Fine Arts Theater

6815 Snider Plaza,
Dallas, TX 75205

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dallasmovietheaters
dallasmovietheaters on September 24, 2013 at 10:13 am

The Varsity Theatre was an atmospheric Venetian Garden inspired theater operating in C.W. Snider’s conceptualized Snider Plaza just blocks away from Southern Methodist University within University Park. It opened Oct. 3, 1929 just weeks prior to the stock market crash. Renamed the Fine Arts in 1957, the theater moved from art, retro, and international cinema to adult films in 1974 during the porno chic era. Renamed as The Plaza Theater as a legit, live theater in 1982 and finally as the Park Cities Playhouse in 1993, the theatre was out of business in 1996 and its auditorium demo’d for retail space a year later.

In the summer of 1928, the city of University Park approved of a plan to allow a 1,011 seat Varsity Theater with seven floors to be built in Snider Plaza. The architect was N.E. Bucklin and was based upon the concept of having attached retail stores and parking for 600 cars in an underground parking facility pegged at around $700,000. That ambitious plan did not come to fruition, however. The theatre construction was delayed until 1929 and by the time the project was complete, the Varsity was a modest $200,000 playhouse with 800 seats and had neither the seven stories of multi-use property nor the underground parking garage. It was operated by Paul Scott who also ran the Haskell Theatre and was equipped with RCA’s Photophone sound-on-film standard. SMU students were the employees under Scott as C.W. Snider was a friend of the campus.

The theatre opened with “In Old Arizona” on Oct. 3, 1929. In 1935, the SMU connection brought foreign language film to the Varsity (although the Melba had beaten the Varsity to the foreign language front showing a German and a Russian language film previously). “Sous les Toits de Paris” was the first of those presentations in conjunction with the University’s French Department followed by “Topaze” and “Les Trois Mousequetaires”. The theater found a niche and also began to show a heavy load of British imports and additionally started Spanish language films starting with Juarez and Maximillian and German film in 1936, as well while keeping first-run and second-run Hollywood fare during the weekends and most weekdays.

Though French films continued into 1937, an article about the downturned business of art films and international films stated that Dallas' Little Theater was abandoned as Dallas' moviegoers were bailing on art cinema. The same article noted that the Interstate Theatre Circuit had taken on the Varsity and decided to update the theater. It was hypothesized that there were “more high brows in Snider Plaza than anywhere else in Dallas” and that the Circuit might stick it out a bit longer with art cinema. Interstate did have occasional ties with SMU but leaned the Varsity away from foreign film though would play art films for the rest of the time it operated the film.

in 1938, Interstate added a stage at the front of the theater for monthly stage shows and more live acts including dance shows, minstrel shows and live animal acts. This move proved fortuitous decades later when the theater became a live event only house. And in 1940, a new marquee and tower were added along with new seats, a redesigned lobby and foyer. The nearby student body led to the theater attracting unannounced sneak previews of films beginning in the 1940s.

Late in the 1940s, Interstate’s control over the Varsity was under scrutiny. The cases of Edelman v. Paramount, a legal challenge that was brought in the courts, and a Justice Department investigation, U.S. v. Paramount. As the case began, Interstate announced a regular art cinema policy including foreign language productions every Thursday and Friday. Meanwhile, U.S. v. Paramount led to the famous consent decree in which Paramount agreed to to separate itself from domestic theater exhibition selling out joint ventures such as Interstate and Publix. Only the Varsity and the Dal-Sec were Dallas-area theaters forced into dispersal within the reformulated, post-Paramount decision Interstate Circuit. Those properties had to be excised within three years of the 1948 decree. The Dal-Sec was sold to Howard Hiegel who took over on May 1, 1951 while the Varsity became part of the Trans-Texas Circuit and in 1953 it went full time art and revival at a good time for international cinema exhibition in the United States.

Satisfied with the results, Trans-Texas rebranded the Varsity as the Fine Arts on January 15, 1957 and remodeled the theater including its third different marquee. Its first film was Riffifi with proceeds going to charity. It added a Fall Film Festival in 1959. The rebranded Fine Arts had some amazing successes. For instance, Blow Up played 11 weeks at the theater in 1967. The art cinema craze was waining at the same time that multiplexes were arriving. The U.A. Ciné about a mile away would be the continuing art house while the Fine Arts went a new direction just as the North Park Cinema was opening about 2.5 miles away. In 1974/5, during the porno-chic period, soft-core X-rated films “Flesh Gordon”, “Linda Lovelace for President”, “Around the World with Fanny Hill”, and many others were booked at the Fine Arts as well as Dallas' Granada Theatre, et al. This did not sit well with University Park which passed an ordinance banning X-rated films in 1977 within 500 feet of a residential area, church or school. The City of Dallas went after the Granada with a more successfully written ordinance. Trans-Texas successfully fought the University Park ruling which was found unconstitutional later that year.

The soft core porno exhibition at the Fine Arts continued amazingly for almost eight years until 1982. A business owner lamented that the situation of a family-oriented residential and business area with a porn house in its highest visibility sight “provides probably the greatest contrast in the whole state of Texas.” One picture of a family walking under “Lusty Princess” which was playing with “Garters and Lace” summarizes the situation under Photos. In March of 1982, the Fine Arts was purchased and the porno chic exhibition was over June 30th and the theater became the Plaza Theater on July 1, 1982. Though the Plaza Theatre was a live venue, its first major booking was the USA Film Festival in 1982.

The renovations to the Plaza’s live venue look took over a year and cost one million dollars. It wasn’t the success neighbors had dreamed of as the not-for-profit theater was empty for stretches as people tried to save it as the decade of the 1990s opened. Meanwhile the “New Fine Arts Theater” opened on Mockingbird hoping to lure clientele from the Fine Arts' halcyon days.

The Plaza Theater was given a hasty renovation in time for its November 1993 relaunch when it became the Park Cities Playhouse. With United Artists opening its high tech and successful UA Plaza, the name change wasn’t the worst idea. First-hand account from this writer can tell you that it wasn’t uncommon to bump into the likes of Charlton Heston, the Smothers Brothers or Penn & Teller when they were appearing at the theater. Though that incarnation under Ben Capelle and John Wall was ambitious it was unsuccessful financially and the theater went back to vacant in 1996 after sporadic offerings. The theater was purchased and its owners explored film exhibition but hit a dead end. So in 1997, it was over for the Varsity/Fine Arts/Plaza as the theater’s marquee was removed and the theater completely gutted after both the economic feasibility and historical preservation efforts failed. The auditorium was demolished in 1997 officially ending a 67-year mostly active run.

matt54
matt54 on May 19, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Since this theatre closed as the Fine Arts (name changed from Varsity about 1957), it should really be listed as Fine Arts, with Varsity as an aka.

matt54
matt54 on July 15, 2010 at 3:51 pm

All of what I posted immediately above goes out the window if this venue operated as the Plaza subsequent to its being the Fine Arts. The original McKinney Ave. Plaza would have been long out-of-business by then

matt54
matt54 on July 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Chuck, it’s my present opinion that someone, way back, got “Plaza” and “Varity/Fine Arts” mixed up, possibly because of the latter’s location in “Snider PLAZA.” There was a well-known and long-advertised theater located on McKinney Ave. across the street from North Dallas High School called the Plaza. It ceased operation, I believe, sometime in the early 1960’s and is now long-demolished. I cannot pinpoint a time span when the Varsity/Fine Arts could have been called Plaza when the McKinney Ave. Plaza wasn’t also in operation. If you’ll check Lost Memory’s photo of the McKinney Plaza on its C/T page, you’ll see that it is, in all probability, a photo of the Fine Arts. Confusing, yes? The fact that the marquee in the photo shows “Light Up The Plaza Theater” may merely indicate an informal reference (i.e. the theater in Snider Plaza), as the McKinney Ave. Plaza closed long before nostalgia-minded groups existed to try to save old theaters. This is my best guess – I would love to read a response by someone more knowledgeable than I.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on October 20, 2009 at 1:03 am

The Varsity Theatre was opened by Paul Scott in 1929. In 1937, he sold the house to Interstate Theatres. Subsequently, he filed a lawsuit against Interstate, claiming that the chain’s unfair practices had caused him considerable losses. The suit was settled out of court, and Scott later became a district manager for Interstate.

I’ve been unable to discover when the Varsity got the modern facade it sported at the time of its demolition, but it reminds me a bit of the street-facing side wall of the Esquire in Chicago.