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Culture Isis Theatre: Restoring a crown jewel of the Northside

Isis Theatre: Restoring a crown jewel of the Northside

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

It’s been a long and dusty trail but Jeffrey Smith can see the end.

Smith, president and founder of BendOverBackwards LLC, is a man with a dream – renovation and restoration of the New Isis Theatre into Downtown Cowtown at the Isis at 2401 N. Main St.

When last we visited – in November 2017 – he was trying to close on the property

“I believe that my entire life’s work has been leading me to this theatre,” Smith said then. “I am extremely passionate about this project – it is truly a labor of love for me – and I am in it for the long haul. This is where I believe my efforts are different from those that have looked to complete this process before.”

Good thing, that long haul, because there were some hitches in the get-along.

“We’re about 50 to 60% complete. Actually, as we speak, the interior structure is being completed, which means the roof is going on,” Smith said.

“Coming up over the next, I would say, three to six weeks, we should be fully enclosed. They’re starting to work on the exterior clean-up of the building in the next couple of weeks. So we are on target right now to be completed and open and operational by the end of this year.”

He had originally hoped to be complete in late 2018.

Now he and his wife, Co-Founder and Co-Owner Debbie Garrett-Smith, think they can open in December.

Planned are three grand galas Jan. 7, 8 and 9. The featured artists include John Schneider, Katie Kadan of the Voice and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

What got in the way was the history.

The original Isis Theatre opened May 21, 1914, with a showing of two films, one of them the 1913 movie A Mixup on the Plains, directed by William Duncan and starring Florence Dye and Charles Wheelock. The original building at 2401 N. Main St. burned in 1935 and was rebuilt the following year, taking in two additional lots.

In its heyday, the Isis seated 950 with what was described as the largest screen in Fort Worth.

The original building – 18 feet by about 61 feet – was designed by architect Ludwig Bernhardt Weinmann. His grandson, Arthur Weinman, is the chief architect overseeing the renovation. His grandfather changed the spelling of the last name during World War I.

Smith was optimistic about the timeline in late 2017.

“But the historical process and making sure that we’re meeting all the requirements for this Historic Commission, the National Park Service when it comes to the historic designation for the building, became far more involved than what we originally anticipated,” he said.

It took 18 months to complete the process.

“There’s a lot of special quirks and unique pieces to the space that we needed to make sure that we were adhering to and that our design could actually accomplish that,” he said. “The foundational side took a whole lot more legwork, should I say, than what we originally anticipated that it was going to be.”

When finished, it will be both a cinema and a live performance venue.

“We are putting in a retractable screen, so during the day we’ll be running Westerns and classic films. And then in the evenings, we will roll that screen out, clear the stage and be able to host live entertainment,” Smith said.

Smith holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech University in theatre arts and communications and for more than 35 years has been a theatre teacher, administrator and principal of a high school, and worked as a consultant and advisor to architectural companies in the design and building of performing arts space.

“When I first started this project, I told you how important the building was to me and how excited I was to be able to have the opportunity and was honored to be able to step in and be able to bring this building back to life,” Smith said.

“None of that has really diminished. If anything, I’m more excited now and more invigorated because as I see the process coming to fruition, the vision that I had, it’s starting to take shape.”

Where other people saw a deteriorated and abandoned building, Smith saw something else.

“It’s clear as day to me what it was going to look like. It’s hard to translate that to other people,” he said.

But now that the construction is coming together – for example, the structure for the stage is in place now – he’s been able to bring people in to see the work in progress.

“Now can you see now what the stage is going to look like?” he’d say. “And to see their eyes light up and go, ‘Oh, I see it now,’ it’s such a great experience for me.”

His passion for the project is palpable, even in a social-distanced telephone interview.

“Still, just as crazy passionate about the project, if anything, getting more and more invigorated with each passing day, with more and more pieces getting done. I get just tickled going and standing and looking at different places,” he said.

Smith is almost at the point now where he wanted to end up in 2018.

New Isis courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

“I’m getting to talk with a lot of the entertainment that we’re wanting to bring in and a lot of the people that we’re already starting to book,” he said. “The last time you and I spoke, we were more concerned about the actual mechanics of getting the building done. Now I’m actually shifting into dealing with why I got into this to begin with.

“So that just feels like home. And the more we do it, the more excited I get about each of the steps that we do,” he said.

“We’ve started to kind of set up in front of the building on weekends, just to talk to people and let them know what’s coming and talking to the community. And granted, it’s very difficult right now with COVID, but at least we’re outside,” he said.

“A lot of people are very excited. The coolest thing that I’ve experienced is when people find out or talk with me about what we’re doing, they immediately get nostalgic and tell me stories of their experiences in the ISIS Theatre when it was operational.

“There’s a lot of that older generation who grew up with this building and they bring to light so many fascinating stories about their experiences. So most of the conversations have been very nostalgic and warm from that standpoint and very excited and eager to see where we end up with the space,” Smith said.

People seem to be very thrilled.

“They can’t wait to come down to the Stockyards and watch a movie, watch a Western in the Stockyards. It just doesn’t get better than that,” Smith said.

“Stockyards businesses, Northside residents and I eagerly anticipate the re-opening of the historic New Isis Theatre,” said District 2 Councilmember Carlos E. Flores. “The $175 million redevelopment of the Stockyards brings with it new hotels, restaurants, and venues. All of these bring patrons and visitors in search of entertainment.”

Flores said that in 2018, the Isis property was valued at $450,000 and is estimated to be worth more than $8 million once the restoration and renovation is completed. Smith’s background in theatre production and business management provide him with a skill set uniquely suited for this undertaking.

“When it reopens, the New Isis Theatre will once again take an exciting place in the performing arts, culture and entertainment scene of the City, District 2, Stockyards, and Northside,” Flores said.

Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Anette Landeros says she hopes that the restoration encourages other inspired eyes to see the untapped potential of North Main, particularly between the Stockyards and Northside Drive.

“As Northside neighbors, our chamber is thrilled that the renovation of the Isis Theatre is coming to fruition. There are so many beautiful ‘diamonds in the rough’ buildings on North Main Street that are radiating with potential,” Landeros said.

“I’m looking forward to stepping into the Isis Theatre and experiencing 1930s Fort Worth. That is going to be such a unique treat for generations of locals who have only seen the building as an unused relic,” she said.

Smith and his wife hope to have the front area open  by mid-November – the bar and the gift shop and the beer and wine to go window.

The theatre is an unknown variable, but he’s hoping to be running movies at the end of the year going into the first of 2021 that will give people an opportunity to come and explore and experience the space.

And, obviously, another big variable is the COVID-19 pandemic.

He considers it fortunate that the theatre project was in the heavy part of renovation during what he’s hoping is the worst of the pandemic.

Remember, he’s an enthusiastic optimist.

“I feel that from all indications, from what the news is providing, what the CDC is providing, that come January, we’re going to get back to a little bit of a sense of normalcy when we’re opening,” Smith said.

“The impact that’ll have on us, obviously if we’re at a Phase Two, which would be 50% occupancy. Our occupancy is a 500-seat house. That’s still looking at anywhere from 200 to 300 patrons that could actually come to an event,” Smith said.

General contractor: 

TriNorth Builders

Architect:

Arthur Weinman Architects

Who is Jeffrey Smith?

Jeffery and Debbie Garrett-Smith courtesy photo

Jeffrey Smith has been actively involved in building, running, directing, producing, and performing in theatres – both in front of the audience and behind the scenes – for more than 35 years.

He has run a community dinner theatre from inception to sale, served as a guest clinician for performance groups, technical director for regional theatres and TETA – a state theatre organization, and theatre consultant to industry leaders, educators, and performers throughout the past 30 years.

In December of 2016, Smith founded BendOverBackwards LLC, all in pursuit of his dream to own and renovate The New Isis Theatre in the Fort Worth Stockyards. When the theatre opens in 2021, it will be known as The Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre.

Prior to starting the renovation of the theatre, his time in theatres coincided with a passion for learning, which led him to become a teacher, administrator and principal of a high school. Smith spent years in the classroom as a theatre teacher, building programs of live theatre in various high schools in the Metroplex.

He also worked as a theatre arts consultant on multiple new constructions as an advisor to architectural companies for their design and build of performing arts spaces.

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