In a way, Jerry Shults and the Ridglea Theater were meant for each other.
They first crossed paths in 1969, when Shults, a San Antonio native, caught a screening of Midnight Cowboy at the venerable old movie house on Camp Bowie Boulevard. A newly minted veteran of the U.S. Army, he had just returned from the Vietnam War.
"I moved up to Dallas...and the only place for me to get medical treatment was Carswell [Air Force Base in Fort Worth]," Shults says. "At the time, I didn't have a job...so I became acquainted with the theater. The first thing I noticed about it is -- I'm going, 'This is in Fort Worth?...It really reminded me of home."
Four decades later, the two would meet again under much different circumstances.
The Ridglea was facing the wrecking ball. Its owner, Dallas investment firm FixFunding, was closing in on a deal to sell the property to Bank of America in June 2010. One proposed plan would have decimated 90 percent of the building and replaced it with a drive-through bank branch.
Shults was, by then, a successful, Dallas-based businessman, founder of the Gas Pipe chain of smoke shops, and owner of recreational fly-fishing lodges in Alaska and Chile. A self-proclaimed 66-year-old hippie who had a long history (and rap sheet) of standing up to The Man, Shults swooped in that winter and paid an undisclosed sum (estimated by some to be around $2 million) to buy the foundering former movie theater with plans to restore it to its former glory.
It was a fitting rescue mission for this tie-dyed knight, whose unconventional path to accomplishment stems from a tenacious desire for, as he puts it, "peace, love and brotherhood."
Despite his affable, laid-back exterior, Shults' savvy business instincts have allowed him to amass millions in a business -- smoke shops -- that isn't typically welcomed into neighborhoods by chambers of commerce. It has also helped him navigate tremendously choppy political waters with the Ridglea Theater project, which has tested him like never before. He is juggling the expectations of a half-dozen different factions of the community -- from historic preservationists to city council members to metalheads and local music fans. To say public interest in the resurrection of the Ridglea is intense is an understatement.
Whether Shults is the ideal savior for this piece of Fort Worth history still remains to be seen.
He has won the adoration of the preservation community, with his painstaking restoration of the theater that has cost upwards of $1 million. He hired Sam Austin, the son of the theater's original projectionist and fought to get the theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. The work continues even as the theater hosts its first official event in two years Saturday.
But his enthusiasm and ambition have also run headlong into his admitted naivete about the music business.
Just this week, booking agent AEG Live announced that it was moving what would have been the Ridglea's first rock shows (the Temper Trap on Oct. 25 and Say Anything on Oct. 27) to Dallas, to the Deep Ellum club Trees. This comes on the heels of a September show featuring metal supergroup Down, which also was moved to Trees. (AEG Live representatives declined to comment about the reasons behind the moves; Shults says he was told "lagging ticket sales" were the determining factor.)
Shults may not be willing to admit it, but these early hiccups run the risk of alienating a fan base that is eager to see the Ridglea rock on again.
"This shows me I'm correct about being very careful about getting into the entertainment business," Shults says. "I don't associate [the shows being moved] with the Ridglea Theater. It's too soon to tell, but I don't think this has anything to do with the longevity or use of the Ridglea in the future -- I just think this is indicative of the industry right now."
The Ridglea and Jerry Shults are together again, but like any long-term couple, they are encountering their share of bumps along the way.
Born into a military family at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in 1946, Gerald Allan Shults (the Gas Pipe takes its name from his initials) went off to war in Southeast Asia in the late '60s, working as a forward air controller for the Army, calling in airstrikes and working closely with the top brass.
Upon his return to Texas, he settled in Dallas in 1970, and quickly became immersed in the anti-war protests being staged in Robert E. Lee Park.
"In those days, I was a pissed-off Vietnam veteran," Shults says. "I had a store -- I just took in consignment goods and I used the store as a community event area to organize peace marches because I was very active in anti-war [activities]."
Eventually, the consignment store/rally staging area turned into what would become the first Gas Pipe store in 1970, located at Maple and Oak Lawn avenues (where the Grapevine Bar stands today). It wasn't until Shults was married and had a daughter, Amy, in 1975, that he began turning from raising rabble to raising profits (Shults had incorporated the Gas Pipe three years earlier). When President Ronald Reagan initiated the "War on Drugs" in the early '80s and began enforcing, among others, new and tougher drug paraphernalia laws, Shults simply shifted the focus of his discontent from the Vietnam War to Washington, D.C.
"That changed the whole landscape -- the Vietnam War went away and it became something else," Shults says. "I still had this counter-culture, protest-type mentality [so] I was selected [by the Texas branch of trade organization Pipe Tobacco Council] to...lead legal fights against this law Reagan was putting in. I still think I have more confiscations [on my record] than anybody in the United States."
A cursory examination of Shults' legal records and Dallas County court records confirms he was brought before a judge multiple times, as far back as 1980, and was charged with "possible drug paraphernalia delivery" well into 1989. Almost every time, the charges were dismissed or were paid with a small fine.
While combating new legal precedents and watching as his competitors slowly fell by the wayside, Shults eventually expanded the Gas Pipe to eight stores throughout Texas and New Mexico. In the early '90s, Shults, ready for a change after two decades in the smoke shop business, began moving the Gas Pipe into the hands of a few "trusted employees" and his daughter, Amy, and headed to Alaska, where he opened Rapids Camp Lodge near King Salmon, and later, Rio Salvaje Lodge, near the town of Puerto Varas, Chile. It was a life-long love of fly fishing that prompted Shults to embark on these new endeavors, as well as a desire for a change of pace.
"I believe there's going to be a need for pristine experiences, and when I started that, the lodge business was very prolific," Shults says. "Now in retrospect, as far as a business investment, it may not be the best model to follow. In Alaska, less than three percent of the property is privately owned, so if I can own a mile and a half of river frontage and about 50 acres of land, it's a good position."
Shults, who earned an associate degree from San Antonio Junior College, where he majored in psychology, says he dabbled in studying business during his college days (in addition to studying at SAJC, Shults rattles off a half-dozen other schools where he took correspondence courses during his time in the military). He primarily works on instinct -- as during the Ridglea Theater project -- a trait that has served him well thus far.
Content to spend his days as a consultant to the Gas Pipe, or as a guide for tourists seeking Chilean or Alaskan fly-fishing idylls, Shults was happy to spend time with his daughter and grandchildren in Dallas. It was, after an eventful, successful life, a chance for peace and calm.
But it was that long-ago trip to the Ridglea Theater, and another of his many passions -- the restoration of vintage homes and buildings -- that would bring him to Camp Bowie Boulevard and to the rescue of a structure in desperate need of saving.
Saving a building
Shults wasn't just visiting movie theaters in the late '60s and '70s -- he was also spending time restoring old homes, particularly along Swiss Avenue in Dallas.
"I did a lot of work over there," he says, "and I started learning about how houses were built, just from the nature of buying buildings and re-doing them for the Gas Pipe -- I never tore anything down."
But the City of Dallas did eradicate several buildings, nearly all of them movie theaters, in the early '80s. It was the fate of the Festival Theatre, which was surreptitiously destroyed in the wee hours of the morning, just before it was set to be designated as a historic building, that spurred Shults to step in and save the Ridglea in 2010.
"I knew it was the same thing again," Shults says. "Bank of America was saying, 'We're going to save the entrance.' These buildings are not made that way. They would've had to spend millions to take it apart where it didn't collapse."
Once more, Shults was battling a force bigger than himself. Once he acquired the property for an undisclosed sum (some estimates put the total around $2 million), and promptly relocated his Fort Worth Gas Pipe right next door to the Ridglea, Shults began waging what could only be called a war of perception. He became entangled with city councilman Zim Zimmerman over zoning issues, including a bizarre interlude where rumors flew that Shults would be selling his wares in the Ridglea lobby. After a lengthy process, which including a historic designation from the city in January 2011, the Ridglea Theater was added to the U.S. Register of Historic Places in December 2011.
Shults was also faced with the daunting task of not only guaranteeing the Ridglea's historic designation, but working to restore a building that had, under previous tenants Richard Van Zandt and Wesley Hathaway, fallen into a state of disrepair.
"This [restoration] was on a much grander scale," Shults says. "There were several things in here I'd never done before, like restoring the murals or the terrazzo floor. Anything I do, I use it as a template for me to learn by. This was a big gift to me, even though I've worked my tail off on it."
Whatever the financial or emotional toll exacted by the Ridglea Theater project, Shults also had to contend with life-threatening physical struggles.
"I was very, very ill last year," Shults says. "I was dying from septic poisoning and didn't know it. Last September, I had four inches of my intestine removed that was leaking septic fluid into my system. Even at my sickest, or even at my most frustrated points, I never really regretted doing the theater."
Beyond the practical matters of restoring the theater, there's the matter of what to do with it once it's looking like new (see sidebar). Shults has no experience booking a live music venue, which is what the Ridglea had been for the decade prior to its ownership change in 2010, nor does he have any background in the performing arts. Once the bulk of the work in the theater is finished, Shults will turn his attention to renovating a 4,800-square-foot space around the corner (originally intended to be the Moon, before that deal with Moon owner Chris Maunder fell apart), which he estimates will hold about 350 people, and have a small kitchen.
He also must juggle various interested parties within the community: the historic preservation crowd, the music fans, the surrounding neighbors, city officials.
"As I listen to 'em, I learn, and I learn from all of 'em," Shults says. "My challenge was to use the whole building, and invent a system here where everybody was going to be happy. I still believe that's where we're going."
Just the 'custodian'
For now, however, the Ridglea Theater's ultimate destination is unknown.
Until the public gets inside, and sees what Shults' time, money and energy have wrought, the Ridglea Theater remains a (beautiful) blank slate.
But the picture is beginning to come into focus. Watermark Church will begin holding Sunday services in the main room soon, and into 2013 (if not sooner), the live music portion of the Ridglea Theater will likely resolve itself. Shults plans to keep talking to visitors, and finding out what will make the theater a vibrant part of the community. What must not happen, according to Shults, is allowing the theater to be relegated to the mists of memory.
"It's so important that this theater not become relevant only from a nostalgic point of view -- it's important; I have nostalgic memories of the Ridglea, too -- but that's what saved it," Shults says. "That's not what's going to move it forward."
In the end, Shults was largely motivated not by a desire to build something new, but to save something old. Had he not intervened when he did, and purchased the Ridglea Theater, there's no telling what would have happened to the property. Its previous owners, FixFunding, were content to let the property molder, and its former tenants, Van Zandt and Hathaway, had the passion but not the funds to devote to proper restoration.
Is Shults the right man, in the right place, at the right time to lead the Ridglea going forward?
Even he seems reluctant to commit to that.
"I'm just the custodian," he says, referring to his leadership role in restoring the theater and getting it back on its feet. However, he has willed the theater to his grandchildren and continues: "I just want to make sure I give them the best package possible."
And for now, that may be enough. It ensures future generations of Fort Worthians, and all Texans, will be able to step inside the Ridglea Theater, just as Jerry Shults did 40 years ago, and make memories strong enough to last a lifetime.