The Texas Theatre
By Dana Goolsby
PALESTINE- The Historic Texas Theatre, known locally as the “Crown Jewel of Downtown Palestine,” is one of the oldest and most beautiful theatres in East Texas. Although the theatre has been on a rise and fall roller coaster since it opened 95 years ago as “The Best Theater,” the Texas is on its way back to full restoration. For nearly a century the theatre has opened and closed its doors for various tragic reasons, but today The Texas Theatre stands proudly in historic downtown with open doors, ready to amaze crowds that gather from all across the state.
The magnificence of the Texas has been restored over time through the help of locals who share a love for theatre as well as the city of Palestine. While the memories of tragedy are fading, they will not be forgotten.
Palestine has a long, romantic and deeply rooted history with theatre arts. The Best Theatre is believed to have been constructed in 1917 for the purpose of Vaudeville performances, before becoming a movie theatre in 1930. There is limited information regarding The Best Theater, which once stood where The Texas Theatre stands today. The Texas Theatre has since been returned to its original intended purpose of live entertainment and today area actors and actresses of all ages perform on the historic stage.
Harold B. Robb and E. H. Rowley built a theater empire that spanned across three states. R. & R. Corporation, also known as Robb and Rowley Theaters, were headquartered in Dallas, Texas where they had opened a chain of Texas Theaters. By the 1950’s, Robb and Rowley owned and operated over 150 theaters and drive-ins, in 34 towns in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Robb and Rowley Theatres have been making headlines for almost a century. On November 22, 1963, Dallas police officers descended on the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff in search of a man who had entered without paying. That man was the lone assassin of President John F. Kennedy – Lee Harvey Oswald.
Last year, The Pines theatre in Lufkin, also a Robb and Rowley theatre, made headlines during the restoration of the theatre. During the interior demolition phase crews made interesting architectural discoveries. A hidden staircase was discovered, as well as the original brick arch ways which were hidden behind asbestos and plaster. The city of Lufkin continues to work toward restoring the Pines Theatre.
Robb and Rowley hired renowned Texas architect W. Scott Dunne to design many of their Texas Theaters. The men spared no expense as they built the most expensive theatre in the Lone Star State, in Palestine. The Texas Theater was the most expensive theater built in Texas at the time of its completion.
Theo S. Maffitt, an architect from Palestine, was in charge of local plans for the theatre in the absence of Dunne during construction. Two major contracts were also let to local businesses. Wm. Kraus and Sons was awarded the general contract, and A.M. Burns was awarded the electrical contract. Two Dallas contractors were awarded contracts on the project as well.
According to an article written in The Palestine Daily Herald on October 30, 1930, the finishing touches were being added to the theater in preparation for the gala opening the following day. Contractors and their crews had been working “night and day” according to the article, to ensure everything was in order for the grand opening of the new $150,000 R. and R. Corporation (Robb and Rowley Theaters), the Texas Theater.
Dunne was in Palestine overseeing the final details in connection with the completion of the theater. He announced that officials from R. and R. Corporation headquarters, along with managers of over 20 Robb and Rowley Theaters in different Texas cities would be traveling to Palestine for the grand opening of the “greatest Texas Theater.” In all, Dunne said there would be some 150 visitors arriving into Palestine, according to the article.
“I don’t know of a theater in Texas in a town of as many as 75,000 people that is more modern than The Texas,” Dunne told the Palestine Daily Herald of the city’s new jewel.
The article went on to paint a picture of the magnificent Texas Theatre, located at 213 W. Crawford Street in Palestine. The Texas, styled in Italian design, opened to East Texas as one of the most modern theaters in this part of the country, and had a seating capacity of approximately 1,200.
Those arriving in East Texas the following day were set for a pleasant surprise. Texas Theater manager J. F. Jones and his staff of assistants had worked tirelessly in preparation to accommodate theatre patrons. Jones worked for Robb and Rowley Theaters for over 20 years, after a brief career as an educator.
According to the article, the Texas Theater expected to receive guests from all over East Texas for the gala opening. Nancy Carroll, one of the screen’s leading ladies at that time, was scheduled to appear in “Laughter” as the feature attraction on opening night.
News paper articles and salvaged old photographs paint a clear picture of the theatre’s grandeur when it originally opened. Patrons were welcomed into the large entrance lobby, which is said to have been rich with blended colors. After passing through the lobby entrance, patrons entered the grand foyer of the theatre, before entering the main auditorium. Large bathrooms, along with smoking and lounging rooms were also located on the main floor. Two terraced stairways in the foyer led to the balcony of The Texas. The mezzanine floor was comprised of theatre offices, switchboard rooms, and the projected balcony.
Dunne designed The Texas auditorium as an Italian garden with balustrade walls and garden pagodas, flanking a proscenium arch. The proscenium arch was adorned with lush, green velour drapes, trimmed with silver fringe. A writer for the Palestine Daily Herald described the drapes as “highly jeweled” in 1931.
The dome-shaped ceiling in The Texas was originally of sky effect. Early day patrons of the theatre could look up to see twinkling stars and clouds passing over The Texas’ dome. Today a sharp eye can still spot the stars that once twinkled as the house lights were brought down, according to theatre board member and actor Michael Cook.
“The ceiling was originally blue and faded down into a deep rust color to imitate a dusky sunset,” said Cook.
The side walls of the auditorium were enhanced with paintings of trees and flowers. Although patrons were inside The Texas, they must have felt as if they were being entertained under the Texas sky, where the stars at night are big and bright.
At the time of The Texas’ grand opening, the projection room was one of the largest in the state. The Texas was equipped with the latest projection and sound technology. The theatre was also designed with special acoustical plaster, which allowed for perfect reproduction of sound.
The Texas also boasted of the latest in heating, venting, and cooling equipment for patrons to enjoy as they took their places upon overstuffed air cushions, covered with a velour finish. Air conditioning was a rare commodity in those days.
“When someone wanted to impress you they took you to the Texas Theater in Palestine. It was elaborate and luxurious,” said board member and actress Amelia Cook.
While the chain of Texas Theaters all shared the same name and certain features, each “Texas” sign was uniquely designed for each theater. Texas Theater signs pulsated with neon and packed in crowds throughout the state. Today, the Texas Theatre in Palestine is the last original “Texas” sign in working order.
Less than two months after the grand opening of the Texas, an early morning fire practically destroyed Palestine’s new theatre. According to the December 8, 1930 issue of the Palestine Daily Herald, the theatre was destroyed to at least 75 percent of its entirety.
John Hoye was employed as a janitor at The Texas at the time of the fire. Hoye told a reporter from the local paper he had arrived at the theatre at approximately 4 a.m. in order to clean. Hoye said he turned the automatic gas heater on at approximately 5:45 a.m. and proceeded with his work. After mopping the lobby, Hoye returned to the foyer where he discovered a fire under the east stairway, that was later attributed to a problem with a heating plant.
At first the blaze was perceived to be minor and was expected to be brought under control with ease. Hoye attempted to put out the blaze with a supply of chemicals to no avail. Hoye then said he went to the fire station to retrieve firemen and more chemical to distinguish the blaze.
The slowly growing flames had already made their way upward in the front of the building and made considerable headway by the time Hoye returned with firemen. The firemen exhausted their supply of chemicals, but failed to extinguish the flames. Water hoses from two nearby hydrants were also utilized in an effort to snuff out the flames.
After two hours of fierce burning the flames had ravaged the balcony and broken through the heavily tarred roof above the projection room. Offices and the projection room were engulfed with flames. Thousands of dollars in vitatone and movietone machinery were lost. Firemen were forced to apply water in streams over the front of the building, allowing the water to drop over on to the flames.
According to The Palestine Daily Herald, after the flames broke through the roof, theater manager J. F. Jones climbed upon the front awning, and then crawled into the theatre through a window on the balcony floor, where the safe was located. Jones opened the safe and collected a large amount of money and important papers, and then grabbed a typewriter. Jones hauled the rescued items to safety. As the flames roared inside The Texas and exploded from the building, terrified onlookers screamed as Jones scampered down to safety.
Firemen climbed to the top of the Denby Furniture Company building, then located on the east side of the theater where Denby’s An American Grill is located today, and streamed water on to the theater. The fire was raging out of control between the roof of the theater and the magnificent starry sky ceiling, and could not be reached by the water.
A few hundred local residents stood on the street and witnessed The Texas go up in flames, and become nearly a total loss.
Jones told The Palestine Daily Herald he did not know how much insurance Robb and Rowley Theaters carried on the equipment, but believed it to be largely covered. Jones also said he anticipated officials from the corporation’s headquarters in Dallas to take action.
Roughly four months later, The Texas was resurrected. April 10, 1931, just months after the Robb and Rowley Theater had been ravaged by flames, the doors were reopened to East Texans. Crowds swarmed The Texas Theater for the opening of “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath,” featuring Buster Keaton.
The Palestine Daily Herald recorded the second opening of The Texas and noted impressed patrons who had arrived early to marvel the beauty of the recently rebuilt structure.
Sadly, the Texas caught fire again nearly a decade later. June 8, 1940, problems with the air conditioning unit gave way to fire. Luckily, the fire of 1940 was nowhere near the magnitude of the fire that had left the theatre in ruins ten years earlier.
Many of the Texas Theatres met their demise in flames, others embraced wrecking balls, and others fell into shambles but were spared by communities looking to hang on to history.
Over time, Robb and Rowley relinquished ownership of The Texas Theater in Palestine, and a local family by the name of Schulman took over. The Schulmans managed the Texas as a movie theatre until the 1970s, at which point they opened at another location. According to locals, all of the seats in The Texas were removed so the facility could not be used as a theater in the future.
Years passed by and the Texas sat vacant and forgotten until a local theatre group began utilizing the theatre for live entertainment. Palestine native Kenny Adams directed “The Sound of Music” during the summer of 1980, which played to sold out audiences.
In 1983, someone took a leap of faith and purchased the Texas Theater. Sandy Hanson, who’s first performance at the Texas was in the “Sound of Music,” purchased the theater after being approached by Kenny Adams. She had only moved to Palestine the year before, but knew that something like community theatre in Palestine could be a very good thing.
Hanson said kept hearing, “There is nothing for the kids to do in Palestine,” and thought perhaps the theatre could help fill that gap. She had three children that were all in elementary school and thought they might enjoy theatre as much as she did.
Hanson joined forces and finances with a small group of five other local residents to salvage the theatre. Other investors include Jim Boone, Patsy Green, Peggy Kenner, Bob Jamison, and Jesse Ramsey. The six partners, known as the Texas Joint Venture, took a risk and purchased the theatre. In 1983, Hanson formed the 501 C3 non-profit corporation called The Dogwood Players, which was later renamed to the current Palestine Community Theatre, Inc. In 1990, the Palestine Community Theatre, Inc. purchased the Texas Theatre from the Texas Joint Venture. This change also marked the change in the spelling of “theater” to “theatre.”
After making renovations, the theatre opened its doors and Hanson directed the first show, “The Music Machine.”
“Magic happened that summer of 1983 and the group never looked back,” Hanson said.
Hanson is still actively involved with the Texas to this day as a board member and director.
Community plays were produced in the Texas until 1997, when the group was forced to shut the doors again, due to unsafe conditions.
According to Cook, The Texas Theatre has not only suffered fire damage over the years, but flood damage as well. Cook recalled one instance in which the theatre was severely flooded. She said those who were attempting to make repairs and salvage items were forced to wade through knee-deep water in the auditorium.
Thus began a lengthy rebuilding process for The Texas Theatre. Members of the Palestine Community Theatre pulled together and poured their hearts and souls into refurbishing The Texas Theatre. The process was as discouraging as it was long for theatre members.
Contributions from generous local residents trickled in slowly, and the group hosted cleanup days in an effort to involve the community. On one particular occasion, the Cook family was cleaning alone at the theatre. Mayor George Foss made an unexpected visit to the theatre to take a look at the progress being made. Foss recommended the theatre use a program that implemented the assistance of prisoners from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
According to the Cooks, the theatre was on a tight budget, with approximately $20,000 to spend and TDCJ was searching for a project that would showcase their work capabilities. The Cooks were asked to compile a “wish list” regarding their vision for the theatre and just days later the warden was visiting the theatre to view TDCJ’s future project.
The Palestine Community Theatre bought all of the supplies to repair and refurbish the theatre, and agreed to feed the inmates two meals a day, Monday through Thursday, until the project was complete.
“We made fresh coffee and brought fresh fruit and a variety of donuts for breakfast. People from the community helped feed the inmates home cooked buffet-style meals, and helped supply drinks. There were about 20 inmates, but we prepared enough to feed about 50 or 60,” said Cook.
The Dogwood Trails celebration and Opening Night at the Texas were a week away when the city informed the Cooks the inmates were needed for city cleanup, in preparation for festivities. The Cooks knew that without the help of the inmates the theatre would not be ready for opening night.
“Two inmates went to the guard, who was a retired contractor and told him which workers were the most skilled and could finish the theatre,” said Cook, moved by the inmates gesture and desire to see the theatre finished.
The group of inmates were split into two groups. One group cleaned around the city and the other stayed at the theatre to ensure that everything would be ready for opening night.
“They were literally running everywhere in the theatre trying to hurry,” said Cook.
Nearly eight years after closing its doors the Texas Theatre reopened to the public during the Dogwood Trails Celebration of 2005. The community had restored the once majestic theatre to a new state of grandeur.
After nearly a century of tragedy and neglect, and a host of closings and re-openings, the Texas Theatre in Palestine is getting ready to undergo the final renovation project. The theatre has received a façade improvement matching grant from Palestine Economic Development Corporation.
The theatre has a design plan that has been approved and endorsed by the Texas State Historical Commission as well as the Anderson County Historical Commission. Elements of the design will feature rod iron work, with dogwoods accents which tie into the City of Palestine. The design plans are intended to make the exterior of the Texas as magnificent as the inside of the building.
“This will really complete the entire renovation of the Texas. It’s the icing on the top,” said Cook.
“Sugar,” a musical comedy based on the screenplay “Some Like It Hot” opens at the Texas on March 23 with a wine and cheese reception at 6:30 p.m. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Other show dates include March 25, 25, 30, 31, and April 1, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
The board hopes to begin the final renovation project as soon as “Sugar” is over. Between the Dogwood Trails show “Sugar” and the summer production is the longest gap in between shows. The final renovation is projected to be complete in time for the summer show.
“It is imperative that we start now in order not to interfere with productions and to complete the project, have it inspected, and finalize paperwork before the grant expires later this year,” said Cook.
The Texas Theatre is calling on the community one more time to help fully restore a gem in East Texas’ history and complete the final renovation project. 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. The Texas is almost 100 years old and a place locals and East Texans can be proud of as part of the area’s heritage and history. The history of the Texas is a come-back story of perseverance and victory.
The entire façade project is estimated to cost $22,000. The theatre must pay the full amount, of which it will be reimbursed approximately $10,000 by Palestine Economic Development Corporation.
Anyone interested in receiving more information about the final renovation project at the Texas Theatre or about how to make a donation is encouraged to contact Michael and Amelia Cook at (903)723-9595 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information regarding upcoming shows at the Texas Theatre in Palestine log on to www.thetexastheater.com, or “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter at Texas_Theatre to receive regular updates about events and happenings at the Texas.
Dana Goolsby can be reached for comment via email at email@example.com