The fire that sent huge black billows of smoke pouring into the skies above Lower Greenville Avenue ignited around 4 in the afternoon. Two hours later, Marshall Surratt’s phone rang. On the line was John Justice, Surratt’s boyhood friend of nearly eight decades.
Justice, who lives in Tyler, Texas, was watching the 6 o’clock news, and he called Surratt to tell him a piece of their childhood history was “going up in flames.”
It was June 21, 2006, the first day of summer, and the old Arcadia theater was ablaze. The roof had already caved in. The theater had pulled through two damaging fires in its 80 years. The third would prove to be its ruin.
When the Arcadia opened in 1927, no one could have guessed the incarnations that would inhabit it for the next eight decades.
It was, first and foremost, a movie house. At first playing only silent movies, the Arcadia showed its earliest “talkie” in 1930 or 1931 after a Vitaphone sound system was installed.
It was around this time that Surratt, Justice and other neighborhood kids started walking the 10-12 blocks to the Arcadia as often as possible.
“There was nothing special about one day as opposed to another,” says Justice of the countless Saturday afternoons spent there. “Except that we went there many years of our lives, going back to when we were youngsters clear on up until we were in high school. We sure did spend a lot of good times there.”
Justice’s “we” includes Surratt, whom he met in kindergarten at Vickery Place Elementary (now Bonham) and other kids in the neighborhood. Justice was on Vickery. Two blocks away, on Willis, was Surratt, and two doors from him was Frances Sunkel (now Sneed). Five blocks north, on Ridgedale, was G.L. McElyea and Marvine Hunter. They all went from baby-faced, tree-climbing youngsters to graduates of North Dallas High School.
“It was the place where all the kids went on Saturday afternoon,” says Surratt, sitting on Sneed’s couch drinking lemonade on a late spring afternoon. “There were comedies … one of my favorites was the ‘Our Gang’ comedies. ‘Little Rascals’ as they were known in later years.”
Another big draw were the “serials,” which would run for weeks with a continuing story.
“They always had a cliffhanger — so you went back the next Saturday to find out how she escaped off the train track after being tied up,” laughs Hunter.
And then there were the cartoons: The Mickey Mouse Club, Popeye, Betty Boop and more.
“My mother never thought Betty Boop was too nice because she’d say, ‘Boo boop de boop — my name is Betty Boop!’ My mother didn’t think that was too cultured,” Sneed says, laughing.
Admission was 10 cents, and for that, theatergoers could sit in the Arcadia all afternoon, watching the films run as many times as they liked.
“If we were lucky,” Surratt says, “we’d have five cents to buy a candy bar.”
As they grew up, they were less concerned with sweets and more so with members of the opposite sex.
“We’d ride up there three couples to a car,” Hunter says, “so you’d get an opportunity to sit on a boy’s lap.”
McElyea, who eventually became an Episcopalian reverend and is now known as “Father Mac,” made the acquaintance of someone very important at the Arcadia.
“One particular Saturday, I met a girl who had just moved here from Denver,” he says. “We were introduced by a mutual friend in the lobby. Later, I was up in the balcony, and she was there, and we bumped into each other. She spilled her popcorn. For the rest of our lives, I told people we met in the balcony of the Arcadia theater.”
It was not the kind of thing nice girls wanted said about them, he adds with a laugh.
“That just said about everything bad you can say about a person without using any bad words. So she always said, ‘No, we met in the lobby.’ It was sort of a half truth that we met in the balcony.”
And, though he later married that girl — Mary Lou Stanard — and was married to her for 60 years until she died, he wasn’t always looking to settle down. McElyea was a high school cheerleader who admits he was more into girls than grades.
“’Ladies’ Man’ wasn’t a negative term in those days,” he says with a hint of amusement in his eyes. “I was very popular as a teenager.”
And, after raised eyebrows from Hunter, who also is widowed and whom he reconnected with at a bereavement luncheon: “You don’t need to apologize if it’s the truth!”
But watching movies and chasing girls wasn’t all there was to do. At the time, Greenville Avenue was known as Highway 75, and it was a major Dallas thoroughfare.
“There were always busses and trucks coming through,” Sneed says.
Consequently, the Arcadia was surrounded by all types of stores, and the mention of each elicits a story from one of this bunch.
There was a Woolworth’s, one of the first air-conditioned stores in Dallas. “There was a big sign in the window that said: “72 degrees!” Sneed says. “So people would go in there to browse around and get cool.”
Nearby was JCPenney’s, which had a novel way for customers to pay for purchases.
“You’d give your money to a clerk, who’d put it with a ticket in this little cylinder thing and send it upstairs to a cashier,” Sneed says. “It ran along several wires that led to different departments.”
“It was a pre-cursor to the pneumatic tube,” Surratt says.
Also in the vicinity was Sears, which Hunter points out was considered a “Johnny-come-lately” in the department store realm. There were three grocery stores, including one called Helpy Selfy, which was started by Clarence Saunders — “the same fella who invented chain stores,” Surratt says. “He developed Piggly Wiggly, and then Helpy Selfy.”
There were the restaurants:
“First there was The Pig Stand,” Hunter says. “Then, a little higher up on the scale was Sammy’s. A guy had to have a little change to take his girl after the movies to Sammy’s. I went there with a Marine once. It was nice — had carpet on the floor.”
The beauty and barbershops:
“Wise Barbershop on Sears is where I got my first haircut,” Sneed says.
“Yes, that was owned by Charlie Wise and Spencer Wise,” says Surratt, whose memory is remarkable after all these years. “Charlie had an office desk in there, and he was studying to be a lawyer. He was going to night classes, and when he wasn’t barbering, he was studying. After years of this, he passed the bar and became a lawyer. But he still did barbering when he had time.”
Harrington Shoe Repair was a block from Woolworth’s.
“(The owner) must have had six or eight people — he hired deaf people — repairing shoes,” Surratt says. “During that era, people had to have their shoes repaired. You didn’t go buy a new pair of shoes.”
Of course, eras change. And, through the decades, the Arcadia’s sheen of innocence described by Surratt and his friends gradually wore off.
The theater closed in 1973 while its owner, manager and a couple of employees were involved in legal proceedings over the showing of the pornographic film, “Deep Throat.” (See sidebar for more on this case and other scandals, crimes and pitfalls in the life of the Arcadia.)
From 1974-1982, the Arcadia showed Spanish-only films, and later it became a concert venue.
Former East Dallas resident Dave Shuck recalls those days fondly.
“We just knew of the Arcadia as a concert hall that had like ancient history,” Shuck says of he and his friends at the time. “It had just a cool ballroom kind of style. It was a really classic-looking place, and it was a great venue for seeing shows.”
Shuck saw many of his favorite artists there: Peter Murphy, Nine Inch Nails, The Judies, Reverend Horton Heat and more. Other acts that graced the Arcadia’s stage at that time included Modern English, Michelle Shocked, Warren Zevon, Melissa Etheridge and Lyle Lovett,
Shuck’s favorite Arcadia show?
“You just can’t touch the Ramones,” he says.
Sometime in the mid 1990s, the theater closed as a live-music venue and later reopened as a nightclub. But with rumors of rampant drug use and, ultimately, a murder (see sidebar), its reputation was further soiled.
Just before it was destroyed last year, plans were in the works to revamp the Arcadia yet again, this time as the Carousel Club, a nightclub/live music venue concept cooked up by The Red Jacket team of Anthony Scerbo and John Kenyon.
“It was going to be a high-end establishment, sort of ‘neo-burlesque’ club that would provide a safe and sophisticated place for people to dance and have a good time,” Scerbo told the Dallas Morning News.
But, of course, that never came to pass. Next door at Nuevo , fire investigators theorized, the fire ignited, and in less than two hours, 80 years of history — both the good and the bad — came crashing down.
The Arcadia — albeit a less grand version of its former self — was the last vestige of youth that Lower Greenville held for many of those interviewed for this story. One that, ironically, probably none of them expected to outlive.
“I remember it real well,” Father Mac says of hearing news of the fire. “It was kind of a sad day.”
Sneed felt the same.
“It was kind of sentimental,” she says. “I mean, good grief, it wasn’t a movie theater anymore …
“But the Arcadia was the Arcadia.”
SIDEBAR:: The Arcadia … a timeline
The Arcadia was the scene of idyllic childhood memories for longtime East Dallas residents. But it seems the theater always had a darker side — there were robberies, fires, murders and, in between, some bizarre presentations. And then there was one big scandal involving a little film called “Deep Throat.” We present a timeline on the Arcadia’s more sordid side:
The Arcadia shows Capt. Edward A. Salisbury’s documentary, “Gow the Head Hunter.” Salisbury visits Dallas to promote the film and speaks on a local radio station of being “goose-flesh scared” while his yacht passed canoes full of South Seas head hunters returning from an expedition singing the notes of their “death chant.” He goes on to explain the natives’ “fashion to have many pigs and plurality of wives.”
The first of the Arcadia’s many robberies occurs. The culprit gets away with $265 and is believed to have hidden in the theater before it closed for the night.
The Arcadia’s manager and assistant manager are robbed of $830 in ticket receipts after the theater closes. One of the two employees opens the box office door to get some air. “Put ’em up and hand over the money,” one of two bandits demands.
Alano Taka Dass, or “The Mystery Man of India,” performs his “mentalist” act at the Arcadia. Dass answers questions “pertaining to finances, love, marriage problems and chances of residence or travel.” He appears “in costume and employs a crystal for the purpose of concentration.”
A gunfight takes place near the Arcadia after police respond to reports of a robbery at the nearby Sears, Roebuck & Company. A car chase ensues during which shots are fired from both sides. A punctured tire in the culprits’ car eventually swerves them into a post at Greenville and Henderson. A 17-year-old is hospitalized with a pistol wound. His cohorts are jailed.
The Arcadia closes after its parent company, Interstate Circuit, is unable to negotiate a new lease and decides to build the Lakewood Theater. Soon after, R.H. Clemons, operator of the Sunset Theater, and Morten Theaters Inc. remodel the Arcadia at a cost of $50,000, and it reopens in early June.
A three-alarm blaze ignites inside the Arcadia and causes $175,000 in damages. A movie is showing at the time, but the theater is evacuated in “an orderly manner” and some patrons even fight the fire with extinguishers until fireman arrive on the scene. Ultimately, the ceiling partially collapses, and four fireman are hurt, though none seriously.
The Arcadia reopens after several months of rebuilding. “This Thing Called Love” is the first film to show in the newly refurbished theater.
Someone saws out a door panel in an attempt to burglarize the Arcadia’s safe, battering the combination knob in the process, but ultimately leaving empty-handed.
Two teen boys are arrested after setting off a stench bomb in the Arcadia’s balcony. Their prank sends smoke billowing down among 325 customers — mostly children — and nearly causes a stampede.
In an episode eerily familiar of what would occur nearly 50 years later, the Arcadia burns again — this time it’s a five-alarm fire and is the third multiple-alarm blaze in Dallas in as many days. Luckily, the theater is empty when the fire breaks out. It causes $75,000 in damage and closes the Arcadia again.
The Arcadia reopens with new projection equipment. “The Mating Game,” starring Debbie Reynolds, is the first attraction.
Nineteen-year-old Gail Lee Gross is shot five times and killed by her estranged husband, Ray Gross, as they sat in a car in the Arcadia’s parking lot arguing about a reconciliation. Gross later pleads guilty to murder and is sentenced to life in prison.
What will ultimately become a well-publicized and hotly contested case over obscenity, censorship and community standards begins this month when Dallas police storm the Arcadia and seize multiple reels of the film “Deep Throat.” Over the next few days, as Arcadia employees continue to try to screen the film, it is seized four more times. Four Arcadia employees are jailed and released on bond.
The Arcadia’s owners fire back with a federal lawsuit against the city, saying the film reels were illegally seized and should be returned. The district judge screens the film “to determine whether city officials were justified …” After the viewing, the judge refuses to have the reels returned, calling the film “hard-core pornography” and adding: “I just can not see how this film can be constitutionally protected.”
The “Deep Throat” scandal continues. Three men and two women, all five either owners or employees of the Arcadia, are convicted of conspiracy to exhibit obscene material — each is fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. The next day, appeals are filed. The appeals court rules the defendants are entitled to new trials because prosecutors implied that pornographic films lead to sex crimes. After this, the case drops from the daily papers’ headlines.
In one final bit of dark history before the Arcadia burns down, its co- owner at the time, Richard Carl Olsen, aka DJ Mousy, is murdered by 17-year-old Tom Linden, who was high on drugs and alcohol when the killing occurred. Linden is sentenced to 25 years at the William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo.
SOURCE: The Dallas Morning News Historical Archives
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