History of the Palace
The Palace Theater’s bright blade sign continues to light up Burlington Avenue nightly, a beacon of hope for one tiny West Texas town for more than eight decades.
The Palace: Highlight of Spur’s main drag since 1929
BARBARA BRANNON | REPRINTED FROM THE TEXAS SPUR, NOV. 26, 2020 (LATER EXPANDED)
It opened to a crowd of more than its 300-seat capacity on Labor Day 1929, showing Spur’s first-ever “talkie” movie. (Note that although an early newspaper article cites a 1,000-seat capacity, this figure may never have been accurate.) In the decades since, in addition to films it has hosted everything from Easter Week church services, to beauty contests, to industrial conventions, to baccalaureates and graduations, to Santa snapshots, to Vaudeville shows to Vegas acts to video games.
Since 1994, its colorful blade sign with 366 incandescent bulbs has served as the city’s icon once again.
The building at 422 Burlington Avenue, of course, is the two-story 5,450-square-foot Palace Theatre, in its heyday described as “one of the handsomest and most modernly constructed within all of Western Texas.” The yellow-brick movie palace with its gracefully curved, lighted awning, second-story sash windows and barrel-tile roof details is evocative of the Spanish Renaissance–style architecture of Texas Tech University, and similar to other Palace movie houses of its day in Anson, Brady, Cisco, Paducah and elsewhere (cinematour.com).
A grand grand opening, 1929
News stories in The Texas Spur and Dickens Item tracked the progress of Spur’s Palace from concept to opening in the late 1920s and reveal that it wasn’t the first in the area. Palace movie houses in nearby Dickens and Jayton preceded it. Spur itself already had two theaters, the Spur and the Lyric.
On April 6, 1928, it was reported that Murray A. Lea, manager of Ernest Mayfield’s Palace Theatre in Jayton, came to town “looking after the Spur Theatre interests in Spur.” After their further investigation into the booming motion picture business, on May 24 of the following year it was announced that “Dr. B. F. Hale and E. L. Carraway this week let the contract to W. P. Nugent & Son for the construction of a 50x115 foot theatre building for the Lyric and Spur Theatres management” next door to the new Masonic Hall at a cost of $25,000.
By August 20, when a large display ad trumpeted the Sept. 2 grand opening bill featuring the “All Talking, Singing and Dancing” “Broadway Melody” and the Laurel and Hardy comedy “Unaccustomed As We Are,” the price tag had ballooned to $35,000—only weeks before the Black Tuesday stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
The Palace in its heyday
Still, movie houses flourished, and though management and ownership changed hands several times, the Palace, with the largest capacity and best technology of any auditorium in the region, became the de facto center of civic and social life in Spur. Special promotions and contests were advertised, with clubs, athletes and school groups as the focus.
Texas Spur publisher Oran McClure wrote on Sept. 27,
Although the “talking pictures” were introduced in Spur several weeks ago, through the courtesy of the management we last Tuesday night saw and heard for the first time a "talky” at the New Palace Theatre.
The picture was “The Idle Rich.”
It portrayed real life and living incidents of what is termed the lower class, the great middle class and the idle rich. However the idle rich character proved to be a real “prince” regardless of his millions and allotted idle time. It was a good picture, portrayed a good lesson to those who heard and saw it, and the “voices” were distinct and sufficiently natural to be appreciated.
The New Palace Theatre is a real asset and a credit to the town, and the programs being given are worthy of the large patronage and attendance being accorded on the part of the town and surrounding country.
The Palace building’s two side offices were occupied by eager tenants over the years: H. P. Gibson Fire Insurance & Loans, Spur Power & Light (later City Water & Light, then West Texas Utilities) and the public library all proudly touted their easy-to-locate digs.
In September 1933, when the Maurice Chevalier picture “A Bedtime Story” was set to debut, the Palace offered a $3 account at the Spur National Bank to every baby born locally during the movie’s run, with $5 to the first.
In February 1950, the week after the Panhandle historical Western hit “The Sundowners” held its world premiere in Amarillo, the film showed at the Palace for a three-day run.
Free tickets were always a popular premium, and the Palace supported community groups throughout its long history.
Movies in decline
Decades later, with the advent of video recording and TV subscription services such as Home Box Office, movie palaces everywhere faced competition with the comforts of living room sofas. Spur’s Palace and other film houses could no longer cover costs. Digital projection posed another challenge, and thousands of theaters around the globe faced closure when they were unable to upgrade to the newer equipment distributors demanded.
In 1994, Spur community groups banded together to restore the Palace’s façade and replace its sign. “Erection of a new electric sign was completed at the Palace Theatre this week,” read a Texas Spur item of March 31. “The sign is of the sunburst type and will advertise the Theatre a long ways. Remodeling of the front of the theatre was started last week and is proceeding gradually with no interruption in the regular daily programs.”
The Palace, unable to keep up with the times, had closed its doors for regular movie showings in 1974 and only continued movies during annual Homecoming weeks (with equipment rented from Lubbock) and occasional live concerts.
The building went on the auction block and was donated to the local Chamber of Commerce to manage and restore, but those efforts couldn’t meet the costs of operating a theater.
Restoration and reopening
Spur citizens and ex-students were not be deterred. The Dickens County Historical Commission, recognizing the real and symbolic importance of the Palace to a community with a shrinking population, acquired the Palace for $10. “We had no money,” explained CHC member Mary Martin, but the commission nonetheless worked with and engineer and Spur High ex who devised a restoration plan pro bono.
With $10,000 borrowed on a signature loan by one member, along with word-of-mouth promotion and a memorial sidewalk brick campaign, within six weeks the commission raised $36,000, repaid the loan and restored the iconic sign.
On the basis of that success, the CHC successfully applied for numerous preservation grants, which financed a new roof, new gutters, and repair of brick walls. Once again able to mount stage shows, the group hosted memorable events throughout the decade, but they realized that two problems—outdated projection equipment and the lack of handicap access—still held them back. A $100,000 grant from the Ed Rachael Foundation of Corpus Christi, Texas, put the interior renovation over the top, and in June 2018, after installing digital audio/visual system with local know-how, the Palace once again showed a movie, the Meryl Streep/Tom Hanks Academy Award winner “The Post.”
Once again the lights of Burlington Avenue shone bright on movie nights, with presentations of topsstudi films on a second-run basis.
Locally produced commercials and short videos were shown on the big screen before feature films, including an animated short honoring DCHC leaders Harry Bob and Mart Martin. The Palace’s annual December “Meet Santa” event continued in 2018 and 2019 as part of overall downtown revitalization efforts.
Challenges: Covid, closures, climate control
It wasn’t long after movies returned to the Palace, though, that unforseen events shut things down again.
By spring of 2020, like movie theaters and public venues everywhere, the previously unknown coronavirus disease that was rapidly spreading worldwide forced an indefinite closure, and the Palace remained mostly dark through the rest of that year and most of the next.
Even during Covid closures, the Palace and its intrepid volunteers pressed ahead on financial and fix-up fronts, and during outdoor, socially distanced events at Rickels Park across the street, opened the theater’s elegantly refurbished restrooms for public use.
While closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, though, the building was damaged by two major weather events. A hailstorm that year forced replacement of the roof, a major undertaking.
Then, on February 21, 2021 amid the record-breaking Winter Storm Uri the Palace suffered water damage from frozen and broken pipes. Although flooding was fortunately limited to the lower areas of the auditorium area and underneath the stage, repair of the stage apron areas, the floor, storage closets, and seating required temporary removal of seating.
As with all misfortunes over the years, the theater’s leaders took the opportunity to do more repairs and upgrades, including fully insulating the 6,000-square-foot ceiling, repairing and repainting much of the interior wall surface, and repairing and repainting the auditorium floor before reninstalling seating. Electrical connections to the stage were improved, and risers were created to provide a second, lower stage level.
2021–22: Revitalization and the return of live shows
In October 2021 the Palace welcomed visitors back to an improved interior for a capacity crowd when a new local business, Argo Blockchain, used the auditorium and its facilities to introduce itself and its local community service project. Hundreds who had never before experienced the Palace attended, along with others who were grateful to be welcomed back.
That same season patrons enjoyed a reprise showing of “Macintosh and TJ,” the last film of cowboy star Roy Rogers’ long career, which had been shot in the area in 1975.
In spring 2022, thanks to funds from a $12,000 Humanities Texas coronavirus relief grant, the Palace’s stage was graced by a trio of presenters and performers centered around radio personality Tumbleweed Smith’s “Outrageous Texas Women of Character” program.
Regular monthly movies returned, with area youth as paid staff.
Palace leaders reached out to other historic theaters in the area to learn about operations and equipment, an ongoing undertaking.
These days the Palace’s bright blade sign continues to light up Burlington Avenue nightly, a beacon of hope for one tiny West Texas town for more than eight decades.