After January, the historic Lakewood Theater likely will no longer operate as a theater. When the current tenant’s lease expires, the owners have indicated a strong possibility that the interior will be carved up to accommodate dining or retail. So, what do we have to lose? Much has changed in 76 years, but the theater has stayed essentially the same.
The Lakewood Theater was built in 1938 at the tail end of the Great Depression.
The theater’s original owner, Karl Hoblitzelle, was the founder of Interstate Theaters and had previously built the Majestic Theaters in downtown Dallas, Fort Worth and Waco in the early 1900s. He built the Lakewood Theater as a neighborhood theater where family-friendly films would be shown.
When announcing the opening ceremony on Oct. 27, 1938, the Dallas Morning News lauded the theater’s cutting edge RCA sound equipment, the first air-conditioning system for a theater in Dallas, and the upholstered auditorium seating. It reported the tower “rises 100 feet and carries 7,000 watts of power for illumination.” The 1,100-seat theater cost $125,000 to build.
The opening bill was “Love Finds Andy Hardy” featuring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, which launched the theater into several years of success.
The advent of the television in the ’50s translated to the theater showing double features of “B” grade movies by the ’60s. Matinees were well attended by neighborhood children, but adult attendance was at a critical low.
Multi-screen theaters introduced in the ’70s made a single-screen movie house like the Lakewood difficult to keep afloat. In 1973 Interstate Theaters sold the Lakewood Theater to Sam Chernoff, who turned it into Dallas’ first “dollar house” in an effort to boost attendance. His plan worked — for a while.
In 1975 the theater grossed $10,000 with a 7-day run of “Earthquake” — a surprising sum for a dollar house. This caught the attention of distributors and exhibitors, and spurred other movie theaters in Dallas to make the conversion to dollar houses.
In 1983 Chernoff decided not to renew his lease. After 45 years of operation, the theater closed after a showing of “The Last Picture Show.”
After the theater closed, the Historic Preservation League, now Preservation Dallas, hosted “A Taste of Lakewood” in the theater parking lot and collected signatures to save the movie house.
Dines and Kraft, who owned the southwest section of the Lakewood Shopping Center where the theater sits, was well into remodeling efforts when Abrams was rerouted around the shopping center (rather than through it), bringing new business to the Lakewood area.
Businessman B.B. Barr decided to restore the theater in 1984 and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project. He and his wife, Jo, became known as the “Lakewood Theater Life-savers” who were committed to retaining the integrity of the original design. The theater began showing first-run features, which were eagerly supported by the community. In 1988 the theater celebrated its 50th anniversary with more than 2,000 guests in attendance.
Mark Miranda and Jim Christon purchased the theater in 1994. They initially planned to turn it into retail and restaurant space but wound up changing course. They instead leased it to Keith McKeague, who began booking parties, events, community meetings and concerts.
Willingham-Rutledge bought the southwest section of the Lakewood Shopping Center in 2007. The current theater manager, Wayne Roden, continues to feature movies, community events and shows, including Viva Dallas Burlesque performances and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both groups will have to find new venues come February.
Sources: East Dallas historian Jeanette Howeth Crumpler, co-author of “The Lakewood Starwalk” with James H. Davis; Dallas Morning News historical archives
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.