After nearly two years of renovations, the Ridglea Theater will open to the public for the first few events of its new era this week. But there are still many questions that remain about the historic theater -- from the practical (where the heck will people park?) to the philosophical (what exactly will the Ridglea be, and how will it add to the cultural identity of Fort Worth?). Here, with the help of the Ridglea's prime rescuer, Jerry Shults, we attempt to answer a few of those burning questions.
1. When will the renovation and restoration of the theater be completely finished?
On a recent visit, the Ridglea Theater was taking shape in a way it had never before.
Hanging in the main room, above and to each side of the stage, were regal folds of red velvet, a majestic curtain filling the space. The floor -- tongue-and-groove oak boards laid by hand -- replaced the dingy, gnarly carpet that had been under foot for so long. The balcony was slowly filling with seats, and the aisles were covered by plush red carpet.
The lobby now bears traces of what will become a concessions stand, not unlike the one there when the theater first opened its doors in December 1950. The hand-painted murals in the lobby have been restored and protected against future damage, and the terrazzo floor has likewise been reclaimed from damage inflicted upon it during remodeling jobs in the late '80s and early '90s.
The theater will not be completely finished when it opens the doors to the public for its brief spate of events, beginning Saturday with Historic Fort Worth's First Retro Ball. It will be, however, much further along than it was even a month ago, when the main room was still bare and the balcony was devoid of anything but cement dust.
When Shults bought the Ridglea in 2010, he was told a full, stem-to-stern renovation would take between three and five years and several million dollars. He now estimates that the Ridglea Theater will be fully restored by the end of this year, or at the very latest, early next year -- a full two years after he became the property's owner.
As Shults told me in August, "It has come so far, especially [from] being a hair's breadth of being demolished."
2. Where will everyone park?
The most persistent question dogging the anticipated reopening of the Ridglea revolves around where patrons will stow their cars while inside.
Short answer? It's complicated.
For Saturday's Retro Ball (tickets are $225 per person), Historic Fort Worth's Stephanie Montero says the group will offer valet parking and has procured "donated" spots from some adjoining businesses, including the Villages of Camp Bowie shopping center and Frost Bank.
Michael Mallick, who owns an office building as well as about 150 spaces behind the Ridglea, did not -- and, he says, will not -- make his parking available for Saturday's event or any Ridglea Theater function going forward, citing the potential for property damage stemming from crowds at rock concerts. "No negotiations have gone on whatsoever," according to Mallick. (Shults confirmed that the two have not spoken in months.)
As far as the Ridglea's only scheduled show -- Nov. 2's Expendables concert -- the official solution to the parking problem is that there is no solution.
The Ridglea Theater's situation is comparable to that of other, recently revitalized urban movie houses in North Texas, like the Kessler Theater, the Granada Theater or the Lakewood Theater. All three Dallas-based venues have precious little "official" parking -- the Granada has a private parking lot directly behind the building, as does the Kessler, although both lots are relatively small -- and often, concertgoers seek automotive refuge on neighborhood side streets. (The Ridglea Theater officially owns about 80 parking spots.)
"There's so much parking over across the street in the Como area, it's unbelievable. There'd be enough parking over there alone," Shults says of the Ridglea. "Yeah, [patrons would] have to walk five or six blocks, but we could put security patrols over there."
While no one I spoke with for this article would directly confirm as much, I suspect that's what will happen with the Ridglea, barring a genuinely creative solution from Shults or the city, or the end of the stalemate with Mallick. The surrounding residents, however, may ultimately force Shults' hand by complaining to the City Council and the district's representative, Zim Zimmerman, about the potentially clogged streets.
3. Who's going to book the venue?
Shults freely admits that booking a live-music venue is "not his bailiwick." Yet, beyond the handful of concerts scheduled for the end of this month and the beginning of November, no other live-music events are on the horizon. Part of the reason is that the Ridglea still has a little more work to undergo, and another, larger part is that Shults says he is in no hurry -- both in the financial sense (he estimates the property is bringing in around $20,000 a month), or to find someone to book concerts there.
Thanks to a full roster of tenants in his office complex behind the theater, and the Gas Pipe's Ridglea location's profitability, Shults is in a rare position in the large venue world: He has no need to stage events simply to pay his bills. Therefore, he has the luxury of looking for the best fit for the theater.
He declined to name any of "several independent" local booking agencies he has been in talks with -- he did allow that there may be acts that are "too big for the Kessler, that would be perfect for this" -- and Shults did say he was open to the idea of more than one booking agent or agency holding sway over the Ridglea's stage.
As to whether AEG Live or another nationally connected booking agency will be placing shows at the Ridglea, Shults is uncertain. (Three of the four shows AEG Live booked into the space have been moved to Dallas.) He cites AEG Live's recent announcement that it is for sale as cause for concern ("They started getting really squirrelly three or four months ago," he says, "I'm not sure where we are with AEG"), and says Live Nation was not interested in booking the Ridglea either, due to its own financial woes.
"Generally speaking, I want national acts. I want it to be a classy venue, a high-quality venue," Shults says. "If you can imagine the Kessler Theater but three times as big -- that's what I want. I don't want to get in a pissing match with Billy Bob's; I don't want to get in a pissing match with Bass Hall. I don't want to take talent away from Lola's [Saloon] or any of the other clubs that are doing such a good job for Fort Worth. I want to do things that adds to Fort Worth entertainment, not competes with it. I think there's room for that."
Shults, who wants a "huge variety of music" on the Ridglea stage, says he's aiming for South by Southwest in March to ramp up live-music bookings (the Ridglea Bar, which was briefly opened this spring, took advantage of SXSW overflow). He says he's also working on bringing "really old, established bands, like Deacon Jones" from New Orleans to Fort Worth.
4. Will the metal community ever be welcomed back?
Before a single note had been played in the renovated main room, Shults had already struck a raw nerve with some former patrons.
The Ridglea Theater was originally slated to open Sept. 18, with a tour kickoff show from heavy-metal supergroup Down. Despite asking AEG Live not to book a metal show for the Ridglea's reopening concert, the agency did so anyway, before ultimately moving the gig to Deep Ellum and Trees (where it sold out).
The reason initially cited for the move was low ticket sales, and the venue's readiness was also a concern, but Shults now says the venue could have been ready in time to host the show. (Calls to AEG Live's Robin Phillips, who has been responsible for booking the Ridglea's shows thus far, were not returned.)
Shults fielded plenty of angry calls from the Ridglea's neighbors when the Down show was announced, accusing him of "going back on his word," although as Shults points out, few of his callers "ever come by to see the theater or see the progress."
"Personally, I have no problem with [Down]," Shults says. "I'm trying to be a good neighbor. We need to do things in the right way, and show people we're not going to be this sludged-out entity. We may have metal in here later on, but not as our first act."
What enraged local metal fans was Shults' perceived disregard for the metal community, which helped keep the doors open over the last, faltering decade of the Ridglea's existence. Warbeast's Bruce Corbitt, whose band was on the bill of the Ridglea's last show in 2010 as well as last month's Down concert, took issue with the idea that a metal concert would, in Shults' words, "send a bad message" to neighbors.
"As hard as it is to believe for some people that want to stereotype us, we really are like a big family," Corbitt says of metal fans. "Some of us may have a rough exterior, but never underestimate our minds, our spirits and our hearts. We are loyal to each other just like we are to the bands and music we love."
Shults says he has hired Bill Lawrence, of public relations firm Lawrence and Associates, to handle publicity going forward, in hopes, he says, that "if [the Ridglea] does some charitable events, integrates into the classical scene, has a play or two, nobody's going to care how many rock concerts we have."
But, much to metal fans' likely chagrin, the genre won't be an integral component of the Ridglea's grand reopening, and possibly for many months afterward.
"I want to steer clear of metal acts, per se," Shults says, although "if Tool wants to play here, they've got a date any time they want."
5. What is the Ridglea Theater going to be -- a movie house, a concert hall or something else?
Ever since Jerry Shults bought the Ridglea Theater in late 2010, there have been a multitude of theories as to what the space would be used for. Just looking back through the DFW.com archives at the articles published in the aftermath of Shults' purchase of the theater and the surrounding complex reveals a possible wine-and-cheese bar in the Ridglea's lobby, a possible art-house movie theater and a potential "urban cocktail lounge," among other ideas. In the end, Shults says he doesn't know exactly what the Ridglea will become, because its true purpose is yet to be determined.
"Any murkiness is because I don't know what the public wants," Shults says, who adds that he's actively soliciting suggestions from anyone who has them.
For his part, Shults envisions the Ridglea "being a community-based theater, with a multitude of uses." That includes live concerts, Sunday-morning church services, the occasional private event and, yes, film screenings on the newly installed movie screen that sits high above the Ridglea's restored stage.
"[Music] is going to be a big part of it, but I think it's narrower than what I see," Shults says. "I don't know if that alone will reconnect it to the community."
What is most overlooked about all of the questions surrounding the Ridglea Theater is that, mercifully, there is time to address them all. No longer does the threat of the wrecking ball loom over the Ridglea -- Shults has helped bring the historic site back from the brink, and he, along with all of Fort Worth, will have the opportunity to remake this once-foundering gem into whatever they like.