— By DAVID MAY
Just north of the downtown square is a piece of Weatherford’s past and present, with its owners hoping to make it an ongoing part of the city’s future.
The Texas Opry Theater was built in 1946 and has hosted a number of name entertainers like Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Gene Watson, Connie Smith and even the legendary southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The theater has even launched musical careers, like that of Weatherford native Josh Ward, who began on the Texas Opry Theater’s stage and today performs a Toby Keith tribute in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Mo.
Located at 319 York Ave., the 475-seat theater continues to host concerts and special events. Elvis tribute artist Donny Edwards performs there and Benny Wheels recently performed his Johnny Cash tribute show to a large crowd. Local artists continue to use the theater as a platform to showcase their talents. Parker County Live is planning to put on shows there once a month. Its first was a variety show last month featuring a slate of local and regional groups and artists. This Saturday a gospel show is planned.
On April 5, a large crowd – including a group of 75 ladies from the Eastern Star society meeting in Weatherford – is expected to attend a 1950s-style rock and roll show with a group coming in from Arlington to perform specially for the occasion.
“They called me several months ago and said, ‘Do you have something on that Friday night,’ and I said not at this time but let me see what I can put together,” said theater co-owner Marilyn Carter. Carter said the Eastern Star lady told her their convention has a “1950s-type theme” so she contacted Michael Hicks, who has performed his group’s Blues Brothers-like show previously at Texas Opry Theater. “He said, ‘Sure, we’d like to do a show.’ They already have reservations for over 75 ladies and they are all staying in hotels here. They are all in the Sleep Inn & Suites and it is all because of us.”
The vision Marilyn and her theater co-owner and husband, Jerry, share for Texas Opry Theater is one where national, regional and local musicians can perform, providing unique entertainment for Parker County and area residents while being a tourism draw for the city and downtown.
“There is no other auditorium in Weatherford or Parker County that seats this many people,” Marilyn Carter said. “You have the school, a brand-new $100 million high school (auditorium) that seats over 2,000 people but taxpayers can’t use it.”
The Carters say with the economy and fuel prices, more people are looking for entertainment locally and they want to fill that niche, but said they need support from the community and the city.
Jerry Carter said when they purchased the property, which includes an adjoining office building, in 1992 the theater was in disrepair and within five weeks of demolition.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he said. “I used to run up and down this street on my bicycle and I always thought, ‘That doesn’t need to be a church, that needs to be a theater.’ I never thought I’d own it.”
A church? Yes, the Texas Opry Theater was originally owned by a church, then York Avenue Baptist Church that is now Santa Fe Baptist Church. The church originally built the office building in the 1920s and then built the auditorium in 1946.
Marilyn Carter said the church used opaque glass blocks in the construction to allow light in, but to prevent church members to see the goings-on next door at a motel with a reputation as house of ill repute, popular especially with soldiers from Fort Wolters.
Texas Opry Theater has not only launched music careers, it has also helped launch a number of local churches and a community theater company who called it home after York Avenue outgrew the property.
Victory Baptist, White Settlement Baptist, Discovery Fellowship Church, Silver Creek Cowboy Church and Bethel Road Baptist Church called the theater home. Theater Off The Square got its start on the wooden stage before buying and moving to its present location.
Going back to its days under York Avenue Baptist Church’s ownership, gospel shows and revivals were held on the grounds. Marliyn Carter recalled a recent story of a woman who attended a show and remarked how she went to church in the theater. Jerry Carter said when The Stamps Quartet performed at Texas Opry Theater, J.D. Sumner told the audience of the group’s early days, performing on the grounds during a large revival.
New owners of the theater in the 1980s opened it as the Texas Opry Theater.
Jerry Carter and partner had started the Parker County Shopper, now owned by the Weatherford Democrat, and moved the operation to the offices adjacent to the theater in 1992. Carter also started the Palo Pinto County Shopper. He also has a musical and entertainment background, performing in local bands, including Jerry Carter and The Chaparrals and Jerry Carter and The Two Timers, working as a stage hand and hosting a radio show.
The Carters renovated the theater after acquiring it in 1992 and began producing weekly concerts and shows at the theater. There might be a gospel show one week and a rock and roll show the next, Marilyn Carter said.
Jerry Carter’s business partner died in 1997, and he sold the shoppers, but he had already started another one in Hood County. “I wasn’t ready to retire,” Carter said. “I was still full of vim and vigor.”
Because of the Hood County shopper, the Carters stopped putting on shows at the local theater in 1995. They operated the Granbury-based shopper 15 years before selling it after Jerry developed diabetic-related vision problems that have practically robbed him of his sight.
Marilyn said Jerry’s health issues required several years of close care, but they returned to Weatherford in 2010 and once again started booking shows into the theater.
“We have just been kind of struggling since then,” she said.
Along with the tribute performers, local musicians and renting out the theater for other events or meetings, the Carters hope to soon bring large acts back to Weatherford like Gene Watson and Connie Smith, possibly with her husband, country music star Marty Stuart.
“We have had (Connie Smith) four times and she has always sold it out but we have never had Marty Stuart,” Marilyn Carter said.
They want to offer family-themed shows and entertainment and be a part of the Weatherford music and entertainment scene, hoping they can work with local government and business leaders to bring people and dollars to Weatherford.
“We have tried to maintain a good family system of shows, something you could bring your grandmother to, you could bring your child to, and you don’t have to worry about bad language,” Jerry Carter said. “We have tried to maintain that through the years.”
Also, they want to be a vehicle to help launch the careers of more local musicians, just like Josh Ward.
“There is some fantastic local talent,” Carter said. “I wanted a place where local talent could come and be able to be seen and heard. Some of country music’s greatest stars got their starts on stages just like the one you see here at The Texas Opry.”