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Shuttered for decades, a downtown theater in a rural Texas town is getting new life and new mission

By Jayme Lozano Carver, The Texas Tribune

Shuttered for decades, a downtown theater in a rural Texas town is getting new life and new mission” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LEVELLAND — The Wallace Theater has been a cornerstone for downtown Levelland since 1928 — almost as long as the small town on the South Plains has existed.

For more than 50 years, people used the theater as an escape from their daily lives, meet up with friends and watch the latest film.

The Wallace closed in the mid-1980s, unable to keep up with the new, bigger megaplex theaters in Lubbock and Amarillo. What was once a place full of buzz and excitement became a home for hundreds of pigeons instead. Even with new ownership in 2003, the theatre has been vacant.

After being closed for so long, the marquee will be lit and the curtain will rise at the Wallace with a new focus — bringing arts education to youth in a rural community where it’s hard to find.

“It’s going to be a place that serves all families and students in Hockley County and give people access to opportunities they haven’t had before,” said Alycyn Keeling, executive director of the Wallace Theater.

Recently, organizers behind the theater’s renovation celebrated the progress with supporters by hanging the historic marquee sign outside and touring the site as it is under construction.

The theater is more than a job for Keeling — in a way, it’s a second home. Keeling grew up in Levelland and always wondered what could happen inside the dilapidated building she occasionally walked by. Then her parents bought the building in 2003, and now she’s using it as a way to make her stamp in Levelland’s history books. She hopes it will serve as a mecca for art lovers, musicians, actors, playwrights and students in the region.

Reviving the theater will bring another attraction for the town just 32 miles west of Lubbock, continuing a revival streak. In recent history, Levelland did not have much to offer residents in terms of community gathering or entertainment. However, several event centers, a sports complex and a vineyard have opened, giving the town of nearly 13,000 a robust new look.

Levelland is another example of how rural towns across Texas seek to reinvest in themselves to stave off population decline and attract younger populations and more families to the area. Several have turned to the arts, in particular.

From left: Wallace Theater executive director Allycyn Keeling and co-owner Iris Keeling unveil artist's renderings of the proposed restoration of the Wallace Theater during a press conference at the Studebaker Events building in Levelland on Dec. 5th, 2023.
From left to right: Wallace Theater executive director Allycyn Keeling and co-owner Iris Keeling unveil artists renderings of the proposed restoration during a press conference at the Studebaker Events building in Levelland on Dec. 5th, 2023. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Even with Levelland’s close proximity to Lubbock, which has a booming arts and entertainment scene, the drive can be impractical for some families. Keeling said there are students who haven’t traveled to bigger cities for art galleries or museums, putting them at a disadvantage. It’s a problem felt across the state’s rural regions. One study by the Texas Cultural Trust found students in rural areas have 70% less access to arts courses than suburban students.

“We have wonderful artists here in our community, they just need a platform and a place to share their talent,” Keeling said.

The Wallace Theater could be the platform they need. The new lobby will be designed in an elevated Art Deco style, including a cascading staircase — true to the theater’s original design. It will also feature a mosaic from Kenneth D. Pirtle, a Levelland High School Alumni and West Texas artist.

The renovated auditorium will have up to 280 seats that are flexible and not fastened to the floor, so it can serve as several different venues including concerts, movies, live theater, wedding receptions and dances. Keeling said expanding it to meet all the needs of the community was the biggest part of renovating the theater.

The renovations will also accomplish one important goal — restoring historic murals that previously adorned the ceiling and walls of the auditorium.

The Wallace Theater building is seen under renovation on Dec. 5, 2023.
The Wallace Theater building is seen under renovation on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune
Wallace Theater co-owner Iris Keeling stands in the lobby of the Wallace Theater during renovations on Dec. 5th, 2023.
Wallace Theater co-owner Iris Keeling stands in the lobby of the Wallace Theater during renovations on Dec. 5th, 2023. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune
Left: The Wallace Theater building is seen under renovation on Dec. 5, 2023. Right: Wallace Theater co-owner Iris Keeling stands in the lobby of the Wallace Theater during renovations on Dec. 5th, 2023. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

“There is something magical about the space that engages audiences and creates an experience unlike any other,” Keeling said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that with the updates.”

While the Wallace is still in renovations, productions have already started, and interest has grown over the years. Anna Hogan, the theater’s artistic director, said only 20 people auditioned for their first production, “Sweeney Todd” in 2020. They are now casting for upcoming productions, “Legally Blonde” and “The Elephant Man,” which will be held in Lubbock. Hogan said more than 100 have auditioned.

“That type of outreach and passion is something special to us,” Hogan said.

Hogan has also seen the benefits of having a theater in Levelland. The design team and technicians are almost all local to the area, and some students have taken their skills to universities. During a breakfast with community members, Hogan said their support was vital.

The restored Wallace Theater sign is seen on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023 in Levelland.
The restored Wallace Theater sign is seen on Dec. 10, 2023 in Levelland. Credit: Courtesy of 13th Overtone Productions

“By supporting the Wallace, you provide opportunities for artists, students, professors, neighbors and friends to continue to grow, connect and achieve something they didn’t think they could,” Hogan said.

The community has rallied around the Wallace Theater. The Community Foundation of West Texas and Hockley County Endowment, as well as individuals and families, have all donated to the renovation.

Donations have been big and small. Most recently the Wallace Theater received a $1 million grant from the FMH Foundation. And Iris Keeling, Alycyn’s mother and co-owner of the theater, said years ago two boys on bikes approached her, asking if they could watch a movie there. When she said it was closed until they could raise money to open it, one of the boys put his hand in his pocket and pulled out $2.

“He wanted to be a part of this,” Iris said. “It showed us that this is something our community wanted.”

Iris is happy to see the theater coming back to life, and she’s especially proud her daughter is spearheading the efforts at home. Keeling spent time in Dallas and Washington, D.C., and Iris believes that inspired Keeling’s mission.

“She had access to the arts and entertainment there, and she wanted her hometown to have it too,” Iris said. “She wanted to give that to kids because they shouldn’t have to travel somewhere else for it.”

The theater’s renovation is expected to be complete by December 2024.

Disclosure: Texas Cultural Trust has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/18/levelland-texas-downtown-theater/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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