Historic Forest Theater Plans Exciting Encore with Massive Restoration Project

To a stranger, the Forest Theater and its eye-catching green marquee sign that simply reads, “FOREST,” may appear to be a decaying blip alongside Interstate 45 as the highway snakes out of South Dallas toward Houston.

But for those who live around the theater, this off-white building is a charming relic of history.

The Forest opened in 1949 in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood that evolved into a primarily Black neighborhood. Historical photos from 1956 show a swarm of people lined up outside the box office to catch the entertainment of the night. The space has been a movie theater, a ballroom, a nightclub, and the venue of live shows hosted by Dallas native, and R&B singer, Erykah Badu.

These days, though, the theater sits idle. It hasn’t hosted a show since 2008.

But that’s about to change. Leaders of HKS, the city of Dallas, and the community organization, Forest Forward, are working together to bring the Forest back to life. Their much-anticipated plans call for a major renovation of the historic venue that will turn it into a multi-use community space that revitalizes South Dallas and showcases the neighborhood’s artistic talents.

“HKS is honored to work with Forest Forward in realizing their vision to revitalize the theater and have it serve as a community focal point that knits once separated neighborhoods back together,” said Mike Vela, a Principal and Senior Project Manager at HKS.

A Piece of Dallas History

When it opened in 1949, the Forest only served White patrons. The construction of Interstate 45 in the early 1950s divided the community, both literally and figuratively, creating persistent poverty and disinvestment in the area surrounding the theater. By the time the expressway was completed, the neighborhood had evolved into a predominantly Black community as Jewish residents moved out of South Dallas. Despite the neighborhood’s changing demographics, it wasn’t until 1956 that the first Black patrons were allowed into the Forest.

Declining ticket sales forced the theater to close in 1965, but it continued to host special events for many years, including shows organized by Badu that brought artists such as Tina Turner, Sidney Poitier, Prince and the Roots to South Dallas.

The Forest Theater was up for sale for several years before Jon Halbert, a longtime board member of the Dallas nonprofit, CitySquare, and his wife, Linda, noticed a “for sale” sign on the marquee during a drive to Fair Park in early 2017.

For years, the couple had toyed with the possibility of turning an existing performance venue into an educational space for youth in Dallas to explore the arts. Their family had a long history with dyslexia, including two of their three children who found their voice in the arts and went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Halberts recognized their privilege in being able to help their son and daughter build their portfolio in their childhood years to earn admission to arts programs; they recognized that many families couldn’t afford classes.

To the Halberts, the Forest Theater was an opportunity to build on ongoing work in Dallas to educate and inspire future artists, performers and behind-the-scenes arts professionals. And to them, South Dallas seemed like a good place to start, given its history with redlining and inequity.

“It isn’t about a lack of talent in South Dallas – it’s about a lack of opportunity, historically, compared to the rest of Dallas,” Linda Halbert said.

The Halberts purchased the Forest Theater in May 2017.

“Art is often considered a luxury, and I don’t think it has to be,” Linda Halbert added. “It takes a minute to break through that systemic belief that art is a luxury. Early on, we would have people say, ‘Why don’t you do something practical like a mechanic shop?’ But they don’t understand that art is everywhere – there are so many benefits that art brings to the human spirit.”

Balancing History with Potential

South Dallas resident Elizabeth Wattley often rode by the Forest Theater when she was growing up. Now, as head of the community nonprofit, Forest Forward, she has the opportunity to help shape the future of the legendary landmark.

She initially got involved in the project while working as a Director of Strategic Initiatives for CitySquare, offering to oversee the Forest Theater project as a way to give back to the neighborhood where she was raised and to ensure its residents had a say in the process.

After speaking to nearby residents and other stakeholders, the team decided that a revitalization project with a multi-use gathering space would add the most value to the community, reestablishing it as a glorious neighborhood anchor and arts center.

In 2018, the project received an honorable mention in the Greater Dallas Planning Council’s Urban Design Awards, under the Dream Study category.

Wattley said she appreciates the robustness of HKS’ services and the design team’s ability to solve problems.

“While the theater is the focus, there’s a lot more community impact,” Wattley said. “HKS is able to see the ripple effect of what can happen and start repairing down the line for what a master plan should really start working toward.”

‘For the Culture’

Renderings from the Forest Theater project line an exterior wall along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for those passing by to imagine the long-term and widespread impact that the theater’s new chapter will have.

“For the Culture,” the wrapping along the wall reads.

The completed theater complex will be 66,000 square feet (5,574 square meters) with a 13,000-square-foot (1,207-square-meters) arts education hub, a performance hall with more than 1,000 seats, a multi-use 200-seat studio theater, a recording studio, and a restaurant.

In addition, the updated theater will have lower, mezzanine and upper-balcony seating with a large stage and orchestra pit. There will also be concession areas, a luxurious lobby and box offices. The building will also contain classrooms for students from the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy, which community leaders hope will one day become a pipeline to successful arts careers for youth in South Dallas.

Wattley said she looks forward to the day when the iconic “FOREST” marquee lights up again for the first time in decades. With the groundbreaking for the project happening in April 2024, she knows that day will come soon enough. The renovations are expected to be completed late next year.

“I want that tower to shine and that big red ball at the top to just – boom – be there,” Wattley said. “There’s nothing more symbolic to demonstrate change: turning on the light and igniting the beacon of South Dallas.”