Screen time: Twentieth Century Oak Cliff movie theaters

The best-known place in our neighborhood is a movie theater.

That Oswald sure knew how to put a neighborhood on the tourism map. The world-famous Texas Theater now is home to the Oak Cliff Film Festival, live music and comedy performances and first-run movies. The Kessler, built as a cinema in 1947, is now a hub of live music in Dallas. But in Oak Cliff’s 130-plus-year history, there have been so many movie theaters, that we don’t have room here to talk about them all. There were the Rosewin and the Midway on East Jefferson, the Beckley, the Hill and several more. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Cliff Queen, 1914
616 E. Jefferson

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This was the first movie theater in Oak Cliff’s original downtown, near East Jefferson and Tenth. It was renovated around 1922, but by the mid-1940s, it was not up to fire code. When the fire marshal padlocked it after midnight, on Oct. 15, 1944 for violations including bad wiring, inadequate exit doors, no exit lighting and only one balcony exit, proprietor L.L. Dunbar didn’t understand. “Why do they always pick on me?” he asked the newspaper reporter. “Firemen and policemen have always been permitted to attend the movies free in this theater, and, believe me, they’ve come, too. There must be an ulterior motive. It sounds like something personal.”

In 1958, the Cliff Queen and about 20 other buildings in Oak Cliff’s old town, including the 1888 City Hall, were demolished. Leslie Stemmons Jr., who owned the buildings, at the time said he had no immediate plans for the land. But his famous last name should give you a clue as to why he wanted that particular real estate. The Stemmons family donated much of the right-of-way for Interstate 35 through Dallas.

Sunset Theater, 1922
1112 S. Hampton

This theater went up just seven years after the community of Jimtown, now the Hampton and Clarendon area, annexed to Dallas in 1915. A three-alarm fire caused $25,000 damage to the building in 1957. It had just been gutted with plans to turn it into a bowling alley, after sitting fallow for years. A few folks still call that area Jimtown, although none of the community’s buildings are still standing. Remarkably, the vacant Sunset Theater building is.

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The Bison, 1927
2010 W. Jefferson

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While some Oak Cliff theaters offered only clean-cut programming, the Bison often went for more visceral fare. Sure, there were Saturday morning Popeye cartoons and live performances for kids. But there also were midnight screenings of boxing films and pre-code flicks such as “The Monkey’s Paw” in August 1933 and one called “Illegitimate” on New Year’s Eve 1934. Blues singer Ida Cox performed to an all-white Bison audience in 1933. “Hindu mystic” Alano Taka Dass performed a psychic act there in 1935. Sunset High School sometimes held pep rallies at the Bison, just across Oak Cliff Boulevard from campus. It was demolished in 1948 to make way for the Vogue Theater.

Astor Theater, 1934
Bishop at Seventh

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The Bishop Avenue building that now houses Hattie’s was once a movie theater, though short lived. The Astor Theater previously had been the live-performance Bishop Avenue Theater. The renovated Astor opened as a cinema in March 1934. It featured a “magnascope screen, sound-board mechanisms and scientific acoustical arrangements.” Wendell McMahill of Hollywood, Calif. brought a TV demonstration to the theater in February 1935. McMahill and crew transmitted images of people walking through the theater’s lobby to TVs in the street. In June of that year, the manager raised the admission price from 10 cents to 15 cents for matinee and evening shows. Two years later, it closed.

The Vogue, 1949
2010 W. Jefferson

The Vogue cost $200,000 to build in 1948. It had 1,000 seats, compared to the Bison’s 600, with a stadium-type balcony and air conditioning. This theater served decades of Sunset High School students until it closed in 1971. Later in the ’70s, the Vogue and the Texas became dollar theaters. The Vogue sat vacant for years before a church bought it in the 1990s. La Luz del Mundo church renovated the theater starting in 2010, ripping out its mid-Century modern façade.

The Wynnewood Theater, 1951

The Wynnewood Village Shopping Center was built to serve the planned community of Wynnewood. It had everything the post-World War II middle class needed. Safeway and A&P groceries, a Gulf station, several department stores, a bakery, a toy store, a jeweler, a fabric store, Goff’s hamburgers, a fire station, a church and the list goes on. The Wynnewood Theater had 400 dedicated parking spaces and 1,000 seats, including a soundproof “crying room” where parents could see and hear the show without fussy children disrupting other patrons. It was converted to “twin cinemas,” in the 1970s and closed Sept. 28, 1983. It was demolished in 2000.

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  • Barbara Macleod

    Wow…wish someone would jump on the sunset theatre. I was just in the booming area west of downtown Fort Worth and saw an old tire store had been converted to a lobby of a new build apartment community. Super cool. Love it when we can embrace history AND create something new and useful.

  • WSIII

    My grandmother lived right behind the Beverly Hills Theatre, on Davis near Westmoreland. I saw lots of movies there before it closed and eventually became Soul’s Harbor Church. This was a wonderful little shopping center with a drugstore and soda fountain, five and dime store, jewelry store, Wyatt’s Grocery Store and more. Kroger acquired Wyatt’s and closed this location and soon everything else closed as well. Sad loss to a neighborhood that had had so much and then nothing but vacant buildings.

  • lakewoodhobo

    Google Street View lets you witness the dramatic and tragic transformation of the Vogue Theater. In the first images from 2007, you can still see the old facade.

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  • Smokey

    Thank you Rachael, a wonderful story.