Q&A: Lakewood Theater owners discuss parking, preservation and more

Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Bill Willingham of Willingham Property Co., which owns the section of Lakewood Shopping Center where the Lakewood Theater in located, spoke at the Lakewood Neighborhood Association meeting at Times Ten Cellars last night about the future of the Lakewood Theater. About 100 or so people showed up to listen and ask questions. Weren’t able to make it? Here’s a word-for-word transcript:

“A little background,” Willingham begins, “my family came over here in covered wagon in 1848 and settled at Farmers Branch, so we’ve been here a long time.”

“You win!” someone shouts, and the audience reacts with laughter.

“My grandmother lived on Worth Street, moved over to Bob-O-Links. Don’t know if that’s still in the area or not. So we’ve been connected, but maybe not as direct as some of you today.

“Several years ago, we had the opportunity to purchase that lot where the Lakewood Theater is. Half our inventory we purchased and half of it we built. We’re long-term owners. We’ve owned some properties for over 50 years. So we’re not just beginners, and we’re not traders. Unlike some of the other property owners in Lakewood, we’re not just here for the short term. We’re hoping with that longevity, that in time we’re going to do the right thing. I know that’s what you really want to hear, and that’s why I agreed to come when Kevin [Taylor, the president of the LNA board] twisted my arm.

“When we buy them, we always analyze them on a long-term basis, and we had about 12 years remaining on the Lakewood Theater. We had the property about seven years. The tenant decided not to exercise his options — whether by fault, default or whatever — so we got it five years earlier than we had planned.

“We have letters of intent that are being transferred back and forth. We’re not close, I’ll tell you that.”

“I started looking around shortly after we purchased [the Lakewood Theater]. We were able — for an extremely high price — to buy a couple houses on Paulus. We thought long term that we would put in a parking lot. During the interim — because we thought we still have 10 or 11 years to go before we got the theater back — we tried to lease it. We had several opportunities, so we sent them down to the City of Dallas to get their permits and the City of Dallas said, ‘You don’t have enough parking.’ We said, ‘Wait a minute, these things have been here forever. They were an antique shop and something else before.’ Nope. You have to put in parking. So we didn’t lease them. Couldn’t lease them, actually. We let them sit there for a little while and then taxes were due, so we decided, ‘Well, why don’t we just go ahead and tear them down because we know that we’re going to use this as a parking lot anyways.’ Well we got a lot of press. We were scoundrels because we put this bulldozer down there at 5 o’clock in the morning to do it when nobody was watching. Well, we had a permit and everything that we thought we should have to do it in an orderly fashion. But still, we got a lot of press.

“We came in about a year and a half ago, when we knew we were getting the Lakewood Theater back, and asked the neighborhood through several town hall meetings, went to City Council people and talked to them. We asked if we could do a two-level garage. Everyone thought it was a very bad idea. We would have gotten sixty stalls, which would have made it almost economical for that property at the cost we had, but everyone discouraged us. So we dropped the idea. Most people probably don’t even notice that it’s a parking lot now because it still slopes seven feet back to the alley. It’s only 27 stalls now, so we’re short 30-something that we would have gotten, had we been able to do [a parking garage].

“We’ve gotten the theater back — actually not for another week — but we’ve started marketing it. Y’all may not know how you do this, but someone from the Dallas Morning News called us and asked us what we were going to do. We said we were going to try to lease it, well, we got 25 calls. So that kind of told us that we have something that somebody wants. We discouraged those that weren’t of interest and encouraged those that were. We’re actually in negotiations with two. We have letters of intent that are being transferred back and forth. We’re not close, I’ll tell you that.

“The murals? You know, we’re this close with one group that’s a restoration group. That would be the best thing that could happen because that’s what they’re interested in, is restoring it as close to the original — as far as the Art Deco and everything — but it would be like Inwood, with three theaters. Two real small ones upstairs and one downstairs. In fact, both the theater groups are leaning towards that.”

“Two problems: not enough parking — that’s the first thing everyone tells us, who has looked at it — and the second is the cost of re-doing the theater. So we’ve got those two issues. I think we’re going to get over them. We’ll get by them. During the evening performances, which are going to be a lot more than what we’re seeing now. I don’t think they use it but two to three times a month right now, which is dreadful. There’s still The Balcony Club and the Arcade Bar downstairs, but they’ll be gone most likely with the theater — assuming that’s who ends up with it. [The Balcony Club just renewed its lease for one year.]

“So let me just assure you, the first thing we’ve said to everybody who has called is we are not tearing down the tower…. [audience erupts into applause] … we are not tearing down the building.”

“What about the murals?” an audience member questions.

“The murals? You know, we’re this close with one group that’s a restoration group,” he says. “That would be the best thing that could happen because that’s what they’re interested in, is restoring it as close to the original — as far as the Art Deco and everything — but it would be like Inwood, with three theaters. Two real small ones upstairs and one downstairs. In fact, both the theater groups are leaning towards that.

“With that, I would be happy to answer questions. I can’t go into negotiations or name anyone — although the paper’s got one of them right. I don’t know where they got that, but they got one of them right.”

“You could’ve given us our parking a couple of years ago, but that didn’t happen, so we’re exploring other parking ideas. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go over there and see there’s not a lot of possibilities. The Faulkner Tower is sitting on a beautiful lot. It would meet all our and other needs, but they’re way off the market with their price. So we’re not trying to buy it, but could happen. That would be the easiest solution.”

Q&A between Bill Willingham and the Lakewood Neighborhood Association members:

Has Sheffie Kadane been any help to you at all?

“I’ve known Mr. Kadane for about four years. I talked to him when we first purchased it. I talked with him a month ago. He called me about a month ago and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying to lease it as a whole building. It’s much better for me, it’s much better for them and it’s much better than the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure we’ll get there. Maybe not this month or next, but we’ll get there.

Is there anything we can do as a community to help close the right deal?

“You could’ve given us our parking a couple of years ago, but that didn’t happen, so we’re exploring other parking ideas. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go over there and see there’s not a lot of possibilities. The Faulkner Tower is sitting on a beautiful lot. It would meet all our and other needs, but they’re way off the market with their price. So we’re not trying to buy it, but could happen. That would be the easiest solution.”

So Bill, you mentioned two letters of intent. Can you tell us who they are?

“I can tell you that one of them was mentioned in the paper.”

So can you confirm that one of them is Alamo Drafthouse?

“Yes.”

Has Mark Cuban, who owns Landmark Theaters, has there been any discussion with Mark Cuban?

“We’ve talked with all the theater groups in Dallas.”

Any consideration in reaching some deal with the folks that have the parking garage at Wells Fargo?

“Obviously the Wells Fargo is an easy target. It’s certainly available at night.”

Is that a viable option?

“It’s a viable options as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not the operator. Once you get an operator and he sees the needs, if you can come up with off-site parking, that’s much better. But you still have Mi Cocina, you know, they’re running 700 people through there. You’ve got a theater that seats 600-700 people. That’s a lot of cars. One option that I really like — that no one else in the world is going to like — is take the parking lot in front and go down, but that would take out all the beautiful trees.”

And do what?

“Put a parking garage underneath.”

I’m thrilled that you’re going to change whatever they had going on in there for the better, but what if we did all-valet parking, like they do in Highland Park Village.

“Then I’m going to need some track stars.”

I think in Highland Park Village they did all-valet for a while before they put in that parking garage and parking lot, and that allowed them to get people in there.

“We’ve run into this in a couple different areas. The way things are with all the different owners, it’s very difficult to make a semi-permanent deal that someone can rely on.”

Are they going to leave the murals?

“As far as I know, the two that I’m talking with now, they would. I don’t know what someone else would do. It’s going to be hard to do — not impossible, but they have asbestos in them. All the walls have asbestos.”

Catch up on all of the Advocate’s coverage of the Lakewood Theater’s future:

Could the Alamo Drafthouse take over the Lakewood Theater?

If the Lakewood Theater reverts to a movie theater, will we go?

The Balcony Club signs one-year lease extension at Lakewood Theater

Viva Dallas Burlesque bids farewell to the Lakewood Theater

Advocate photos: Take a good look inside the Lakewood Theater

Timeline: History of the Lakewood Theater

COVER STORY: What will become of the Lakewood Theater?


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.
Written By
More from Brittany Nunn

Oral Fixation ushers in a new year of storytelling

If you’re a sucker for true life storytelling, you’ll be in good...
Read More