Ballinger theater offers food, entertainment and community

BALLINGER, Texas (AP) — Things have been up and down for the Old Texas Theater over the years. Now, the venue is coming back once again.

Originally known as The Palace, the neon sign was moved from across the street after the original Texas Theater burned down in 1962. Since the blaze had started in the back of the building, only the sign had been spared.

The Texas continued to show movies for about a decade and a half until closing in the late 1970s. It stood idle for decades until 2012, when it was by bought Paul and Katy Morrow.

“The owner, he re-did this thing for Ballinger residents to have something to do,” Brian Hallmark, the manager of the theater, told the Abilene Reporter-News ( “Because there are a lot of small towns — you’ve got Miles, Winters, Paint Rock — that don’t have a whole lot to do and they don’t want to go to the big city.”

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A major renovation of the theater was undertaken. The accumulated trash of 40 years was removed, along with the seats, and the walls were taken down to the exposed limestone rock. The stage was extended and a kitchen was installed.

The original history of the theater is on display around the former auditorium. Spanish movie posters dot the wall, and old movie reels and lengths of film can be seen in cabinets beside the stage.

Originally, the plan was to have a private club in the balcony area for those wishing to have alcohol, and then to serve food on the main floor. Box seating and tables allowed diners to eat and watch movies or other entertainment.

But the concept didn’t work out as well as hoped. The theater closed briefly, then reopened in January with a new plan.

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“We’d done the movie thing but everybody’s got Netflix they can watch at their house in bed,” Hallmark said. “So we show sporting events; Rangers, football games, possibly the Olympics. Stuff like that.”

Live entertainment is still a cornerstone of the venue, however. A big challenge after the renovation was installing an audio system that would work well within the historical building.

“Achieving that was very difficult with all the hard surfaces,” Hallmark said. “It took some ingenuity, a lot of scratching our heads and trial-and-error, but we did it.”

It’s an honest observation that Americans seem to have forgotten about everything else there was to do before the advent of movies and television. Comedians, plays, musicians, skits and all kinds of other entertainment also meant a chance to get out of the house and join the community.

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Reinforcing a sense of community is part of why the Old Texas Theater was renovated in the first place.

“On Friday nights, after our home football games, we’re going to have a Fifth Quarter,” Hallmark said. “After the football game we’re going to have live music and then at 11 we’ll show (local television) scores and highlights, and then the music will go back on.”

Getting a restaurant off the ground is a difficult endeavor, especially when you’re in a small town. Hallmark said word-of-mouth has been their greatest ally, but so has social media.

“We’re steady,” he said of their business. “You don’t want to go full-speed-ahead and spend 10 grand on marketing and stuff.”

Yelp is an online service where users can find businesses and share ratings. It’s free for business owners who can add photos, upload menus and respond to inquiries.

For travelers looking for a good place to eat, it’s the internet equivalent of driving past all the cafes and seeing whose parking lot has the most cars. Hallmark said a large portion of their customers have come from folks passing through using that service, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and others.

Currently, the Texas is open Friday and Saturday for lunch, and then again in the evening. Joe Fuentes, who runs the kitchen, might be remembered as Smokey Joe, who was invited to American Royal KC Masterpiece Invitational Contest in Kansas City, Missouri, known as the World Series of Barbecue.

“It was all right, we had a good time but it was a learning experience,” Fuentes said. He’s been invited to go again this year in October, but he said with getting the Texas up and running, and another barbecue restaurant he’s helping to open soon in Blackwell, making it up to Kansas City might be a bridge too far.

“I’m not too interested in doing too many cook-offs, we’re going to do maybe two or three a year,” he said. “Before it was fun, but now we don’t have time for it. We work.”