Historic mission: Film explores Stockyards’ transition from industry to entertainment hub

(Photo by Kenny Braun)

Joel Walters is spending a lot of time on the computer these days.

Fourteen hours of footage from nearly 50 interviewees – that’s how much video Walters is sifting through as he puts together a two-hour documentary, The Fort Worth Stockyards: A Marriage of Preservation and Progress, for which he serves as director and producer.

Putting the film together in the first place was a daunting task, considering that his crew is made up of just four people working with a tight $40,000 budget.

But somehow, it’s coming together, Walters said. Depending on how soon the editing is finished, the plan is to release the film on DVD sometime this summer – just a few months after the Fort Worth City Council approved the boundaries of the Stockyards historic district and continues discussion of the form-based code that regulates building use and design.

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Walters said he understands the debate over redevelopment of the Stockyards but that’s not what his film is entirely about.

“You want it to be good,” he said. “You want it to be the right story. We’ve never taken this project as some sort of a battle axe against anybody. We just care about what we care about.”

The film follows the Stockyards’ transition from being a center for livestock sales and meatpacking to becoming a hub for Western entertainment and tourism. The idea for the documentary came in 2009, when the film’s project coordinator and producer, Rosalie McLeod, and Fort Worth businessman Steve Murrin were having a casual conversation about the people who contributed to the businesses that existed in the Stockyards at the time.

“We were sitting there musing, basically,” McLeod said. “We wished that we had their stories.”

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So she and Walters began filming. However, the footage “sat on the shelf” for five years, she said, until Stockyards renovation talks began in 2014. They then realized that the time was ripe to come out with a film.

They set out to finish the documentary with a meager crew that consisted of Walters and McLeod, cameraman Don Garland and music composer Ron DiIulio. They tapped Western entertainer Red Steagall to narrate the film and interviewed Stockyards icons such as Murrin, former White Elephant Saloon owner Joe Dulle and chef Tim Love. They also spoke with Stockyards developer Holt Hickman before he died in 2014.

Walters said the film is a sequel, really, to his first documentary about the Stockyards, Wall Street of the West, which was released in 2001. The first film followed the Armour & Co. and Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, which bustled with business before the Armour plant closed in 1962 and the Swift plant closed in 1971. The film ended with the closing of the plants.

The new film is about what happened next. The area began to transition into more of an entertainment center with the White Elephant Saloon opening in the 1970s and the coliseum becoming a venue for wrestling and rodeo. The big boom came when Billy Bob’s Texas honky-tonk opened in 1981. Walters calls that the “turning point” of the film. Billy Bob’s attracted big-name performers such as Willie Nelson and Larry Gatlin. From then on, the Stockyards became the go-to place for Western entertainment.

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“The story is about the transition,” Walters said. “It hung onto its history and heritage, and it made a successful economic transition.”

And while the documentary mentions the redevelopment plans, Walters says that’s not the focus of the film.

“The development will be developing from this time forward for probably a few years,” he said. “We’re not trying to project into that.”

The message that the filmmakers hope to convey is the community’s love for the Stockyards.

“A whole lot of people really care about this area,” Walters said. “It is the heart of Fort Worth. A lot of the activity and concern that seems to stem from the oncoming development, it’s about Fort Worth wanting to have, and saying they will have, their Stockyards.”

The DVD is available for pre-order on the film’s website. It’s also been accepted into the Lone Star Film Festival, to be held Nov. 10-13. Walters’ Wall Street of the West aired on KERA/Channel 13 in the past, and he said he hopes the new film will also air on KERA.

Well, as soon as the editing is finished, Walters said.

For more about The Fort Worth Stockyards: A Marriage of Preservation and Progress go to stockyardsfilmproject.com