Perhaps you have seen the magnificent art deco marquee that peeps out from the building on Hickory Street (just west of the downtown square)? At night, the colorful neon of The Campus Theater brightens the sky and beckons one to visit and enjoy a good time. They say that, aside from being hauntingly beautiful, the Campus Theater is haunted!
It doesn’t show first run movies anymore, but instead is a permanent home for all performing arts organizations in the city. In the 1990s, the Denton Community Theater (DCT), the Greater Denton Arts Council (GDAC), the City of Denton and many interested citizens worked to save this beautiful relic of the past. These days, you are most likely to find the newest production from the DCT there, although other performing arts groups (and the Thin Line Film Festival) utilize the facilities as well.
Don’t let the term “community” theater frighten you away! Mike Barrow, the Managing Director for the last six years, assured me that DCT productions are a “cut above” what most people think of when they hear that term used. He said it was because our community has so many talented people with acting skills that would qualify them to be professionals!
Mr. Barrow kindly took some time out his day to give me a bit of information on the history of The Campus Theater, and to share some pictures that most of the public doesn’t see. Some of them hang in the anteroom to the men’s restroom … where I would never have found them.
That lovely sign is the original one that has adorned the building since it opened in October of 1949 with a showing of “I Was A Male War Bride.” The film starred the heart-throb actor Cary Grant and a lovely actress named Ann Sheridan, who grew up right here in Denton, Texas. What better way to draw a crowd than to offer a movie with a “local girl” in it?
From 1949 until it closed its doors as a movie theater in 1985 (overshadowed by the multiplex theater at the mall), The Campus Theater was a Denton hotspot where families went to enjoy first run movies and teenagers gathered on their dates in state-of-the-art comfort. Locals remember enjoying classic movies like Gone With The Wind, The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, The King and I, Giant, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Camelot, Cleopatra, M*A*S*H, West Side Story, The Exorcist, True Grit, Blue Hawaii, Wizard of Oz, The Love Bug, White Christmas, From Here to Eternity, High Noon, and many, many more.
Folks around here flocked to The Campus for their entertainment. It would have looked a bit like the picture above (shared by the Portal to Texas History) in 1956, when “Jubal” came out. Possibly the fact that The Campus was the first theater in Denton to have air conditioning drew the crowds, but more likely it was the elaborate promotion for the movies (orchestrated by the manager, Mr. J.P. Harrison) that caught their attention. I liked the photograph below showing the promotion for “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Yes, this was one of the pictures hidden in the men’s room.
The promo below for “Stranger With A Gun,” starring Glenn Ford, is also hidden in the bathroom. That is a live sheep in the pen outside the theater! Do you think that is extravagant? That’s nothing…I’m told there was an elephant to advertise another production, but I couldn’t find any pictures.
The movie stars came out to The Campus Theater, too! Imagine back in those days getting to see big name stars like John Wayne, Fabian, or Sandra Dee in your own tiny hometown. One local man, Steve Yount, remembers the thrill of going to The Campus to see Tonto! Yes, Kemosabe, Jay Silverheels, the actor who played the character of Tonto in The Lone Ranger, actually came to Denton back in the 1960s. Steve couldn’t remember what movie was playing, but he vividly remembered gathering the caps from Pepsi bottles (out of the soda machines) to turn in for a free ticket to the show.
Perhaps the biggest coup for The Campus Theater was in October of 1967, when it hosted the world premier of the movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Movie critics came from all over the United States, and the film stars were there, too! Unfortunately, The Campus doesn’t have any photographs from that eventful night. However, George Boutwell, who was the 2006 State Artist of Texas, agreed to let me show you his amazing depiction which is available as a print.
I have to tell you that I had an ulterior motive for wanting to find out more about The Campus Theater — that reason is Mr. Harrison! I wasn’t just fascinated by the fact that he was such a showman. Although he passed away many years ago, it is said that his ghost lingers at the theater! Many people have stories about encountering him, and it is said that a sighting of Mr. Harrison during a rehearsal is “good luck” for the production underway. I’m busily collecting those stories to share on haunted tours of Denton for Ghosts of Denton (join me one weekend and I will share what I find). However, I’m excited to show you the picture below! That is indeed Mr. J. P. Harrison outside of the movie theater that he loved so well. I scoured the internet to find a photo of him and couldn’t find “hide nor hair” of him. When I mentioned that to Mr. Barrow, he showed me the framed picture that was hanging in the conference room all along. He even let me leave the theater with it, so I could make a copy to show you.
Next time you get the chance, you must see a production at the theater. The Campus is definitely one of the “best” entertainment sources in Denton. The full schedule and ticket information can be found at the DCT website. The summer lineup is amazing! When you go to see a production, keep your eyes peeled … you might get lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mr. Harrison himself. Of course, then you have to tell me the story!