“In Oak Cliff, An Effort to Resurrect the Kessler,” written by Robert Wilonsky and published in Dallas Observer’s Unfair Park blog, May 6, 2009.
Some of you may have noticed that yesterday, in the item about Kidd Springs in Oak Cliff, Jeff Liles posted a link to a video you’ll find after the jump, along with the rather cryptic note: “Speakin’ of the OC, we have this to look forward to next year:” Ah, but what, precisely, is this?
We exchanged a few e-mails, during which Jeff explained: Edwin Cabaniss, a familiar face among the nonprofit crowd, recently bought the old Kessler Theater on W. Davis Street with the intention of turning it into a mixed-use facility — “mixed-use” in this case meaning a dance studio, a performance space, an art gallery and so forth. Late yesterday, I had a long chat with Cabaniss about his intentions: “We’re still in the decision stages on the future,” he told Unfair Park.
He’s got plenty of ideas, but he cautions: In 2006, Julie Allen-Lindsey — from whom Cabaniss bought the building earlier this year — ran up against parking-space issues, per a city code dictating a number of slots per square foot, which kept her from ever developing the historic theater once owned by Gene Autry. So, yes, big plans. But, for the moment, Cabaniss doesn’t want to raise too many expectations, lest he too run into familiar roadblocks, though his building sits in an area covered by the recently completed Davis Street Land Use Study intended to “stimulate in the corridor” while retaining its “cultural flavor, social diversity and “economic diversity.”
“It will put a lot of our passions under one roof and do something neat for Oak Cliff and Dallas,” he tells Unfair Park. “It will be a significant give-back opportunity for the community. We’ve got some very special plans for the place, and we’re going through the process of executing them as we speak.”
Cabaniss and his wife moved to Oak Cliff in ’98 and have been eying the property for close to a decade; indeed, he says he tried to buy it in 2000, but only acquired it six months ago, finally closing on January 1 of this year — just as the economy “made it more than difficult,” he says with a slight chuckle.
Since then, Cabaniss has worked up a detailed history of the theater, the original building permit for which was pulled in September 1941. The owner and builder, he says, was L.L. Dunbar, who also owned the Cliff Queen on E. Jefferson Boulevard. The Kessler, Cabaniss says, “was going to be one of his premier suburban theaters.” It opened in the spring of ’42, and would become a location at which locals could by war ration cards.
“The real cool history begins when Gene Autry gets out of the war and purchases properties owned by Mr. Dunbar,” Cabaniss says. “He became the owner in 1946 and operated it as a movie theater till the early 1950s. He then sold out to Robb & Rowley, which then sold to what became modern-day United Artists. And somewhere along the line, they decided they were going to shutter a lot of different theaters,” the Kessler among them. It would eventually become a revival tabernacle.
Much of the theater was destroyed in the ’57 tornado that swept through Dallas; the storm took off the top of the theater, as well as its back facade. Five years later, it was rebuilt as a church — only to once again face destruction courtesy a three-alarm fire that gutted the entirety of the inside.
“Somewhere along the way, it was a church and a sweatshop, so I’ve been told,” Cabaniss says. “Someone leveled out the original theater floor. When we took it over, the foundation was not in good shape, and we’ve gone back to the original slope floor and found remnants of the original stage. The last use of this, far as the city is concerned, was 1978, and it was a retail shop. So far as I can tell it hasn’t been used for any purpose in 31 years.”
Cabaniss hopes that will change in coming months — maybe as early as fall. Jeff Liles, who Cabaniss has hired as a “consultant,” hopes to start bringing live music to the venue come New Year’s Eve.
“The thing that keeps coming up for me is how badly we need a Caravan of Dreams type of facility,” says Jeff. “I loved the way they would book jazz artists like Ronald Shannon Jackson and Ornette Coleman, and then also bring people people like Timothy Leary and William Burroughs to give readings on off nights. When Caravan closed, I don’t think any venue filled that specific creative niche. Oak Cliff is actually the perfect place for something like this to happen.”
Till then, Jeff and his former Decadent Dub Team collaborator Paul Quigg are documenting the resurrection of the Kessler with a series of online shorts, beginning with the one below.
“This is definitely about legacy,” Cabaniss says, adding that he’s been touring the country to see what kind of small venues are working in such cities as Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Memphis and Seattle. “It’s a resurrection 32 years in the making of a great old historic building.”