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Coppell Arts Grew Alongside Wheelice Wilson Jr.

Coppell – One way to examine the rise of the arts scene in Coppell is to juxtapose it with the rise of the career of Wheelice “Pete” Wilson Jr.

When Wilson was teaching English and a slew of electives at Coppell High School in the 70s and 80s, Coppell was a tiny suburb trying to find its footing and identity. He guided the school through plays even though it did not have a drama class or theater component of any kind. As Wilson built the program there, Coppell began to build itself as well. As Wilson began to realize that a foundation of theatrical success was possible, the city felt a similar assurance.

When Wilson founded Theater Coppell in 1999, the city was so starved for a theatrical presence, it was eager to convert an unused fire station into an arts center as the group’s home base. Other arts groups would eventually join in, and the arts scene began to take on a life of its own.

Now not only does Theater Coppell serve the community, chopping at the bit while the pandemic plays out, there is also an orchestra, a ballet, a chorale choir, and a solid yet still emergent visual arts community of painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, and conceptual and textile artists. There’s even an Arts Council, which Wilson leads.

At the center of it all is the sprawling new Coppell Arts Center on Tate Street in the heart of Old Town Coppell, the newly developed retail and entertainment district.

The center has yet to hit on all cylinders due to COVID-19 restrictions, but its presence alone shows how artistic fortunes have steadily grown in a city where the residents no longer have to make a beeline for Dallas for arts entertainment.

“We’ve come a long way,” Wilson said from the arts center gallery where an exhibit of contemporary handmade quilts hangs from the walls. “I confess that somewhere around 1999 when we moved into the old arts center, I made it known to the city that I was in favor of building a new arts center. I waited until around 2006 before bringing it up again and around 2010 before we proposed a more concrete idea.”

At one point, Wilson commissioned an architect to design an addition to the old arts center, which he knew was land locked and would prove a difficult task.

“I was playing a little politics here,” Wilson confessed, laughing about the maneuver. “I knew the city would look at it and say, ‘Oh, we are spending a lot of money on this little project. We might as well do something bigger.’”

Bigger is right. The center, which opened last May, has 32,000 square-feet to play with, including six versatile spaces. The main 440-seat hall will host everything from orchestral music to touring productions. There’s a 2,000-square foot multi-purpose reception hall and a performance plaza for outdoor events.

Then there’s the 196-seat black box space Theater Coppell will call home. It is named the Wheelice Wilson Jr. Theater.

“The Arts Center has been a dream of many citizens in Coppell, and Wheelice Wilson, Jr. was the driver of the discussion to build this new facility,” Ginene Delcioppo, the center’s marketing & ticketing supervisor, said. “His commitment to the arts in this community, and his entire family have been involved in the city of Coppell’s historical conservation. It’s a fulfillment of a dream to have the Arts Center built just for the arts groups here to share their art with the community.”

Wilson’s love of theater, and his tireless pursuit of it, reaches back to his senior year in high school when he first snagged a role in a play. He attended North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) and while studying remembers commuting from Denton to Coppell to Dallas where he was the director and associate producer for Dallas Repertory Theater, presiding over productions like’Ain’t Misbehavin,’Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘Funny Girl.’

“It’d get home every night around 11:30,” Wilson said, “and start all over again.”

In Coppell, Wilson watched as smaller groups turned into larger ones, like the Coppell Chorale, which started with a pair of female singers.

“The chorale and orchestra and Coppell Creatives and the ballet have managed to do some virtual streaming. The chorale has even performed outside the center,” Wilson said. “We haven’t been able to do anything. First of all, you have to get actors willing to be close together to rehearse, and then you have to get an audience willing to sit in a small theater. You just can’t do that right now.”

They are, however, preparing to do a virtual a one-man performance made available in March.

“The key for all this is the arts center,” Wilson said. “I wanted for all of the arts to be able to come together and share what they have with the city. I also wanted it for educational purposes since there are a lot of people from Coppell and other places who are not involved in the arts at all. They don’t even go to museums. “It’s all about education. Maybe someone just used to watching football on TV will come in here one day because it’s local, and it’s right there, and go, ‘wow, this is not so bad. I think I’ll come back.’ That’s our goal.”