Dallas’ Historic Forest Theater Takes First Step To Become an Arts and Community Hub

The iconic 1949 theater has been a vacant presence in South Dallas for 15 years. But it's about to get a vibrant new life as an arts and community cultural hub though a $75 million renovation and expansion, led by the nonprofit Forest Forward.

Since its opening in 1949 in South Dallas, the Forest Theater has enjoyed heydays of art, music and community gatherings with luminaries including Tina Turner, Prince, Sidney Poitier, and Gladys Knight & the Pips making appearances. But for the last 15 years, it’s been quiet and vacant at the corner of MLK Boulevard and I-45. Until yesterday, that is.

Leaders from the nonprofit Forest Forward and 700-plus community members gathered Thursday for a groundbreaking marking a new era for the theater, launching a major renovation and expansion to the iconic landmark.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Forest Theater project Thursday. [Photo: Ethan Yizong Xie]

Phase I of the $75 million project will do a lot more than restore the Forest Theater to its original elegant condition. A whole theater complex is being built around it, yielding 66,000 square feet that will include a 13,000-square-foot arts education hub; a 1,000-plus seat performance hall; a multi-use, 200-seat studio theater; a recording studio; and amenities including a café, restaurant, and roof-top feature.

As for the Forest Theater itself, it will feature lower-floor, mezzanine and upper-balcony seating; a large stage and orchestra pit; concessionaire areas; a “lush lobby”; box offices; and more. The theater’s landmark marquee sign, known for its distinctive neon-green tower topped with a red ball, “will be refreshed with new color and lighting,” Forest Forward said.

Elizabeth Wattley (left), founder and CEO of Forest Forward, ceremonially breaks ground beside Matrice Ellis-Kirk, chair of Forest Forward. [Photo: Ethan Yizong Xie]

The renovation and expansion is slated to be completed by December 2025.

“Today’s groundbreaking at the Forest Theater symbolizes community partnership and collaboration at it’s very best—because when we come together to work toward a common vision, we are unstoppable,” Elizabeth Wattley, president and CEO of Forest Forward, said in a statement. “A project of this magnitude cannot be done alone but will only thrive with the buy-in and support from the entire community.”

Rendering of the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

$1M gift announced during the groundbreaking

During the groundbreaking event, Wattley announced that Margot Perot and her family had donated $1 million to the Forest Forward initiative.

That gift will help make the Forest Theater complex an anchor for “a massive revitalization program for South Dallas,” Forest Forward said. The Forest Forward 75215 Capital Campaign focuses not just on the Forest Theater and cultural center, but also on two other revitalizing pathways:

The nonprofit has partnered with Dallas ISD to convert the Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center into the Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy for pre-K through 8th graders. That renovation includes more than 25,000 square feet of new construction and 7,800-plus square feet of improvements. The academy will offer a STEAM-based curriculum  and use the restored Forest Theater for courses and educational offerings.

Additionally, Forest Forward aims to build 150-plus units of mixed-income housing surrounding the Forest Theater, observing a focus on “minimal displacement of residents and preserving affordability.”

Reimagining ‘Sunny South Dallas’

Rendering of the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

“The Forest Theater is the result of a successful private-public partnership that will serve as a decisive catalyst for not only economic development and growth but arts education and much-needed affordable housing,” U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett (TX-30) said in a statement. “Forest Forward’s remarkable $75 million vision—focused upon an often-forgotten community—has the potential to reimagine and bolster Sunny South Dallas, positively affecting generations to come.”

The design architect that’s helping to do that reimagining for the Forest Theater project is Dallas-based HKS. The co-general contractors are the LinbeckGroup and Con-Real Construction. Managing the construction process is The Projects Group. The Forest Theater renovation aims to achieve a targeted 75% MWBE (Minority/Women Business Enterprise) participation goal during the course of the project.

Rendering of the south entrance to the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

Dignitaries at the groundbreaking

Grass-roots leaders from across Southern Dallas took up shovels at the groundbreaking, turning over the first ceremonial scoops of dirt to mark the project’s commencement.

Dignitaries who participated in Thursday’s groundbreaking included U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett, State Senator Royce West, State Representative Venton Jones, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price; Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua. Also delivering remarks were Forest Forward board chair Matrice Ellis-Kirk and board members Linda and Jon Halbert, Forest Forward president/CEO Elizabeth Wattley, and Amanda Vela, senior vice president for Region 300 stores, Target.

Rendering of the plaza view of the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua called the renovation “more than just revitalizing a historically significant structure.”

“Investing in and highlighting the theater’s historic significance is symbolic of the commitment of so many to preserving South Dallas’ History while investing in new resources and assets for the community to grow,” Bazaldua added. “I’m proud of the work that Forest Forward has already done, but even more proud and excited to continue working with them and seeing this project come to fruition.”

Block party helped celebrate the event

A block party helped celebrate Thursday’s groundbreaking. [Photo: Ethan Yizong Xie]

Along with the groundbreaking, a block party featured local performers including the South Dallas Concert Choir, Spaceship Ohaysis, JB Dance Group, and Big Tuck. Dallas ISD’s Lincoln and James K. Madison High Schools competed in a “battle of the bands,” and local comedian Nanette Lee offered a stand-up performance.

Wattley closed the program by urging people to support the “Forest Fund.” Also known as the “People’s Campaign, it’s designed to engage and amplify community support, offering a 5-to-1 match for donations. You can learn more about the Forest Fund or make a donation by visiting ForestForward.org.

Rendering of the southeast corner of the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

Founded in 2017, Forest Forward says its mission is “to drive equitable development and economic mobility and improve outcomes for children, residents and families of the South Dallas community.” The nonprofit notes that this is particularly important because, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an individual’s zip code predicts life expectancy more than their genetic code. The life expectancy in the 75215 zip code is 67 years, Forest Forward noted—the lowest in the Dallas area.

To see a video on the history and future of the Forest Theater, you can go here

To see historic photos of the Forest Theater, scroll just a bit further down.

Aerial rendering of the Forest Theater arts and community hub in South Dallas. [Image: HKS]

A Historic Look at the Forest Theater


Forest Theater’s 1949 grand opening [Photo: Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library]

“Ben Hur” opens at the Forest Theater. [Photo: Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library]

Back in time with an early audience at the Forest Theater. [Photo: Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library]

Get on the list.
Dallas Innovates, every day.

Sign up to keep your eye on what’s new and next in Dallas-Fort Worth, every day.

One quick signup, and you’re done.  

R E A D   N E X T