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Historic Ridglea Theater reopens with Retro Ball

Posted 8:56am on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012

The historic Ridglea Theater, which had been closed for more than two years and narrowly avoided the wrecking ball, reopened Saturday night with a nod to the past and hope for the future.

The theater, which has undergone a refurbishing that honors its 62-year-history, reopened with a Retro Ball presented by Historic Fort Worth Inc. The affair included a red-carpet walk, with people in '50s-era costumes posing next to classic Cadillacs, and a performance by party band the RayBans.

Former Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In star Ruth Buzzi was among the attendees, who also included longtime KXAS/Channel 5 entertainment reporter and movie critic Bobbie Wygant and Battlestar Galactica actress Anne Lockhart, who is the daughter of actress June Lockhart.

But the real star was the theater, with its lobby murals and terrazzo floor restored in a way that generated praise from people who had seen movies there as early as the 1950s.

"The portraits and everything are just like they were when I was a kid going up and down those stairs," said Dwight Cumming of Fort Worth, who saw movies at the theater regularly from 1955 to 1970. "They did a fantastic job."

"That's the biggest compliment I could hear," said Jerry Shults, 66, the self-described former hippie who paid an undisclosed amount in late 2010 to save the theater. Some estimates have gone as high as $2 million.

"As frustrating as it's been, it's been a total joy for me to be part of the whole process," he said.

Shults said that the outside neon is completely redone, the roof is new and the theater is painted is exactly as it was in 1950. The balcony, not yet complete, is back to its full size after having been split in two during the late '80s to form two upstairs theaters.

"I wanted people to remember 1950 as much as possible," Shults said.

The restoration earned kudos from a woman well-connected with the theater's past.

"I think it's fabulous," said Kristi Wilson, who hosted the ball and whose great-grandfather A.C. Luther built the theater, which opened Dec. 1, 1950. "I'm ecstatic. I think it's absolutely flawless. ... It's nice to have a little bit of Fort Worth history back to where it is."

Shults, an Air Force veteran who discovered the theater in the early '70s during visits to what was then Carswell Air Force Base, was pleased with the turnout for the ball and with the restoration.

"Three days ago, you'd [have been] scratching your head," he said. "But the crew worked a lot of long hours, and they made me look like a genius. The crew I've got are great."

Several young women passed out carnations to guests, including Andrea Cantrell, whose mother, Patsy, passed out carnations at the 1950 opening. Fort Worth artist Nancy Lamb and her husband, Bob Powell, came as Lucy and Desi Arnaz.

"I think it's brilliant," Lamb said. "I think they should start doing this to more buildings in town, instead of razing them like they usually do. ... I'd much rather see a movie here."

Dennis Bishop, a movie producer, and Janis Jolcuvar, a writer, hadn't been to the theater during its incarnations as a movie palace and a concert venue. But they had visited during the restoration and were impressed with the results.

"We came here during the early stages, because I was with the Lone Star Film Society at the time," Bishop said. "To come and see the damage that had been done and the way [Shults] has been restoring it has been amazing."

The Ridglea will be a multipurpose venue, with movies, concerts and private events.

At 1:30 p.m. today, the theater will present the movie The Sound of Music in a singalong screening.

Online: RidgleaTheater.com

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872

Twitter: @rphilpot

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