At Fort Worth’s Isis Theatre, you get to pick the movie — as long as you get there first

·8 min read

Driving into the Fort Worth Stockyards along the red brick road of Main Street, a theater with as much history as Cowtown greets locals and travelers alike.

On the outside are dozens of lit light bulbs under the marque with a non-operational neon sign above it reading “New Isis.”

Pedestrians walk by, curiously looking at the entrance or peering into the windows.

It’s been a while since anyone has been able to visit the theater.

The original ticket booth welcomes patrons into the newly renovated Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
The original ticket booth welcomes patrons into the newly renovated Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

For longtime Fort Worth natives, the Isis Theatre, located at 2401 N. Main St., may be remembered as the deteriorating theater that was shut down for over 30 years.

Before working as publicist for the Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre, Fort Worth resident Lee Littlefield said he remembers driving past the boarded up building years ago wondering what would become of it.

Until theater professionals Jeffrey and Debbie Smith bought the building in 2016, the future of the over 100 year old building was uncertain.

It has been a year since the Isis Theatre, also known as Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre, reopened. This single screen theater shows movies three times a day, seven days a week and features a 1920s style cocktail lounge.

What sets the theater apart from the typical multiplex cinemas of today is that anyone can pick a movie from the rotating list of 40 titles to watch—they just have to be the first to show up ahead of the screening time.

The Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The single screen theater shows movies three times a day, seven days a week. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
The Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The single screen theater shows movies three times a day, seven days a week. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

Another unique aspect of the theater is live entertainment, from tribute performances to live concerts.

A year since its reopening following a three year renovation project, one challenge Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre faces is spreading the word that it’s back in business.

“We’re fighting 33 years of people being like ‘Oh it’s closed, someone should do something’,” Littlefield said.

Cowtown history

The single-screen Isis Theatre opened in 1914, housed in the same building as a pharmacy, a Western Union telegraph office and a twelve key rooming house.

After a piece of film ignited causing the building to burn down in 1935, the Isis Theatre reopened as “The New Isis” — a thousand-seat theater without the Western Union and rooming house.

The theater has seen its share of changes through the years, including interior renovations after the Marine Creek flood of 1942 filled the theater with up to four feet of water.

Historic photographs of the the Isis Theatre are displayed in the original ticket booth on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
Historic photographs of the the Isis Theatre are displayed in the original ticket booth on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

The Isis Theatre has had its share of star-studded guests throughout the years. Willie Nelson watched a film there, Sonny and Cher once rented out the entire theater to watch their movie and Judy Garland visited, with an elephant brought outside on Main Street to promote her 1939 movie “Babes in Arms.”

By the 1980s the rise of the multiplex theater made it difficult for single screen theaters to compete, including the Isis which shuttered in 1988.

Today, the exterior facade is the same as it was in 1936, with the original ticket booth still standing out front from when the theater first opened in 1914.

“This is Texas history, this is Stockyards history, this is Fort Worth history and it’s alive again,” Littlefield said.

Reviving a relic

Just as Littlefield drove past and wondered what would become of the Isis Theatre, so too did Fort Worth residents Jeffrey and Debbie Smith.

Debbie is Fort Worth born and raised and though Jeffrey moved a lot growing up, Fort Worth was where he was born and the place he calls home today.

Both Jeffrey and Debbie were working in the educational sector of theater when they faced a crossroads to decide what to do next in their careers. For Jeffrey, who had kept the dream of doing something with the Isis Theatre in the back of his mind, the next step was clear.

“I didn’t miss a beat, I said ‘I know exactly what I want to do, I want to get a hold of the Isis Theatre, I want to renovate it, I know what I want to do with the building, I want to bring it back’,” he said.

Isis Theatre owner Jeffrey Smith explains the renovation process undertaken with the Texas Historical Commission to keep the venue as close to the original as possible. The theatre first opened its doors in 1914. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
Isis Theatre owner Jeffrey Smith explains the renovation process undertaken with the Texas Historical Commission to keep the venue as close to the original as possible. The theatre first opened its doors in 1914. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

Once they incorporated and bought the building, Jeffrey said he felt like a kid in a candy store as he climbed over rubble piles and walked through the dilapidated interior.

From the beginning the Smiths worked with the Texas Historical Commission on renovations for the theater, ensuring it kept its historic integrity while also serving as a usable space.

“[The theater] has such a rich and tremendous history with it, we wanted to make sure that we honored that,” he said. “We were spending as much time as needed to make sure we matched what was originally there. Our intent was to bring it back the way it was in the late 20s, early 30s.”

What was originally estimated to be an 18 month renovation quickly turned into a three year project, Jeffrey said. Because the theater was under construction, they were seen as essential and could continue work, he said, but pandemic related delays and supply chain shortages were a downside to renovating during 2020.

Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre had its soft reopening in summer 2021.

The theater’s neon sign that says “New Isis” and the neon along the marque remain dark. The cost of getting the signage relit to meet modern standards will cost $80,000. Jeffrey said they’ve started a GoFundMe campaign to give an opportunity for community members to contribute to the success of the theater’s revival.

The Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The historic theatre reopened last year after being closed since 1988. It first opened its doors as a 400-seat theatre in 1914. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
The Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The historic theatre reopened last year after being closed since 1988. It first opened its doors as a 400-seat theatre in 1914. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

As of Aug. 9, the fundraiser had raised $1,400 of its goal. The fundraiser can be found under the name “Relight the Sign-Downtown Cowtown at the Isis” on GoFundMe’s website.

“We want to raise the money so that we can get the neon on that sign and we’ll have a huge community celebration to bring the lights back on,” he said.

Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre

Two Egyptian sarcophagi stand in the entryway of the theater, a nod to the Egyptian goddess Isis which the theater is named after, and the main overhead lights up front are in the shape of pyramids.

The ramp leading up to the 500-seat theater is the same as it has been for decades and a wood concession stand offers popcorn and candy for movie goers. Tickets can be purchased in person or online for live events and admission into a movie screening is free with the purchase of a snack and drink.

Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre is open from 11 a.m. to midnight every day.

Classic movies are shown Sunday through Thursday at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. when there are no live performances scheduled. If you’re the first to show up, ask a staff member behind the concession stand for the movie list to pick out that hour’s movie.

Lyncee Smith works the concession stand at the Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The historic theatre reopened last year after being closed since 1988. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
Lyncee Smith works the concession stand at the Isis Theatre on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The historic theatre reopened last year after being closed since 1988. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

Each month Downtown Cowtown rotates its selection list of 40 movies. Some movies like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns are fixed on the list, but other selections change depending on current interest. For August, Downtown Cowtown offered some Elvis movies, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Viva Las Vegas,” timed to coincide with the summer blockbuster “Elvis” directed by Baz Luhrmann.

For Downtown Cowtown staffer Kendall Lambert, getting to show classic movies like the Elvis films brings a sense of nostalgia of her grandmother who used to have knick-knacks of The King in her home.

Lambert said she remembered seeing the Isis Theatre boarded up and falling apart when she visited the Stockyards with her dad and sister growing up. Now working behind the cocktail bar counter in the space that used to be the pharmacy in 1914, Lambert has come full circle from her early days of pondering the theater’s potential.

The newly renovated Isis Theatre features a cocktail bar in the lobby as see on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. The venue also has an upstairs speakeasy space available to rent out. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
The newly renovated Isis Theatre features a cocktail bar in the lobby as see on Tuesday, August 9, 2022. The venue also has an upstairs speakeasy space available to rent out. Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

In the age of streaming, Downtown Cowtown at the Isis Theatre offers a chance not many get: to watch an older movie on the big screen, in a setting similar to how they originally featured.

“It’s completely nostalgic,” she said. “I don’t think people know just how famous and how special it is.”