THE MANY FACES OF DENTON'S FINE ARTS THEATER

SHAUN TREAT

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There’s been a lot of buzz around the recent arrival of the oft-rumored Fine Arts Theater hitting the real estate market, with a hefty pricetag in the ballpark of $1.5 million.  Owned by the McBride family since 1983 with high hopes of renovation, there were overtures in 2014 and then renewed interest in 2016 but alas… it has never come to pass. A recent episode of the Politically Denton podcast explored some of the backstory and future possibilities, but I figured it would be a hoot to have a look back at the history of this iconic spot from back in the day.


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It has been a little over 30 years since the Fine Arts Theater last operated as a second-run dollar movie cinema, but the ginormous red, white, & blue theater marquee has loomed over North Elm Street on the downtown Denton Square as a welcome to locals and visitors alike for more than 80 years. Dentonites even have a favorite inside joke of sorts, since reading the South-side of the Fine Arts Theater sign can easily be misread with a juvenile sixth-grader giggle as “Fine Farts.”  But make no mistake, Denton has a lot of affectionate nostalgia for this place. Axis Realty promises to light-up the grand neon marquee in coming evenings to remind Denton of her former glory, but the old gal surely needs some TLC and an angel investor or two.

The old Graham Opera House one graced the spot on the West side of the Square when it was filled with saloons, dry goods, hardware or drug stores, tin smithys, and the like. The now-historic property was originally built in 1890 as a 10,880 square-foot furniture store, but by 1935 it became the Texas Theater after a remodel. Renamed the Fine Arts Theater in August of 1957, it claimed its place among the Courthouse Square “Theater Row,” which prominently featured five theaters in the downtown district. The west side of the Denton Square included the Campus Theater, The Palace, The Fine Arts Theater, and the Dreamland Theater (currently occupied by Cartwrights Ranch House). Inside the Fine Arts is the lobby and main theater stage with seating area, an upstairs mezzanine, and a modest third-floor balcony that was sometimes segregated seating into the 1960s. Many locals fondly recall going to see old Westerns and Kiddie Cartoon Matinees inside the cool cinema. The main theater still has its remarkable if faded murals of a London street scene on the South wall, and an elephant alongside the Eiffel Tower on the north. Wacky but kinda retro cool.

Texas Theater, part of Theater Row, 1942. Photo courtesy UNT Digital Libraries.

Texas Theater, part of Theater Row, 1942. Photo courtesy UNT Digital Libraries.

By 1981, the struggling theater was forced to close, but briefly re-opened as a dollar theater for second-run films in April of 1982 before the balcony caught fire a mere five months later. Here the Weldon McBride family jumped in to purchase the scruffy property, with the hopes of restoring it to its former glory. That never quite worked out, but many a Dentonite has been rooting for a restoration ever since.

So what’s next for this grande damme of Downtown Denton? Your guess is as good as ours, but if you know of any Kickstarters for good ideas, just leave the links in the comments so we can gather up the best & brightest.

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