The Palace Theatre remains a cultural icon in Corsicana

By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette

While Corsicana is a small town, the local arts scene is known for going big.

For the Palace Theatre, located at 122 W. Sixth Avenue in downtown Corsicana, that’s usually the case. This year, however, the venue’s season of performances had to contend with a global pandemic and canceled performances on a level never seen since its grand reopening back in Feb. of 2002.

The Palace Theatre has been a fixture of downtown Corsicana for a century. – Courtesy photo

The arts and entertainment scene has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, where social distancing, limited audiences, and limited ticket sales have become a factor. In an average year, the Palace presents over 100 events and sees 30,000 to 50,000 come through its doors. Fifty percent of its event sales come from outside of Navarro County.

Like most businesses this year, the Palace learned to work within this year’s restrictions, and still presented out a few shows. The Miss Texas for USA Pageant performed virtually on a closed stage in August, and the Palace hosted Robert Earl Keen at the Community National Bank and Trust Tiger Stadium just last month, which saw an attendance of 800 people.

For Leah Dill Blackard, Executive Director of the Palace Theatre, she’s ready to see her guests in person again.

“I love the relationships I have with my Palace subscribers here,” Blackard said. I love coming in and asking how are their children doing, how are their grandkids doing, or how is your knee replacement surgery? You look great.”

“I know where they sit, I know what’s going on in their lives, and I feel such a void for the nice months we don’t see each other. I miss them. I hope they miss us.”

Leah Dill Blackard, Executive Director of the Palace Theatre. – Courtesy photo

Blackard is a Corsicana born and raised native, having graduated from Corsicana High School in 1992, and later attending the University of North Texas in Denton, graduating with a economics degree. Blackard then worked at various places such as the Texas Rangers Baseball Club in Dallas, and did preservation and museum type studies, eventually restoring the Palace Theatre in Grapevine before moving back to Corsicana in 2001 to restore Corsicana’s own Palace.

Blackard also serves as the Executive Director for the Navarro Council of the Arts, the two entities working together to provide Navarro County live entertainment.

The Palace Theatre has been a part of downtown Corsicana since 1921. Originally one of five vaudeville houses, the Palace later became a movie house in the 1930s, complete with organ accompaniment. The theater also had a brief stint as an adult movie theater in the 1980s before closing its doors. By the 1990s, the theatre was at risk of being demolished before being saved and restored by the community, reopening its doors in 2002 with a production of Porgy and Bess. Over the years, the venue has hosted acts such as the Temptations, Vicki Lawrence, Ronnie Milsap, and Clint Black.

Of the original five vaudeville houses, the Palace is the only one still remaining in Corsicana.

These days, the Palace puts on a variety of entertainment acts, ranging from live music concerts to plays, classic movies, and educational outreach events. The non-profit theatre features a state of the art light and sound system, and a film projector Blackard claims is “just as good as any movie theater out there.”

“We’re a one-stop shop where someone can come in and put on a professional show,” Blackard said.

Despite some successes, a spike in COVID-19 cases around the world have caused unexpected challenges for the 2020 season. Brass Transit, the Chicago tribute band scheduled to play at the Palace Dec. 17, had to postpone the show until the 2021-2022 season due to travel restrictions for leaving Canada.

Blackard does not expect traditional shows to return to the Palace until the fall of 2021.

“My heart wants to be here tomorrow, but my mind says that’s it’s probably going to be fall of ’21 before this building is active again.”

In the meantime, the Palace will continue to produce and promote activities around town, and hosting shows at Corsicana High School’s auditorium and stadium. There has been some consideration of doing some shows virtually, though Blackard added so much of the art world should be experienced in person.

“I think there is so much more to be received from a live production than just the beauty of what’s on the stage,” she said. There’s the interaction with people around you. There’s theatre etiquette, there’s the social aspect. I think that there’s so much more.”

“For me, music can bring me to tears and pure joy at the same time, and I would never trade an experience of seeing a show on Broadway with the original cast.”

Blackard also mentioned the impact the arts can have on children, saying shows at the Palace are often the first opportunity young Navarro County residents get to experience live music and performance..

“I feel for children growing up, that is one of the most essential gifts we can give them is live performance,” Blackard said. “It’s important for me to see their face light up when the the lights turn on and the curtain open, and they get to see a live performance on that stage.”

“It forever changes lives.”

2021 marks the Palace Theatre’s 100-year anniversary. Blackard is looking forward to celebrating that milestone with the community, and ushering in the a new era of entertainment for the next generations of showgoers.

“We still want to find a way to make sure the arts happen because we think that’s good for our soul,” she said. “It’s good for our community. It’s good for our economy. All of those things wrapped into one.”

Blackard paused to look at the lobby around her.

“It’s so much more than a building. The memories stay with you forever.”

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