Denton Fine Arts Theater Project -- Local Family to Revitalize Theater on Square
"It's always been my dad's dream to do something with the theater," Katy McBride Reynolds says of her father, Glen McBride, part owner of Denton Fine Arts Theater. "I mean, obviously, he's held onto it for this long. We've had offers from companies, individuals over the years that want to come in and buy it and do what they want, but he's held on to it 'cause it's his dream. So I'm just trying to be the facilitator for his dream. He has an old-fashioned picture in his head of what a movie theater is."
Photo by Jane R. LeBlanc The Fine Arts Theater today
For 79 years, generations of Dentonites driving down North Elm Street on the town Square have been greeted by the giant red, white and blue Fine Arts Theater marquee, a staple of downtown. Since 1935, the space has been a theater (before then, it was home to two different furniture and undertaker businesses). Originally named the Texas Theater (its name would change to the Fine Arts Theater in 1957), it was part of the Denton Square's theater row, which featured five theaters around the courthouse. But by 1981, the theater was forced to close. It reopened as a dollar theater in April 1982, but the balcony caught fire only five months later. That's when the McBride family entered the picture, with Weldon McBride and his son and daughter-in-law Glen and Ellen McBride buying the battered building the following year. It was the first time the theater was family-owned.
But after the purchase, reality set in. Weldon eventually sold his share to his daughter, Keitha McBride, and the family realized that opening the building as a theater wasn't a financially viable option at the time. Katy, Glen and Ellen's daughter and project manager of the Denton Fine Arts Theater Project, remembers what it was like back in the '80s for small-town theaters. "There was this drastic switch from small movie theaters to these mega-plex movie theaters," Katy says. "That was in style. You could go to the mall in the early '80s and catch a movie. So it really hurt the downtown square."
Jane R. LeBlanc Katy McBride Reynolds hangs out by the Fine Arts Theater ticket counter.
So for the last 31 years, instead of the latest flick spelled out in bright red and all caps, residents have seen church names, worship times and Bible verses. The McBrides decided to rent the space to local churches, something many locals didn't agree with. "We've caught some heat about not being a movie theater," Katy says. "But it wasn't viable as a movie theater, obviously, in the '80s and '90s. So we started renting it out to churches. 'Cause there's not a lot you can do with this kind of space." But last month when the most recent tenant, Calvary Chapel, found a permanent spot and ended its lease, the family knew it was time for a change.
"There's been this revitalization of people wanting to go to small, indie movies," Katy says. "I think our generation is really enjoying and has a special interest in history and older things. Things that have historical value. 'Cause things that are made now are just ... it sounds so cliché, but things that are made now are made cheaply. It's a different time frame for us that none of us experienced. What happened in the '30s ... it's almost foreign to our generation. So that's why we decided that now was the time."
Katy is spearheading the project to bring the theater back to its golden days, when it was a beacon of fine film for Dentonites. For the family, who has been an active part of Denton County's business, political and academic community for six generations (Glen owns Glen's Pawn Shop & Music Store on University Drive and his cousins own McBride Music & Pawn on the square), the purchase was one of nostalgia and hope that they might bring the theater back to life.
The theater evokes cherished memories for people who remember what it once was. Designed in 1930s art deco, with giant whimsical murals painted on the walls and an old-fashioned stage sitting below the screen, the 700-seat, 124-year-old theater almost looks like a movie set. Glen remembers seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there as a child in the late '60s, and Ellen saw The Jungle Book there around the same time. It was a magical time for the Denton Square. "I think what's been the coolest aspect of this whole project so far is all the people who want to talk about what happened there," Katy says. "They worked there, they worked the projector, they worked the concession stand, they sold tickets ... what they saw there. I've had people tell me they got married there. It's insane." In her down time from her studies at Texas Woman's University, Katy set up a Facebook page and started advertising around Denton. The McBrides want Denton's current generation to experience the theater like generations past. To do that, though, the theater needs extensive renovations. Some repairs may take up to three years.
Photo courtesy of the UNT History Portal The Fine Arts Theater in 1970
"It's a long-term project for sure," Katy says. "But if you go at it real fast and don't think it out, it could potentially not do well. So we really want to make sure all the repairs ... we're not going at 'em cheap. I mean, this is an old building. You can't bid out to the lowest contractor, you know. You have to find somebody who knows what they're doing when it comes to this building."
Photo courtesy of the Denton County Courthouse on the Square Museum Inside the Fine Arts Theater
To pay for such an extensive upgrade, the McBrides are counting on the Denton community coming together in support of the arts. They are hoping that part of the costs can be covered through a Kickstarter campaign. "I totally think Denton can support that," Katy says. "I've had lots of offers already for volunteer work. I'm not the type of person who likes to accept things for free, and I don't expect people to come and help and ... I'd like to be able to have some kind of incentive for them. If I can't pay them, you know, I want to make it worth everybody's time and effort." For now, people are encouraged to complete an online survey about their experiences with the theater and their wishes for its future. "I wanna know what Denton thinks," Katy says. "I'm getting a lot of really good feedback, and I think that's the most important aspect of this, is seeing what people want to see it used for. And right now, most people want to see it as a movie theater for most of the time." Katy's talked with the organizers of Thin Line Film Festival and is setting up a time to chat with 35 Denton. And more people are reaching out all the time. She envisions the theater during the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival and imagines festival goers seeking hot cocoa and a warm place to rest inside.
The McBrides see it as not just an indie film hub, but a space that brings the Denton community together. "I hope that the city bears with us as we try to transform into what we can be," Katy says. "We want to leave it open for some events as is, because obviously we don't want it to sit empty. But we're going to make gradual transformations into what we can be. We're gonna show Denton what it was in its golden age. The goal is to eventually be predominantly a movie theater with occasional opportunities for community events, live music, fundraising, all that kind of stuff. Very community oriented."