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Texas Theatre Expands During COVID-19 Pandemic In Hopes Of Luring More Folks To The Movies

Rows of empty red theatre seats can be seen against a blue wall inside the Texas Theatre's original auditorium. A new auditorium will be built on the theater's second floor. In this photo, you also see a sign that reads "NO SEATING THIS ROW." The sign was put up during one of the few indoor screening the Texas Theatre hosted this fall.
Keren Carrión
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KERA
The Texas Theatre's auditorium has been empty through most of the pandemic, but the theater's owners are betting that hard-to-find-films, live events, and the construction of a second screening room will bring about a more engaging and profitable future.

The nearly 90-year-old Texas Theatre is expanding. A plan to add a new auditorium kicked off this month, and the theater’s owners are preparing for more guests, live events and screenings than ever before.

Since its reopening in 2010, the Texas Theatre has become an essential venue in Dallas for film, music, and community events. Those sorts of gatherings have obviously stopped during the pandemic. But, despite the disruption, the Texas Theatre is expanding.

Construction on a new 160-seat screening room started earlier this month. The new theater space will live in the balcony area above the Texas Theatre's original auditorium — which gained notoriety as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The second-screen project should be completed in about six months.

"The thing that's super exciting to me, is showing somebody a space that they've never seen before," said Jason Reimer, the Texas Theatre's creative director. "I mean, we've always taken people on tours of the Theatre. But the general public will be able to see a new bar, a water fixture that's been hidden since at least the 1980s, and the screen on the balcony will open up what we can do even more."

In the photo, you can see the owners of the Texas Theatre standing in the soon-to-be second screening room.
Keren Carrión | KERA News
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Owners of the Texas Theatre walk through the new upstairs screening room, which is under renovation and is expected to open during the summer of 2021.

According to Barak Epstein, the Theatre’s manager and the CEO of Aviation Cinemas, which owns the Texas Theatre, the $2 million expansion has been in the works for a decade.

"Early on, we knew we wouldn't be done renovating the Texas Theatre for maximum usage until we figured out how to use the balcony for customers, " he said. "It took several years to figure out how we were going to do this, how we were going to get the financing, how we were gonna close for a while to do the work."

But the coronavirus helped to answer one of those questions. The Theatre had to stop hosting in-person film screenings in March, which meant customers couldn't enter the building. "And then we said, ‘OK. Can we figure a way to expedite this plan that had been on the shelf for a minute?’” said Epstein.

Leveraging state tax credits and a partnership with Frost Bank, the pair began working to get the remodel underway as soon as possible.

"I know the money thing is going to be confusing for some folks," said Reimer. "But this really has been a long-term project. And the versatility of the space has longevity. We're betting that once we get through this year, people will want to get together again to be entertained. And the moment that happens, we'll be ready."

A view of the Texas Theatre's soon-to-be second screening room from the first floor.
Keren Carrión | KERA News
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The new screening room will live above the old auditorium. You can see where the second screen will live from the first floor. The Texas Theatre expects the second screening room will hold 160 people.

The historic renovation goes beyond merely adding a second screen. Construction crews will be soundproofing the second theatre. They'll be adding a new bar to the second floor. And they will be remaking the original historic balcony stairwell, which hasn’t been used by the public in 40 years. A new elevator will be added too, so that disabled individuals will be able to get to the second floor with ease.

"Obviously, is it risky to do a massive expansion in an entertainment/movie venue in the middle of a pandemic? 100 percent," Epstein said. "But we’re looking at 2021, 2022, 2045. Right?”

Epstein says he imagines a day when live comedy or music is happening on the first floor and a screening of a hard-to-find film is happening upstairs.

Until then, the Texas Theatre will continue with its pop-up drive-in movie theatre in the parking lot behind the building.

Barak Epstein and Jason Reimer, owners of the Texas Theatre in Dallas, pose for a portrait outside the establishment. Behind them, you can see the iconic blue, red, and white marquee.
Keren Carrión | KERA News
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Barak Epstein and Jason Reimer, owners of the Texas Theatre in Dallas, pose for a portrait outside the establishment, which has been holding drive-in movies outdoor but has closed its doors to the public.

Got a tip? Email Hady Mawajdeh at hady@KERA.org. You can follow Hady on Twitter @hadysauce.

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Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.