For almost a century, the Farr Best Theater has been a downtown landmark, serving as the city’s first — and for many years only — movie theater, then as a church, a stage for plays and, most recently, a venue for live music.
Since 1917, when Milton May Farr and his family opened the theater, until today, the Farr Best has been a legacy of the people who loved and cared for the small red-brick building.
Current owner and manager Rhonda Meadows hopes that she will be able to keep the theater as a legacy for her children and a reminder of her husband, who died in December.
“It’s hard for me to be here,” Meadows said. “Not knowing what the future holds for us is scary for me. As my three kids say, ‘The show must go on.’ ”
David Meadows, 52, died of a massive heart attack Dec. 12. The Farr Best was his passion, his family said, and he never missed a chance to tell anybody about it.
But the Meadowses never set out to run a theater. David Meadows was employed by Vought Aircraft for 29 years, while his wife worked as a home day care provider and then property manager for her father, Charles Morales.
Morales bought the theater in September 2004 when Main Street Theater hosted live performances there. Morales agreed to fix up and maintain the 153-seat theater and let the nonprofit group use it rent-free for five years. But the group moved out after three.
“My dad said, ‘I want you to see what you can do,’ ” Rhonda Meadows said. “This theater has a lot of meaning to my dad. My mom and dad had their first date here in the early ’60s.”
But she and her husband didn’t initially know what to do. After learning about the popularity of the Grapevine Opry from friends, they decided to try the same format, hosting local performers on Saturday nights.
“Some shows were really good,” Rhonda Meadows said. “The oldies shows were good and the Christmas shows were always popular. The tribute shows — Patsy Cline and Elvis — did really good. They would give you encouragement. But the crowds just weren’t coming. So David said, ‘We have got to do something else.’ ”
Both continued to work full time at their regular jobs, sometimes working seven days a week to keep the theater going.
“It’s a hobby for us; we don’t make any money on it,” Rhonda Meadows said. “We have met so many people through the theater, so many friends.”
One is Mansfield Planning Director Felix Wong, who suggested that the couple try a concert series featuring well-known acts in occasional performances instead of weekly amateur shows. Tommy Alverson, Buster Brown, Terri Hendrix, Jim Suhler and Jason Elmore, Buddy Whittington and Paula Nelson have performed on the Farr Best stage since the theater switched formats. Josh Weathers sells out the house when he performs, as does Michael Martin Murphey, who recently performed in two shows.
But it is hard for the family to pay for bigger-name acts and keep the cost of the tickets affordable, Meadows said, since there are not a lot of seats. Murphey charged a lot less than his regular fee, thanks to the initiative of Meadows’ then-14-year-old son Matt.
“We saw [Murphey] eating at Joe T. Garcia’s, and Matt took him a brochure and asked him to perform,” Meadows remembered. “He was so impressed with Matt that he doesn’t charge us what he would anyone else.
“Everywhere we would go, David would talk about the theater,” Meadows said. “Now Matt has taken that role.”
Matt is the youngest of the Meadowses’ three sons, and, he said, the one who feels the greatest attachment to the theater.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever since I walked into that place,” said Matt Meadows, now 16 and a junior at Arlington High School. “I know the ins and outs. There’s a really cool spot in the ceiling where you can go up and watch. I’ve done that a couple of times, but that’s kind of sketchy so I don’t do that anymore.”
Matt Meadows liked the opry shows but thinks the bigger acts are the right direction for the Farr Best.
“I see it putting Mansfield on the map with top-notch acts,” he said, even if it means higher ticket prices. “It’s worth it because it’s such an intimate place and you don’t have people spilling beer on you. People don’t go there to drink; they go there for the music.”
The theater is known for its excellent acoustics, but Rhonda Meadows is worried about that, too.
“David ran the sound,” she said. “He did it all, and I did the book work. He did all the behind-the scenes-work.”
After his death, volunteers stepped up to help run the lights and sound, including a new digital sound board. Matt Meadows is also learning those skills.
Rhonda Combs and her family, who have been been building sets for the theater for four years, have also expanded their volunteer roles, answering phones, working lights and sound and doing anything else the theater needs. Without the volunteers and sponsors who ensure that the shows pay for themselves, Meadows said she doesn’t know what she would do.
Combs worries that it could be too hard for Meadows to run on her own.
“I think if David was still alive, I think we would definitely still be there” for the long term, she said. “That’s how he got her to be there, because he loved it so much. I think she knows how much Matt loves it. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty involved to keep it going.”
Matt Meadows already has plans for the theater’s 100th anniversary, and he’s setting his sights high: Robert Earl Keen.
He likes being at the theater for the same reason that it’s so difficult for his mom, because he remembers his dad being there.
“No matter what, it was all good memories at the theater,” Matt Meadows said.