At a time when politicians and pundits are talking about change and moving forward at every opportunity nationwide, there is a growing movement in nearby Cleveland to keep a part of the past from being bulldozed by progress. The Texan Theater in downtown Cleveland opened in January 1939, and thanks to owner Cliff Dunn, it looks much the same inside and out. Unfortunately, the Texan will be closing soon unless supporters can raise $86,000 to upgrade its equipment to show movies in digital format, because movies will no longer be available in the 35 mm format the theater’s equipment has used for decades. Over the past couple of years, Dunn says it has become increasingly difficult to get movies in the old format, and some movies were only available in digital, leaving him without the option of ordering them. The $86,000 may sound like a lofty goal without much time, but those determined to make it happen are confident and already have benefits planned.
The iconic theater is one of the last remnants of a bygone era, when small town movie theaters were locally owned and operated, and showed one movie that usually changed weekly- a time when parents felt safe allowing their children to go there alone, and it was still affordable. Much of the reason people are joining forces to keep The Texan open can be attributed to their loyalty to Cliff Dunn, who is also one of the last remnants of that more innocent era.
Dunn has kept the prices for first-run movies at $5 for adults and $3 for children, with the most expensive concession item only $3 for an enormous bucket of popcorn. Dunn says he loves what he does and is not interested in making a fortune from it. He has further vowed to keep his low prices, if he is able to convert to digital and remain open.
Each week, the 80-year-old owner personally records the phone message announcing the movie and movie times, along with ticket prices and the name of the upcoming movie. Dunn also cheerfully greets people at the door each night taking their admission and sometimes works the concessions stand as well. Many parents still feel safe dropping off their children to catch a movie, which Bob Steely says is probably due largely to Dunn’s ritual of standing outside the theater after the movie until every child has been picked up and is safely on their way. He is known for his kindness and generosity, and is considered by many to be as much a fixture in Cleveland as his theater. Many of the children became familiar with the theater through school field trips when Dunn showed movies free of charge to the school districts or children, at his own expense.
Steely, one of Dunn’s closest friends and biggest supporters, is leading the charge to save The Texan. He and Dunn have a morning ritual of meeting for coffee and starting the day with a nice visit. It was over coffee Dunn told Steely he had learned the industry’s shift to entirely digital movies was coming much sooner than originally anticipated and he was unsure of what to do. Steely was distraught at the news and relayed the information to his wife, Carolyn.
It was Carolyn Steely, who happened upon a USA Today article about people in another small American town trying to save their theater from the same fate through fundraising efforts, and went to her husband.
“She said, Bob – this is what we need to do for Cliff,” Steely said.
They believe God made Mrs. Steely notice that article, which was something she would never have read normally, so they would realize there was still something they could do to help Cliff Dunn keep his theater open.
Bob Steely says there are two good reasons to save The Texan. One reason is the theater itself, opening the year World War II began and a part of the city’s history and generations of people’s memories.
The other reason, Steely said, is Cliff Dunn. The entrepreneur, who is the friendly voice on the theater’s phone and the friendly face at the door, also has an extraordinary history. He was one of seven children, born to a share cropper who suffered from major health issues resulting from exposure to poison gas in France during the First World War. Dunn’s father died in 1936 when Cliff was only 3. It was around the time of the Great Depression and families with both parents were unable to make ends meet. Women had even fewer options in those days, and Dunn’s mother could no longer care for her children. A family member took the baby, Dunn said, but he and one brother were placed in an orphanage, and the four older siblings went elsewhere. At age 11, a couple took Dunn from the orphanage. He thought they were going to adopt him, but that was not the case. Dunn won’t talk about the people who took him, but that is not surprising considering what a positive and non-judgmental person he is. For whatever the reason, Dunn soon felt he had no choice but leave what he thought would be his new parents. The pre-teen ran away and lived on the streets of El Dorado, Arkansas. Somehow, Dunn survived until he was old enough to enlist in the United States Air Force.
Dunn does not sound bitter when he speaks of his youth, especially joining the military. He says he thought he had “died and gone to heaven” because he had a roof over his head and three meals a day. Most men lose weight during basic training, but Dunn gained 40 pounds. He was deployed twice to Japan and made it home safely.
Such a difficult life could have easily left someone coldhearted and uncaring, but by all accounts, Cliff Dunn is just the opposite.
“Cliff treats everyone the same,” Bob Steely said. “It doesn’t matter how they look or smell or whether they’re poorly dressed – in Cliff’s eyes, everyone is equal.”
After the military, Dunn went to work for Gulf Oil, which he calls his first “real job.” In 1972, Dunn came to Cleveland, where he met his wife, Peggy. They remained in Cleveland and he was in the construction business in 1994 when the theater’s previous owner went bankrupt. The banker called Dunn, he said, and he bought it as an investment. At the time, Dunn thought he would do some work on the building and then sell it for a profit. Then something unexpected happened when Dunn realized he wanted to restore the theater and keep it. He also kept the theater true to the original owner’s vision, installing light fixtures identical to the originals, restoring the lighted marquis in front, and even having molding custom made for the interior. But Dunn’s vision did not end there. He wanted a family theater that would be welcoming, safe, and affordable and throughout the years and the changing world around him, Dunn has somehow maintained that and become one of the most beloved characters in Cleveland.
When men were working on the building next door, Steely says Dunn took them cold drinks. The thoughtful and selfless gestures of Cliff Dunn seem too many to list, but it only takes a few to understand why almost nobody goes to The Texan just once.
He is a humble man who would probably be uncomfortable with that assessment, but speaking with multiple people confirmed it for this reporter. More than one person commented, “I don’t think I ever heard anybody say anything bad about Cliff Dunn.” The fact that an ever increasing number of people are stepping forward to try and keep him in business is further testament to his popularity. None of them will say it is only about the theater. That is not to downplay the theater’s importance. Many memories have been made there through generations, and a lot of people want their children and grandchildren to share their experience – the one they will never have by going to the multi-screen theaters at malls and in larger cities.
Two East Montgomery County elected officials were saddened to hear The Texan might have to shut down. Precinct 4 Judge James Metts, who grew up in Security, has watched movies at The Texan since childhood and said his father, E.C. “Curly” Metts, also grew up going to movies there. What’s more, Judge Metts said he had come to know and respect Cliff Dunn.
“He’s a nice man who cares about the community,” Judge Metts said. “I hope Mr. Dunn is able to keep the theater open because both are assets to the area, as well as his wife.”
Cliff Dunn’s wife is Liberty County Precinct 6 Justice of the Peace Peggy Dunn.
Montgomery County Precinct 4 Constable Rowdy Hayden grew up in the Splendora/Cleveland area and also has fond memories of The Texan, starting with when he was too young to drive and his mom took him.
“We had the choice of going to Humble or Cleveland,” Hayden said, “Most of the time, we’d go to Cleveland.”
Like Bob Steely, the Judge and Constable consider the theater a landmark and part of disappearing small town America.
“You don’t see privately owned theaters anymore,” Metts said. “And you certainly aren’t greeted by the owner at the door. It has always been nice and clean, and people act the way they should in movies at The Texan because they know it won’t be tolerated if they don’t.”
“We need more locally owned and operated businesses like The Texan and more people like Cliff Dunn who care about their customers and their community.”
Steely and the others who are fighting to keep The Texan open are working on several fundraising projects to fit supporters’ budgets from a $500 per plate barbeque dinner with live entertainment November 10 (and yes, they’ve already had quite a few takers), to “Save The Texan” ball caps, and an auction around the first of December. They are now accepting auction items. Anyone wishing to donate can call Bob Steely at 281-592-7710. For those who want to contribute and have only a few dollars to spare, Steely says every bit helps.
Contributions can be mailed to:
P.O. Box 640
Cleveland, Texas 77328
Updates on fundraising efforts and other information can be found on the “Save The Texan” Facebook page. Please find that page, click “like” and share it.
To learn what movie is showing at The Texan, call 281-592-6464.