Bud Kennedy

A drama teacher’s dream: Restoring this 1930s Fort Worth movie theater

The great Stockyards movie house of 1930s lore is making a comeback, but slowly.

A new owner hopes to restore the art deco New Isis movie theater. It opened in 1936 but has been closed — dark, dilapidated — for the past 30 years.

First, about that name: The original Isis theater opened on North Main Street in May 1914, the first outside downtown. The 1936 replacement added a new attraction: air conditioning.

A former Saginaw High School drama teacher hopes to reopen it under the name Downtown Cowtown at the Isis as a performing arts auditorium in the middle of new hotels at the gateway to the redeveloping Stockyards.

“Everybody says, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if ... ?’ and we want to do this for Fort Worth,” said Jeffrey S. Smith of Fort Worth, buyer of what is currently an open-air ruin but with enough original detail for restoration.

He said he has consulted on other theater projects and hopes to raise money online and privately to build a 500-seat music and theater performance space.

Restoring a historic theater costs between $5 million and $30 million, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The property itself is valued at $438,170 by the Tarrant Appraisal District.

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Theater seats and curtain remnants show deterioration after being exposed to the elements for decades. Rodger Mallison rmallison@star-telegram.com

In 1936, the New Isis opened with Fort Worth superstar Ginger Rogers on stage to promote her movie “In Person.” Next came two Clark Gable movies, “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Call of the Wild.”

For two generations of north-side children, it was the place to be for the Saturday “picture show.”

The late Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Yale Lary used to collect milk-bottle caps to get in free. Western swing music pioneer Roy Lee Brown led a midday radio show onstage.

In the 1950s, north-side or Diamond Hill-area teenagers would ride the city bus to the Stockyards. Some parents would drop their kids at the 25-cent double features and go to shops or more-liquid attractions nearby.

On the New Isis’ second anniversary in 1938, Twentieth Century Fox Inc. sent the New Isis a huge greeting card displayed by L.A. Wallis, assistant manager, and Reba Long. Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection UT Arlington Special Collections

“In those days, people used movie theaters as their baby sitters,” said former patron and worker Wayne Thompson of Fort Worth.

“On a good Saturday or Sunday with a Disney movie, we’d have 150 to 200 kids and five adults.”

Donna Spencer of Boyd remembered the big performance stage and the velvet curtain across the screen.

“That theater was beautiful and seemed so huge,” she said.

“One of my fondest memories was walking into that theater and seeing Elvis [Presley] full screen. I love that theater and all the memories.”

Western actor Smiley Burnette and movie “Tarzan” Jock Mahoney made promotional appearances at the “Photoplay House of North Fort Worth.” But as the north side declined from its 1950s business and shopping heyday to a seedy 1970s bar district, the theater suffered.

In 1970, the longtime owners, the Tidball family, sold it to the Griffith family, founders of the local Griff’s Burger Bar restaurants.

“We catered to the children and families on the north side, and to the working men in the Stockyards,” Harold Griffith said in a 2002 interview.

“There were a lot of real characters down there along Exchange Avenue, nice people. Then the characters started drifitng away, and so did the movie business.”

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Jeffrey S. Smith stands beneath the New Isis Theater marquee. The theater was built in 1935 and opened the following year. Rodger Mallison rmallison@star-telegram.com

Smith said he wants to rebuild Downtown Cowtown “like in its 1930s heyday” following plans drawn years ago by historical preservation architect Arthur Weinman of Fort Worth.

The lack of parking has slowed restoration attempts at another historic Fort Worth movie house, the Ridglea, but Smith said he has agreements for access to three nearby parking lots.

He’d like to show Western movies during the day and host music or arts performances at night.

Several previous restoration attempts faltered because the buyers “didn’t want to be involved over the long haul,” Smith said.

“People have just looked at it as an investment,” he said.

“We’re very passionate about the project and hope to remain here a long, long time.”

The New Isis has been waiting 30 years.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.