The little Texas Theatre may not be the Globe, but it captivates the world.
JFK screens November 22, 7 PM, at the Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd. oakclifffoundation.org.