Oak Cliff’s arts community thrives by making the old new again

DAVID TAFFET  | Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

THEY AUTRY BE PROUD  |  The Kessler opened as a movie palace owned by movie cowboy Gene Autry, but Edwin Cabaniss and Jeff Liles, pictured, have renovated it into a performing and visual arts venue. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
THEY AUTRY BE PROUD | The Kessler opened as a movie palace owned by movie cowboy Gene Autry, but Edwin Cabaniss and Jeff Liles, pictured, have renovated it into a performing and visual arts venue. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

First the Bishop Arts District brought gay-owned restaurants to Oak Cliff. Art galleries and stores followed closely. But not since the Bronco Bowl was torn down to make way for a Home Depot a decade ago have performing arts been so evident in the Cliff.

The Kessler Theater on Davis Street in Winnetka Heights has been around for decades, but although it’s in the process of renovating its art deco design, it’s also hopping with activity.

Originally owned by Gene Autry and opened as movie theater, it fell on hard times with the advent of television. The building cycled through many uses — it was a church at one time, and later still, a bowling shirt factory.

In 1957, the Kessler took a direct hit from the great Oak Cliff tornado, a disaster most familiar to Oak Cliff residents today from a large photograph hanging in Norma’s Café across the street. (The twister ripped right through the theater but left the structure standing.) A few years later, the building was further devastated by fire. For most of the past 25 years, it has stood empty.

Then Edwin Cabaniss, who lives in the neighborhood, bought the theater for his wife, a dancer who teaches tap and ballet. The couple’s love of the arts translated into turning the space into a clearing house for live performance. Work continues on updating the building, and when dance, guitar, piano and voice lessons aren’t taking place there, Jeff Liles books live music. Cliff native Edie Brickell will appear there Nov. 16; acts are booked four nights a week.

Visual arts are part of the ethos as well. In the gallery upstairs, an exhibit of black-light 1960s posters ran this summer. The theater, opened in March, looks better than it has since Autry owned it — and is more active.

The Kessler isn’t the only venue bringing life back into this gayborhood. Down the road, the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard has also reopened with a classic movie series. Best known as the place Lee Harvey Oswald was cornered after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it’s worth a visit, if only for its historic significance. After several failed attempts to save the building through the years, it is now owned by the non-profit Oak Cliff Foundation that is working on renovations.

Next door is the newly opened Oak Cliff Cultural Center with 5,000 feet of space, which the city of Dallas used to replace the Ice House Cultural Center. The Ice House was the original early 1900s building where 7-Eleven got its start: They froze water in this building on Polk Street and sold ice in their first store just a few blocks away on Edgefield Avenue.

Dallas converted the Ice House into one of its small neighborhood cultural centers years later, where artists and playwrights were often featured, including Martice Productions, which specialized in gay/Latino comedies.
Gerardo Sanchez of the center said the new space features an art gallery that will house eight shows per year as well as a dance studio that’s already being used by arts groups, dance groups and classes. With the Texas Theatre next door, Sanchez said there are a lot of possibilities.

“We’re hoping to partner with them,” he says.

TeCo Productions is an ambitious theater company that operates out of the newly renovated Bishop Arts Theater on Tyler. The company started in Atlanta in 1993 and moved to Dallas where they performed at the Hall of State in Fair Park until a patron donated the dilapidated Blue Bird Theater just off Jefferson Boulevard.

The Blue Bird was a silent movie theater built in 1917 — talkies never made it in this part of Oak Cliff. Outside, the drab brown cement building is easy to miss. The surprise is the 170-seat proscenium-stage, state-of-the-art theater inside.

This year’s schedule includes gay writer Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity starring New Arts Six; the show opens in December. The season also includes a world premiere of a mystery in October, and in February, their annual new play competition. Last year’s Southwest Airlines Jazz Series regularly sold out.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.