After more than three decades of inactivity, cinematic sights and sounds will reverberate again inside the first theater ever to open in North Side Fort Worth.
The New Isis Theater, originally built in 1914, underwent a major facelift and is set to debut as Downtown Cowtown at the Isis next month.
During its long, storied history in the Stockyards area, the theater has endured closures and restorations before. A large fire destroyed the former Isis Theater building in 1935. The building was rebuilt a year later as the New Isis Theater. In 1942, the nearby Marine Creek flooded and ruined the theater, prompting extensive repairs again, according to historic records.
Jeffrey Smith and his wife, Debbie Garrett Smith, decided five years ago to take on an equally or even more daunting challenge to restore the theater to its former glory. Smith recalled standing on top of a pile of garbage and rubbles when he first visited the deserted building site.
The roof had holes, walls were falling down, the red velvet stage curtain was in tatters and bird droppings covered almost everything, but Smith saw beyond the wreckage and envisioned a unique destination for arts and movie lovers in Fort Worth.
“It hurt my heart to see it was just sitting there and nobody was taking care of it,” Smith said. “It needed to be loved. It needed to be nurtured. It needed to be brought back for people to see this building.”
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed its earlier anticipated 2020 opening date. With workers near finishing and putting on final cosmetic touch-ups on the project, Smith said he is exhausted but happy to see the building shine after years of neglect.
To Smith, the historic theater fills a chasm in the city’s performing arts and music space.
The limelight of nighttime
The building’s canopy – blue enameled steel projecting with red trim – is discernible from the sidewalks of North Main Street. The venerable blade sign hanging on the front of the Art Moderne building has been polished, and the marquee will soon be updated with new shows, on a daily and weekly basis.
A retractable screen, 37 feet wide by 16-feet high, will offer viewings of classic and thematic movies during the day. In the evenings, the theater will roll up the screen to give way for live performances of all kinds and genres.
Smith calls Downtown Cowtown at the Isis a “multipurpose live entertainment facility.”
The theater can seat 500 patrons. Smith pointed out that Fort Worth’s performing arts industry currently has several larger venue options, like Dickies Arena and Bass Performance Hall; and plenty of smaller venues, like Jubilee Theater and Stage West Theater.
“There’s nothing that’s middle of the road, and that’s the niche that we fit,” Smith said about his newly renovated building. “There’s a lot of groups and performers that need that stepping stone in between, right? And this is it.”
Artists already committed to performing at the new venue include a group of jazz musicians featuring a Grammy Award winner from New Orleans, a Canadian opera trio, stand-up comedians and several local bands.
“Audiences are going to be treated to some of the greatest up-close and personal performances from up-and-coming artists to well-established performers,” Smith said. “They’re going to get exposed to a variety of performances that may not necessarily have ever come through this area.”
With many spectators expected to visit the new venue, the nearby community is also hoping new and returning faces will lay eyes on the Stockyards area, which has been attempting to grow further as an entertainment and tourism hub.
Teresa Burleson, director of the Stockyards Museum, said the revival of the New Isis Theater complements the area nicely.
“The west end of Exchange Avenue has always been the part of the Stockyards that had the entertainment, as far as the bars, the nightlife and the honky-tonks,” Burleson said. “And now it’s again very much becoming a place to come for entertainment in the evening.”
Rest is history
Arthur Weinman, of Fort Worth-based Weinman Architects, has worked on plans to redevelop the Isis Theater building for the past 14 years. His grandfather, Ludwig Bernhardt Weinmann, was the original architect of the building.
There were a couple of attempts to reopen the theater for live performances in the 90s, but those were not successful, he said. Weinman worked with Smith, who refrains from the “developer” label, to craft a plan to rehabilitate the building in a way that Weinman said his grandfather would be proud of.
“One of the things that give me most pleasure as an architect is not only restoring older buildings to new uses for the modern public but being able to restore my own grandfather’s projects back to the popularity and grandeur of their prior uses,” Weinman said, adding his grandfather was responsible for more than 3,000 buildings in the Fort Worth area.
The architect kept intact the flooring, which contains pockmarks from decades ago, in the theater’s main hall. The main lobby has low ceilings and a similar decor resembling the theater from years ago. Where the tiles have come loose and the adhesive pulled the black paint off parts, fragments of the original paint stencil design are exposed.
The revitalization plan tried to salvage and repurpose as many old items as possible, Smith said.
“They have preserved one of the buildings that was part of our history. Quite a feat,” museum director Burleson said. “And I think it’s going to be very important to the Stockyards and the people that come here to see our history.”
Weinman has nominated the building to the National Register of Historic Places as a historically significant property.
Having the designation will qualify the New Isis Theater building to receive an investment tax credit – a direct income tax credit of 20% of the qualifying portion of the cost of rehabilitation.
Smith did not disclose the cost he bore to redevelop the building but said it was significant and “what was necessary to get this building done.”
“Once a major attraction for first-run movies as well as kids’ shows on Saturday morning, it will again see life as a movie theater and as a live performance theater,” Weinman said. “(It’s) heralded as having the largest screen in Fort Worth. The screen again is huge – just what we need in this immersive era of large-screen shows.”
The venue has been booked with events for every Friday and Saturday for the rest of the year.
“Right now, I think the sky’s the limit,” Smith said. “There’s going to be a lot of new things coming through and a lot of bigger opportunities for folks coming through this area. To put a business spin on an artistic experience, the ROI is high.”