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 HKS and a community organization, Forest Forward, are working to change that. If they have their way, the Forest’s next debut will be a multi-use community space that revitalizes South Dallas and showcases the neighborhood’s artistic talents.

A Piece of Dallas History

When it opened, the Forest only served White patrons. Construction of Interstate 45 around 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. 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 Dave Chappelle, 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 and decided to donate it to CitySquare. At the time, they didn’t know what path the project would take but they were hopeful of the impact it would one day have.

“Art is often considered a luxury, and I don’t think it has to be,” Linda Halbert said. “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 historic landmark’s future.

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.

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

Forest Forward is now trying to raise $75.2 million to revamp the theater and the surrounding area with a focus on housing, education and healthcare. Wattley hopes community leaders and residents across Dallas will rally together to help reach the fundraising goal so the project can break ground in 2022 and the theater can re-open by 2024.

HKS Project Designer Hilari Jones said the design team is mindful that revitalization could bring unwanted gentrification and is being intentional about creating a space that will be a “haven of opportunity, not opportunists.”

The key, she said, is to create a space that is part of a broader master plan for South Dallas and the city at large.

“This is a rare opportunity to use the skills I’ve developed over my career to not just create a wonderful cool building but something that could make a difference in the lives of the community that the structure is in,” Jones said.

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

“While the theater is the focus, there’s a lot more community impact,” she 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 Community,” “For the Children,” “For the Culture,” the wrapping along the wall reads.

Shanay Wise, a professional caterer who lives a mile away, leads tours of the Forest in her spare time to generate interest and funds for the revitalization project.

Wise begins her tours in the dimly lit theater space, pointing out the massive black-and-white paintings that portray Dallas’ decades-old music and arts culture. Propped against a wall for now, one painting shows a house band that used to perform regularly at the venue. Once the theater is renovated into a multi-purpose space, the art will be re-hung on the walls to represent the theater’s past.

The main atrium will be updated to house a coffee shop and seating for locals to visit any time during the week, even when a show isn’t in session. The second floor will be renovated to include a reading nook, and the main auditorium’s balcony space will be converted into a flexible space with access to a catering kitchen for private events.

Adjacent to the theater, three nooks that once housed a barber shop, clothing stores, and more will be converted into 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. The 6,000-sq. feet educational space will also house a creative laboratory with a black box theater, control room, sound booth, podcast studio and conference rooms.

‘A New Beginning’

On a recent tour with a City of Dallas official, church members and local residents, Wise shared that she wishes this type of space was available to her two children when they were in school. Though they didn’t have the opportunity to enroll in an arts program as children, they’ve been able to turn their arts passions into career prospects as adults. Wise’s 27-year-old daughter became a dancer and her 22-year-old son is an artist.

But she says her children’s career paths would have been easier if they had access to a place like the revamped Forest Theater, right in their neighborhood. That’s why she’s most excited about the plan to convert the old storefronts into classrooms for students and the broader community.

“This theater represents a new beginning. Forest Forward wants to revitalize the area, not just the theater, so everyone can benefit,” Wise said. “For me, it’s giving South Dallas a new beginning and restoring it back to the entertainment hub that it used to be.”

Jones and Wattley said they’re looking forward to seeing the “FOREST” marquee light up for the first time in decades. They hope that day will come soon.

“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.”