Stephen F. Austin State University

Palestine's Historic Texas Theatre (December 2013)

Palestine's Historic Texas Theatre
By Jeff Campbell

It's a sad thing to drive through a city's downtown and see their historic theatre abandoned. Broken neon and busted light bulbs remind us of what these palaces of entertainment once were. Usually there are a few letters left on the marquee that no longer spell anything. A few of the letters dangle in the wind, just like the theatre, barely hanging on.
Fortunately some of these historic theatres are not just hanging on, they are thriving. All across the region, from the Ridglea Theatre in Fort Worth to the Strand in Shreveport, preservation groups have saved these historic landmarks. These venues have not just been preserved as monuments to the past they are hosting a wide range of live performances. One of the finest examples is the Historic Texas Theatre in Palestine, Texas.

Palestine's Historic Texas Theater opened its doors to patrons in 1930. The Historic Texas Theater was part of the Robb & Rowley "Texas Theater" chain. Probably the most famous Texas Theater is the one in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. The Oak Cliff Texas Theater is where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after assassinating President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Based in Dallas Harold B. Robb and E. H. Rowley would build a conglomerate that owned and operated over 150 theatres and drive-ins. These entertainment venues stretched across Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. According to Historic Texas Theatre Marketing Director Dana Goolsby, "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 Historic Texas Theater was the most expensive theater built in Texas at the time of its completion."

Throughout its history Palestine's Historic Texas Theater would face many troubles and trials. The theatre had not been open for even two months when it suffered its first fire. Only 25% of the theatre was left unscarred by the fire. Thankfully it only took about four months for the "Crown Jewel of Downtown Palestine" to rise from the ashes. In the spring of 1931 the theater would have a second grand opening showcasing the Buster Keaton film, "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath". Unfortunately this would not be the last time the theater went up in flames.

On June 8, 1940 the Historic Texas Theater suffered another fire due to faults in the air conditioning system. This fire was not as severe as the first and once again the "Crown Jewel of Downtown Palestine" would rise like the Phoenix. Eventually Robb & Rowley would hand over ownership of the theater to the local Schulman family. The local family would operate the facility as a movie theater until the 1970's. The Schulman family would move their operations to another location leaving the theater abandoned and neglected.

In 1980 the discarded theater would host a sold out performance of the "Sound of Music". The production was directed by Palestine's Kenny Adams and performed by a local theatrical troupe.

One of the performers in the "Sound of Music" production, Sandy Hanson, purchased the theater in 1983. She was encouraged by Director Kenny Adams and soon others joined the cause of revitalizing the historic theater. As Dana Goolsby tells it, "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."

Local productions would start in 1983 and continue until 1997 when the theatre was closed due to unsafe conditions. Through the years the theatre had not only suffered fire damage but also numerous instances of flooding had damaged the structure. "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", says Dana Goolsby.

After eight long years of hard, dedicated work the "Crown Jewel of Downtown Palestine" opened its doors to theatre goers once again in 2005. The Palestine Community Theatre continues to restore and preserve this magnificent theatre. Recently the group upgraded the facade of the building and future plans include installing new doors on the structure.
Through the years many of the Texas Theaters have been lost due to fires, neglect and urban renewal. With all that Palestine's Historic Texas Theatre has been through it's a wonder the Grand Old Lady is still standing. Let's tip our Stetsons to the Palestine Community Theatre, whose hard work, dedication and love for history and the arts saved the "Crown Jewel of Downtown Palestine"

There's no better time than December to visit the Texas Theatre in Palestine. The Palestine Community Theatre presents a performance of "Christmas Gifts the Musical" on December 13, 14 & 15. The performance times are Friday and Saturday at 7:30p.m. and Sunday at 2p.m. The talented folks at the Palestine Community Theatre present four productions a year, one for every season.

Thanks to Texas Theatre Marketing Director Dana Goolsby for her help with this column.
Pictures compliments of and Dana Goolsby.