Snider Plaza & The Varsity Theater — 1920s

by Paula Bosse

varsity-theater_1929_galloway_1600The Varsity Theater, Snider Plaza, 1929

by Paula Bosse

Snider Plaza, the University Park shopping center near the SMU campus, was formally opened on June 2, 1927 when its centerpiece fountain was switched on as a crowd of thousands watched. The buildings weren’t completed yet, but it was a sure sign to everyone that a large project was underway in an area of town which was not yet fully developed.

It was announced in December, 1926 that a 30-acre tract at the northwest corner of Hillcrest and Daniel had been purchased by Wichita Falls businessman Charles W. Snider (he had recently funded Snider Hall, the women’s dormitory at SMU) and University Park mayor J. Fred Smith from Miss Fannie B. Daniel, whose family had owned the land since 1851. The purchase price was $82,500 (which would be the equivalent of about $1.25 million in today’s money) (…let that sink in for a moment…). Snider Plaza, along with SMU, was both the heart of University Park and an impetus for real estate development around it.

Here’s an ad from October, 1927 from the University Park Development Co. (click to see larger images) — lots were going for $1,890 ($30.000 today):

university-park-develpment-co_ad_100927_a

university-park-develpment-co_ad_100927_bOct., 1929 — Hurry!

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Below are a couple of VERY early photos of Snider Plaza.

First off, the fountain. It was illuminated at night with rotating colored lights. The view is to the northwest.

snider-plaza-fountain_1927_galloway_dpl_1200

And that was about it. A fountain, paved streets and sidewalks, and lots of streetlights. In the photo below you can see the fountain in the distance. And the office of Ralph Porter, the man who was the driving force behind Snider Plaza (see his photo in the ad above). There is still a Ralph Porter Co. real estate business — and, appropriately, it’s still located in Snider Plaza.

snider-plaza_galloway_dpl_1200

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The Varsity Theater wasn’t built until 1929, even though a movie theater was always in the plans. I’m not sure what happened, but in 1928 it was announced that a new theater was going to be built as part of a 7-story building. The theater and retail shops were to occupy the first floor, offices would occupy the second floor, and furnished apartments would fill the top five floors (there would also be a parking garage in the basement). That’s all so weird to imagine. First off, apartments?! Secondly, that would have been the tallest building in the Park Cities! Buildings weren’t that tall in most of “suburban” Dallas in the 1920s. Also, the architecture is pretty bland, and very unlike the rest of the shopping area.

snider-plaza_varsity-apartments_1928Architect’s conception, 1928

The stripped-down plans ended up doing away with the basement and everything but the ground floor for the theater and retail shops. And I’m so glad! I love the photo at the top, from 1929. What a beautiful, beautiful building! The architect of the building was Wyatt C. Hedrick of Fort Worth. The buildings of Snider Plaza were meant to be of uniform design. Like this. (If only they all still looked like that!) (Another photo I posted recently showing that uniform style is here.)

The Varsity opened on Oct. 3, 1929 with “In Old Arizona” (the first talkie to be filmed outdoors). It became the Fine Arts in January, 1957. A reader, Malcom Thomson — who was a very youthful theater manager during the early days of the FIne Arts (I think he was an SMU student at the time) — sent me the great photo below from February, 1960.

fine-arts-theater_snider-plaza_malcolm-thomson_feb-3-1960Feb. 3, 1960 (courtesy Malcolm Thomson)

At some point — it’s so incredibly hard to believe that it seems like an urban legend — the Fine Arts Theater became an “adult” theater. Yes, Virginia, X-rated movies were screened regularly in the Park Cities. Oh dear.

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The theater is long-gone, as is almost all of Snider Plaza’s original “look.” But it’s still a cool, quirky place, and it’s always interesting to explore (never quite as interesting as M. E. Moses was to me as a child, but so few places are). And as long as Kuby’s is still around to fulfill my Reuben and warm-potato-salad needs, I’m pretty happy.

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A couple of quirky tidbits about the very early years:

  • SMU students were responsible in large part for operating the theater, because, of course, it offered them the opportunity to “obtain practical experience in show business.”
  • Also, the streets of the plaza were cleaned by “an automatic street-washing machine.” I’m not sure what that would have entailed, but I would guess that SMU students were glad to be let off the street-cleaning life-experience hook on that one.

And, on a personal note, several decades later, my father owned the very short-lived Plaza Book Store, which was located in the retail space just to the right of the theater (where, just a few short years earlier, he had worked as an usher — i.e. “obtained practical experience in show business” — while attending SMU).

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Sources & Notes

The two photos of Snider Plaza from 1927 and the top photo of the Varsity Theater from 1929 were found in the absolutely fantastic book The Park Cities: A Photohistory by Diane Galloway. The first two are from the collection of the Dallas Public Library. Ms. Galloway’s credit for the photo of the theater reads, “Photo by Frank Rogers/Courtesy of Jerrry Washam/Ralph Porter Company.” I believe all three photos are by Frank Rogers.

1960 photo of the Fine Arts Theater is used courtesy of Malcolm J. Thomson (thanks, Malcolm!).

varsity-theater_1929_galloway_sm

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Copyright © 2021 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.