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Dallas History

Reclaiming the Forest Theater

After years of decline, can the theater return to its place as the hub of South Dallas culture?
By Peter Simek |

Sometimes the history of a single building can tell the story of an entire city. The Forest Theater, which has stood at the corner of Harwood Street and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard since 1949, is one of those buildings. The theater’s first incarnation opened a few blocks west in 1930. It was the entertainment centerpiece of a stable, upper-middle-class—and primarily Jewish—community. It hosted the first-ever screening of an all-Yiddish film in 1938, and when it moved to a new and much larger home in 1949, 5,000 people attended a raucous grand opening that featured a block party and square dance headlined by the Big D Jamboree band and organist Norma Ballard. A double showing of the baseball comedy It Happens Every Spring, starring Ray Milland, drew attendees into a luxurious movie palace adorned with murals of exotic birds and flowers by local artist Eugene Gilboe, balcony seating, and plush push-back seats. Tickets were 50 cents.

Over the next decade and a half, however, South Dallas would transform dramatically, the result of federal highway policies that rammed new roads through its core and housing segregation policies that rapidly shifted the community’s demographics, sparking racial tensions that, for a time, turned the neighborhood into a war zone. In 1956, the Forest was designated as a “negro” theater, and within a couple of years, it had reduced its showings to just three days a week. In 1965, Dallas saw $4 million invested in the construction of new theaters—on Marsh Lane in Northwest Dallas, at the new NorthPark mall, and in Garland, Richardson, and Mesquite. But in the same year, the Forest Theater, which now overlooked a highway trench and was surrounded by vacant lots and crumbling homes, shut its doors.

It didn’t stay closed. The Interstate Theatre Circuit, which ran many of Dallas’ movie houses, including the Inwood Theatre, may have given up hope on the Forest Theater, but South Dallas residents embraced it. Throughout the latter half of the century, the strip center housed the Green Parrot jazz club and a recording studio, and the theater hosted live performances by B.B. King, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, Redd Foxx, and Prince. In 1970, it was the setting of the legendary South Dallas Pop Festival. By the 1990s, though, it was scarcely used. Even after R&B star and South Dallas native Erykah Badu reached out to the family that owned the Forest Theater and rented it with hopes of reviving its role in the community, the theater sat vacant for the better part of eight years.

There were rumors of a rebirth. In 2015, with the building up for sale, plans for a refurbished music venue in the vein of Oak Cliff’s Kessler Theater were floated in the local press. But the theater wouldn’t sell until May 2017, when the most unlikely of potential owners, a North Dallas couple named Linda and Jon Halbert, saw the for-sale sign as they zoomed past on S.M. Wright Freeway one Saturday morning, en route to their vacation house on Cedar Creek Reservoir.

Jon is a semi-retired healthcare executive from Abilene who married his high school sweetheart, Linda, and moved to North Texas, where they raised their three children, first in Richardson and then in Preston Hollow. After hearing Larry James preach at the Richardson East Church of Christ about his anti-poverty nonprofit CitySquare, they became early philanthropic supporters of the organization. A few years ago, they traveled with James and CitySquare president Dr. John Siburt to New Orleans to visit the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a hub for performance, education, and community involvement started after Hurricane Katrina by jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis and musician Harry Connick Jr.

The mission of the Marsalis Center resonated with the Halberts, whose dyslexic son struggled in school until discovering a passion for the arts. They wondered what would have happened to their son had they not had the means to nurture his latent artistic talent. The couple decided they wanted to start a similar institution in Dallas, and when Linda saw the Forest Theater, she had a stroke of inspiration. They had to buy it.

“That’s crazy. We have to have a business plan,” Jon said. “We’ve never bought a building in our lives.”

“I bet if we buy the building, we’d get a business plan,” Linda countered.

The Halberts didn’t know much about the history of the theater. When the real estate agent led them through the crumbling building, they saw faded murals and ornate accents that spoke to some forgotten former glory. They didn’t have long to make an offer, so they got with James, Siburt, and CitySquare’s lawyer, who just so happened to have worked with a previous potential buyer and had due diligence on the Forest Theater already gathered. Then they had one week to close on the theater after the existing contract expired.

“It would have taken weeks if not months of due diligence to make an intelligent purchase,” Linda says. “But we were able to cut through all of it and not walk out on a limb. We knew what we were getting into.”

What the Halberts were getting into was one of the most high-profile symbols of South Dallas’ long economic decline, a building that embodied the institutional obstacles to revitalizing the area while also being the neighborhood’s great hope for that revitalization.

“The biggest threat to the ongoing viability of that theater is a one-word answer: poverty,” James says. “It reflects what has happened in South Dallas and Fair Park in 40 years, a history of disinvestment. The theater reflected that economic reality. People who did better, they fled Dallas, and the population has declined and poverty has intensified.”

To turn that history around, the Halberts and CitySquare have adopted a different approach. Rather than simply taking the Marsalis Center as a model for transforming the Forest, they have instead embarked on a long process of community engagement to gather input about what is needed and what is lacking before crafting a final vision.

To lead the effort, CitySquare tapped Elizabeth Wattley, who, before joining CitySquare, worked with Paul Quinn College on another out-of-the-box project, turning the college’s football field into an urban farm.

So far, Wattley’s meetings have focused on winnowing down a long laundry list of needs and wants, as well as exploring what kinds of programs, services, and venues already exist in the neighborhood. She placed a large chalkboard across the front doors of the theater and invited neighbors to write what they wanted to see happen with the building. Ideas ranged from a safe music venue to a supper club to artist housing to a place where kids could learn how to bake. In early August, many of the replies were erased by one anonymous commenter who simply scribbled “Apollo Theater” all over the board.

“The best part of buying a building first and not having a 100 percent plan set together is we kind of get to start from scratch,” Wattley says. “I think what was exciting was the possibility of having a facility that could answer a lot of needs at one time for the community.”

What shape the Forest Theater will eventually take remains to be seen. As of this writing, Wattley says she is preparing to return to CitySquare’s leadership and the community with a pared-down list of potential programs, including a flexible space for film screenings and dance and theater performances, as well as plans for a recording studio, and film, music, dance, and art educational classes in the theater’s adjacent storefronts. CitySquare hopes to begin renovation and restoration of the building by the end of the year and have it open in time for the theater’s 70th anniversary, in 2019.

If CitySquare can raise the money and build the necessary partnerships to realize the full vision of a reborn Forest Theater, then the theater’s reopening will offer more reason to celebrate than the original grand opening fanfare that drew 5,000 in 1949. It will be an event about more than just rejoicing over renewed hope in the theater’s future. It will represent a reclamation and a restitution of the past.

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