Imagine a very young boy spending his days as king of his castle in a movie theater. I envision him peeking around a dark corner to get a glimpse of the projector, sliding down the banister when no one is watching, and a concession counter worker sneaking him extra popcorn in between pictures. This is somewhat how Sam Austin’s history with the Ridglea Theatre began back in 1950.
In an interview, he related to me how his favorite memories included spending his Saturdays from 11AM to 5:30PM watching the “Kid’s Show” at the theater. He also talked about a very memorable date. “It was October of 1961. My best friend and I took our dates to Rivercrest Country Club for dinner and then to the Ridglea to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was one of the greatest dates I ever had. We all enjoyed the movie so much, we sat through it twice. It was one tremendous, romantic evening I’ll never forget.” (Collective gasp, am I right?)
Sam’s relationship with the Ridglea has evolved into something probably way beyond his original dreams. He is now the talented architect who painstakingly led the restoration of this historic building into what it once was – a beautiful single-screen gem, now the only of its kind still in existence and operation here in Fort Worth.
My husband and I laughed as Sam jokingly admitted that he probably kissed more girls in the theater than anywhere else. The restoration, however, was no laughing matter. The arduous task took 4 ½ years and approximately $2.5 million. In its heyday, this Interstate Theater sat over 1300 movie goers, which was a lot compared to other theaters in the city. Austin’s father was the theater’s first chief projectionist when it opened December 1, 1950. After years of neglect, abuse, and a couple of renovations, the theater was saved from a bank conversion and purchased by current owner Jerry Shults.
Sam related to us the varied challenges they experienced during the rehab. One major problem was that hardly anyone ever bothered to photograph the interiors of theaters; therefore, there was almost no photo documentation of the inside. To overcome this problem, Austin relied on two things; 2 old photographs, and his memory, which happens to be amazing.
Secondly, previous renovations including the Ridglea’s conversion into a movie grill resulted in the near destruction of some of the theater’s most beautiful features. To illustrate, a kitchen was built in the front lobby which resulted in the original terrazzo patterned floor being trenched out down the center and poured over with concrete. Today you can appreciate the gorgeously intricate pattern thanks to the hardworking people who pieced it together, an eight-week job consisting of sometimes ten hour days on hands and knees. Other obviously difficult but necessary projects were the preservation of the enormous pirate/conquistador-themed mural and the complete reconstruction of the concession area. Sam attributes the success of the renovation to the unique group of people who participated in the project. “Everyone from the owner to the workers knew the theater was a special place that deserved to be preserved. Being so familiar with the theater, I could visualize the finished product. I was fortunate to have a great team who believed in that vision and truly cared about making it happen.” He’s also grateful for the talented craftsmen and women who diligently labored to do things the right way, instead of the easy way.
In Austin’s eyes, there are still a few more projects to tackle. In one area, the paint is ‘just not right’, the lighting needs improvement, and the carpet will be replaced hopefully with a replica. But in our eyes as patrons of this beautiful historic landmark, it looks pretty perfect. The future of the Ridglea is bright. Currently it serves as a rentable venue for various types of events and the occasional show. However, owner Jerry Shults has hopes to redevelop the theater and neighboring property into a centerpiece for the performing arts.
Thankfully the building is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and will be enjoyed for years to come. I asked Sam what we as a community can do to support projects like this one and to help preserve our city’s history. He answered, “The community needs to support the crusaders who stand up and speak out for historic preservation. We could not have saved the Ridglea Theater without the help and dedication of the people at Historic Fort Worth. They depend entirely on the public for support. They devote their time and energy to seeing that we keep the remaining buildings and places that made Fort Worth what it is today.” Then he added, “Progress may be a great thing but not at the expense of our past. We need to be able to show our children and their children the places that made us what we are. Those historic places are a part of us… a very important part of us.” I couldn’t agree more. It is our responsibility to protect our city’s legacy. We are grateful for the long days and sleepless nights put in by all involved to preserve this special place for future generations. It was truly a labor of love.
Christy Ortiz is a Fort Worth native, and proud to say so. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UT Arlington in Interdisciplinary Studies. She taught for FWISD for eight busy years before switching gears and staying home with her two small children. Her hobbies are interior decorating for friends, photography, and flying kites with her kids. Her South American roots and love for the Spanish language and Latin cultures add to the diverse voices of our group.