Majestic Theatre gets renewed life as Dallas reviews arts needs

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Majestic Theatre gets renewed life as Dallas reviews arts needs

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by tommyj

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The Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas has seen its share of ebbs and flows.

Built in 1921, it once stood among a row of theaters on Elm Street. High-rises and parking garages now dominate the landscape. Only the Majestic has survived.

After the theater’s renovation by the city in the 1980s, the city’s performing arts community made the Majestic its home. But others left for newer quarters with the advent of the Dallas Arts District.

Now, Dallas’ oldest city-owned performance hall is beginning its third life with a recent boom of outside entertainment acts like comedian Louis C.K. and Korean rock stars. It’ll get a big moment in the national spotlight when Conan O’Brien brings his TV show to the theater in the week leading up to the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

In need of a facelift

Like any older building, the Majestic could use some work. The theater, among the first structures to gain Dallas landmark status, recently had its roof redone and needs other fixes, including a facelift of the facade.

“It’s not going to fall or anything, but it does need to be restored,” said Maria Muñoz-Blanco, director of the city’s office of cultural affairs.

The work could cost an estimated $5 million, according to an assessment of cultural facilities presented to a Dallas City Council committee last month that totals more than $186 million.

“It’s extremely important that we come up with a good plan to protect these buildings for the future,” said Veletta Lill, former Dallas City Council member and former director of the Dallas Arts District. “We cannot be a poor steward for our artistic resources.”

The Majestic was originally owned by Karl Hoblitzelle’s Interstate Amusement Company, which operated theaters across the South, including other Majestic Theatres in San Antonio, Fort Worth and Waco.

Like other creations of architect John Eberson — who also designed Lakewood Theater — the Dallas Majestic has an atmospheric-theater style that’s modeled after European concert halls, said Mark Doty, the city’s historical preservation officer. The acoustics ring true, he said, and it reflects an era appreciative of ornateness.

“You just really have this feeling of being taken back to an earlier time period when movie theaters weren’t as generic on the interior,” Doty said.

The Majestic’s first incarnation came as a vaudeville theater. During the Great Depression, it became a movie house. Stars like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck visited for film premieres, and other theaters lined the north side of Elm Street, Doty said.

But with the construction boom of the 1970s and ’80s, office buildings replaced the other theaters, Doty said.

“You could have used those as the venues for the arts district,” he said. “But, unfortunately, we didn’t save those.”

The Majestic closed in 1973. What saved it, Doty said, was the Hoblitzelle Foundation’s donation of the building to the city of Dallas in 1976.

It was a contentious issue at the time, Lill said. Some opposed accepting the gift because of costs associated with renovating and running it.

“Because it was one of a kind, it was important to preserve and save the building,” Lill said.

A new start

The building reopened in 1983 and was used by acts like Texas Ballet Theater and Dallas Summer Musicals, Muñoz-Blanco said. The construction of the Arts District set off a reshuffling in the community, she said. For instance, the opera moved to Winspear Opera House, which created an opening at Music Hall at Fair Park for Dallas Summer Musicals.

The Majestic had fallen off people’s radars, said the venue’s general manager, Mike Schwedler. He was put in charge of booking acts at the theater in May, and he said he’s made it a mission to reanimate the building.

Schwedler said he’s made progress, with acts starting to fill the calendar and a greater emphasis on music. But none will get the Majestic more attention than the famed coiffed comedian visiting March 31 through April 3, he said.

“Conan’s presence here is helping in that regard in ways that we could have never achieved without him,” Schwedler said.

Muñoz-Blanco said acts can book at the theater with less notice than at venues in the Arts District, and she sees a wide variety of enteratinment possibilities in the future. But the building’s past is catching up to it.

“Just like humans — we age and we need more care,” Muñoz-Blanco said.

The city has tried in recent months to take full stock of what arts facilities need, said Dallas City Council member and arts committee chair Philip Kingston. His district includes the Arts District and the Majestic.

Kingston said he knew the projected capital needs would be a “bad number,” though he said the estimate may be on the high end. The more than $186 million price tag includes projects like the second phase of the City Performance Hall and an overhaul of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater.

The city could pay for fixes through a 2017 bond, as it did in 2006. Not everything has to be done — or all at once, Kingston said, but the city has a duty to keep up its buildings, including the Majestic.

“As a long-term proposition, yeah, we have to take care of the Majestic. We own it,” he said.

The necessary renovations aren’t dire right now, Muñoz-Blanco said. If a bond package doesn’t come, through, she said she thinks the private sector will lend a hand.

“A lot of generations have come through the doors of the Majestic,” Muñoz-Blanco said.

Park Cities/North Dallas editor Andrew Scoggin can be reached at 214-977-8730. Follow him on Twitter at @AScoggin.

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