The Washington Theater — Dallas’ First Movie Palace

by Paula Bosse

washington-theatre_cinema-treasures_lgThe Washington, 1615 Elm (click for much larger image)

by Paula Bosse

The outrageously ornate Washington Theater was built in 1912 by W. D. Nevills (1872-1945), a man who had been running cheap little store-front nickelodeons in Dallas for several years. Three of his most popular were The Nickelodeon, The Candy, and The Palace (not to be confused with any later theaters in Dallas called the “Palace”).

nevills_standard-blue-book-of-tx_1912-14Standard Blue Book of Texas, 1912-1914

His Nickelodeon on Main Street can be seen in the lower center of this detail from a larger 1909 parade photo.


Nevills must have raked in a lot of nickels, because when his Washington Theater opened at 1615 Elm Street, it was the most spectacular motion picture “photoplay house” in Dallas. Nevills spared no expense for the theater’s furnishings and facade.

washington-theater_dmn_111712Dallas Morning News, Nov. 17, 1912 (click to read)

What might seem a little gaudy now, was probably still gaudy back then, but it was a fresh, NEW gaudy! And 600 Dallasites could all watch a movie at the same time. 600! Unheard of!

The Washington opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1912. Complete with “Human Pipe Organ.”

washington-theater_dmn_112712DMN, Nov. 27, 1912

The Washington was the king of the roost for only a short while, though — until young whippersnappers like the Queen began to steal its thunder. 600 seats? Pfft! It was a thousand or nothing now. The theater began to lose its luster and look more old and hulking than young and exciting, and after riding out its very long lease, the Washington Theater closed on July 1, 1927.

This little classified showed up a couple of weeks later, and it must have been a melancholy Nevills who had to write it up.

washington-theater_dmn_071327DMN, July 13, 1927

The theater continued to be used for a while — mostly for evangelical meetings or events. I’m not sure exactly when the building was demolished, but a report of the building’s being sold and plans for its razing appeared in The Dallas Morning News in October, 1927.


Let’s look at a couple of details from that top photo. The Washington was built without a marquee, but the outside of the building was studded with an eyeball-popping TWO THOUSAND LIGHTS! Imagine what that must have looked like — in 1912! Here’s an extreme close-up of the theater’s facade — look at all those bulbs!

washington-theatre_cinema-treasures_det1(click me!!)

And, below — was one of these men W. D. Nevills?


Another shot, this one showing how one worked without a typical illuminated marquee — you just string a banner up. (The needle is hitting a solid “8.5” on the visual clutter scale here.)

washington-theatre_corbis_19141914 via CorbisImages

Here it is, ablaze at night.


In an ad from 1914.


And in “color” from a picture postcard.



Sources & Notes

Top photo from Cinema Treasures; to read a history of the Washington Theater from Cinema Treasures (and to see another photo), see here. (Photo’s original source appears to be the Dallas Historical Society.)

The photo of the theater with the Mary Pickford banner is ©Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS; more info is here. (The movie “Behind the Scenes” was released in 1914.)

Photo of the theater at night is from Dallas Rediscovered by William L. McDonald — source: Dallas Historical Society archives.

The ad is from the 1914 Dallas Building Code.

The color postcard is from eBay.

Read about the closing of the Washington in an article available in the Dallas Morning News archives: “Washington Theater, Earliest Dallas ‘Movie Palace,’ Shows Last Close-Up After 15 Years” (DMN, July 4, 1927).

The Washington Theater must have been W. D. Nevills greatest achievement. It’s interesting to note that “Operator Washington Theater” appears on his death certificate. Nevills died in 1945, eighteen years after the theater closed.


For other Flashback Dallas posts on this era of movie theaters, see the following:

  • “Three of Dallas’ Earliest ‘Photoplay Houses’ — 1906-1913,” here
  • “Movie Houses Serving Black Dallas — 1919-1922,” here

Most images are larger when clicked.


Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.