The Tower’s Uncertain Future… Again

El_Real_2019If the Old Tower Theatre on Westheimer were a cat, it would have cashed in on four of its nine lives by now. Its existence as a legitimate cinema encompassed four decades, beginning with its opening on February 14, 1936 (happy Valentine’s Day). As part of Karl Hoblitzelle’s massive Interstate empire, it was the second Houston theatre to open outside of the downtown area. Hollywood klieg lights marked the night sky for the occasion. The Barbary Coast ran as the opening feature.

Many more movies followed. Ben-Hur showed as an exclusive, all seats reserved. Other features included Gigi, Exodus, and La Dulce Vita. Its last before the theatre closed in 1978 was Jaws II.

Then the space reestablished itself as a live arts venue and survived for another seventeen years. The live production of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ran its course there, followed by such acts as Philip Glass, Judy Collins, and Laurie Anderson. Then it closed once more. Two lives down.

The great irony is that when the Tower transitioned to retail space, it reopened as a Hollywood video store (remember them?), a destination stop for movie rentals. The interior was unfittingly gutted and converted into a space not unlike the other generic stores in the video chain. In architectural terms, this was a waste of great resources. Hollywood Video’s parent company, Movie Gallery, filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and the interior went dark yet again.

Since 2010, it operated as El Real, a hot spot for Mexican cuisine. In addition to excellent Tex-Mex, it also included an upstairs memorial to Houston’s finest Mexican restaurants, including Leo’s and Felix. The later, Felix Restaurant, had been located a few blocks further down Westheimer and had closed down in 2008 after 60 years of business. Tables, chairs, and other artifacts from Felix became a part of El Real.

El Real also embraced the cinematic origins of the building it inhabited. The exterior neon facade was restored, and while there was no way to recreate the interior, a projection system was added to run western movies on an opposite wall. True, the image fell short of what the Tower once showed in CinemaScope and Sensurround, but homage was served. I wrote about this extensively in my April 2011 blog.

In late October, El Real closed its doors. It happened without warning, leaving customers and employees alike in dismay. As of this writing, former workers of the restaurant allege that they did not receive their final pay. There goes life four.

Thus we arrive at the future of the former Tower Theatre. Preservationists and cinemaphiles alike are concerned over what might become of the property. Their concern is not unwarranted.  Houston has a history ripe with the demolition of its past. All the downtown picture palaces are long gone, having been razed in the sixties and seventies. Most of the deco neighborhood theatres are also gone, with only a few exceptions, one being the River Oaks Theatre. The 1926 Heights Theatre was given new life as a live music venue several years ago and is doing well. The downtown Majestic Metro Theatre (originally the Ritz) has operated since 1990 as a special events venue. The Garden Oaks is a church. Others, such as the Pasadena Capitan, remain abandoned.

The old Alabama Theatre enjoyed a long life as the Bookstop following a loving interior restoration. A lesser amount of care took place when it reopened as a Trader Joe’s. While the River Oaks is operational, it is still seen as functioning under a threat of destruction following a campaign for its survival back in 2006.

Which brings us back to the Tower. The Houston Chronicle wrote an article detailing the events following its closure in its October 29 issue. Those interviewed included David Bush of Preservation Houston, El Real co-owner Bryan Caswell, and property owner John Beeson of Beeson Properties. Cinema Houston also served as a source of reference.*

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. With four lives spent, popular hope is that there will be a fifth. The space could easily be repurposed into another restaurant since it already has the kitchen structure in place. Purists would like to see it converted back to a performance or arts venue. Others are afraid that the property will be razed to make way for highrise living space. Beeson offered some reassuring words to the Chronicle, commenting, “It’s been a good property, and we don’t build highrises.”

Nevertheless, for those who have seen so many theatres fall, this writer included, the simple fact is that there aren’t that many left. That’s a tragedy. And as proven in countless movies shown upon the movie screen, people like a happy ending.

Anyway, cats deserve all the lives they are entitled.

*Thanks to Paul DeBenedetto of the Houston Chronicle for referencing my book for the history of the Tower Theatre.

Big-screen classics in a small-screen world


I received my college education in film studies by going to the repertory houses in town. Well before cable and online services made it easy to see anything you desired at any time, the only way to see a vintage movie was to go where they were being shown. As a result, I haunted the River Oaks Theater with its schedule of double-bill classics that switched out every two days. I spent hours at the Rice University Media Center and the Museum of Fine Arts Brown Auditorium. Through them, I discovered the greatness of Bergman and Fellini, Bogart and Cagney, Woody Allen, Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa, silents and pre-code talkies, MGM musicals, and the glorious insanity that is the Marx Brothers. I saw the full 1966 Russian version of War and Peace over two nights—all 422 minutes. I adored the unique pairings of Flash Gordon with the X-rated Flesh Gordon and Casablanca with Play it Again, Sam. Somewhere in the mix were multiple viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with full audience participation.

That was then. Now we have the ability to see any of those movies whenever we want. Access is easy in the modern computer age. If not through Amazon or Netflix, you will probably find it on YouTube. What I miss is being able to see those films with an audience on the big screen the way they were originally intended. The irony is that as availability has expanded, the auditorium options have shrunk. For the movie addict, this is a sad thing.

I am therefore thankful to Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events for partnering and bringing a select few of these titles into theaters under the banner of Big Screen Classics. The lineup for 2019 includes Ben-Hur, My Fair Lady, Field of Dreams, True Grit, When Harry Met Sally, and Alien, to name a few.  In a few instances, I’ve not seen them on the large screen since their original release. To say I’m thrilled is an understatement.

Lawrence of Arabia
No better example of the importance of these screening can be found than Lawrence of Arabia. Simply put, the Lawrence on a massive screen is an entirely different film than what might be seen on the TV screen (and shame on you if you dare watch it on a phone). The scope and detail are diminished to such a degree that it is the equivalent of seeing the genuine Mona Lisa at the Louvre as opposed to a reproduction in a book. Yes, the substance is the same, yet there is no comparison.

There was a time when older films were generally unavailable to watch when you had the whim. Instead, you had to wait until it showed up as a late-night TV showing, or in a rare instance as a rerelease in the theater. Now the tables are turned. Seeing them is not the problem, but in the way they are presented. TCM should be commended for their efforts in keeping Classic movies alive, not just on cable where they have lived for the last twenty-five years, but now as a return to their rightful home. I only hope TCM and Fathom continue their efforts.

That means, dear reader, please support their efforts. Go to the movies and support the theater that shows it. See a classic movie you may have never seen before. Grab some popcorn while you are at it.

Paris is Burning

NotreDameLike others across the globe, I watched the heartbreaking footage of the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire as it occurred. The irony is not lost that it took place during a restoration and that the structure, having survived eight centuries, the French Revolution, and WWII. As with all events of this kind, the world showed its true colors of humanity with an outpouring help to rebuild what was lost. Promises of support and funds flooded in from nations, businesses, and individuals, all coming through to gather as one.

As I watched the live stream of the attempts to extinguish the fire, I kept thinking of the last time Notre Dame burned. But the previous time was in 1967 on the other side of the Earth. That cathedral did not survive.

It’s a long-accepted fact that movie sets are temporary facades, even the ones that were built to last. Many of them were either torn down or fell victim to fire. This is especially true of Universal Studios which had more than its fair share of flaming sets. In the silent era alone, it had eight major fires, included a notable one in May 1922. Among the casualties of that one was the production, Under Two Flags. Its star, Priscilla Dean, reportedly injured her ankle while trying to save the film but tripped on the stairs in her costume. The film was eventually completed and still exists in several archives.

The following year, Universal began filming one of their Super Jewel Productions, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The film starred Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Norman Kerry. For the filming, Universal constructed a replica of the Paris square and the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. The sets were built as permanent, with cobblestones brought from twenty miles away for the streets, while two hundred carpenters built the framework of the cathedral upon which the concrete facade was cast. Only the lower part of the west side was constructed. Long shots included a hanging miniature to complete the illusion. The results were spectacular, even by today’s standards of filmmaking.

The set became a fixture for other productions in the decades to come. Lon Chaney briefly appeared before it two years later in Phantom of the Opera. Ironically, it was not used for the 1939 Charles Laughton version. RKO decided to build their own sets.

By the time of the 1967 fire, it was referred to as the Court of Miracles, part of the Little Europe set. The blaze spread over twelve acres, also consuming the Denver and Laramie street sets, while embers were carried by the winds to the NBC studios several miles away.

To watch the 1923 Hunchback today is like staring into a time portal. Silent films are like that, in part due to their age. But many of them convey distance far more than the span of years. Hunchback is a prime example, as much for its accuracy as its period. The cathedral is especially striking. One can scarcely believe that the film was not shot at the genuine structure in France, especially during the scenes when the hunchback is scaling the sides of the building. Comparing photos of the two side by side is an extraordinary example of authentic reproduction.

Yet the most significant difference to modern eyes is that one went up in flames in 1967 after surviving only four decades. It now exists only as a flickering image on the screen. The other cathedral—eight hundred plus years old and counting—represents longevity in the face of countless obstacles. Despite the catastrophic damage it suffered, our lady of Paris will endure.

Saved by a Kickstarter

ShowPeopleIt is estimated that about eighty percent of the movies made before 1930 are lost. No existent prints, no fragments, no nothing. This is why when the occasional print resurfaces in an archive, the hands of a collector, or buried under the snow in the Klondike (Google Dawson City film for more), it is a cause for celebration.

Which makes the other twenty percent easy to see, right?


While some of those titles are in public domain and are available on DVD, or shown at on Turner Classic Movies, those are a fraction of the ones that survive. Most other titles are one-of-a-kind prints, held by archives around the world. To see those titles requires a trip to the archive, and request permission for a viewing, not an easy feat, especially for the prints in other countries. Plus, in many cases, it is not the whole print but a fragment or incomplete print. And as much as TCM should be applauded for their efforts at film preservation and presentation, this goes far beyond what they can do single handedly.

Fortunately, a movement has grown in recent years to set some of these little-seen films free. Kickstarter is the new rallying point for raising funds to release titles that might otherwise sit quietly in archives, seen by only a few. This is especially true with the Library of Congress, whose holdings include a number of titles by Marion Davies. To date, the films of hers that have been given new life include The Bride’s Play, Beauty’s Worth, Enchantment, Buried Treasure, The Restless Sex, and When Knighthood was in Flower.

Mind you, these are not always full-fledged restorations, which takes far more funds and time to return them to the way they first looked a near century ago. No matter. For those who adore these old movies, the titles are welcome in whatever shape they come. Beggars can’t be choosers when there is no alternative—but you get the film, along with a score. If you’re lucky, it might even be tinted.

AliceHowellI am proud to support these campaigns. The people behind them work not for profit but for a love of the films of this era. My shelf is lined with these DVDs with more now in the works. The latest one (as of this writing) is a release of a series of comedy shorts by Alice Howell. Who, you say? That’s the point. Through these efforts, the works of the lesser-known talents have just as much a chance of reclaiming their popularity as the famous (such as Marion Davies). In her day, Alice Howell had a following. So did others. Now, the history of female silent comedy does not go much beyond Mabel Normand. It’s time to set the record straight.

Sound interesting? Support those efforts on Kickstarter. Look up the efforts of Ed Lorusso, Steve Massa, and Ben Model. It’s well worth the effort.

The Funding for the Alice Howell project ended on May 8, with 360 backers who raised over $14,000. Here is a link to the campaign:

Lastly, for those who have never seen a Marion Davies film, check out Show People. It is Davies at her comedic best.

Before the Opera Ghost

Victory and The Wicked DarlingIt’s October, a perfect time to discuss movies with a spooky flair. Over the last month, it’s been a bonanza for Lon Chaney fans, myself included, with a half-dozen unseen films now available.


Okay, I’m stretching the truth a little. The dual release of Victory (1919) and The Wicked Darling (1919, with the always delightful Priscilla Dean) by Flicker Alley has been available for a while, but I’m just now adding it to my collection.


TriumphHowever, Grapevine Video has just released Triumph, a 1917 feature with Dorothy Phillips. Only thee reels of this film survive, but three is better than nothing.


Meanwhile, Undercrank Productions has released Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces. This disc contains three rare Universal features from 1915-16, all of which also survive only in a partial state. The three incomplete features are A Mother’s Atonement, If My Country Should Call, and The Place Beyond the Wind.


Before the Thousand FacesWhat is most interesting about these releases are that they fall in that period, pre-twenties, before Chaney made himself a household name. Still ahead were Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tell it to the Marines, to name a few.


Yet even at this early stage, Chaney’s talent is undeniable, while already demonstrating his ability at playing a chameleon.


Happy Halloween!

Drive-ins are back in town—finally!

ShowboatThere was a period when Houston was dotted with nearly two dozen drive-in movie theatres. They ranged from the first one constructed in 1940, to the deluxe Loew’s Sharpstown (1958), and the massive I-45, the last one to be built (1982) from the original wave of outdoor theatres, and the last to be torn down.

Then came the Showboat in Tomball, constructed in 2006 like a dinosaur, well after the rest of its kind were extinct. Now, a new one may arise, this time in the Alvin/Pearland area. Naturally, I am thrilled at the prospect, being a native Alvinite, who grew up with two Alvin drive-ins. The first one was located at the corner of South and Gordon Street, and the second, the Cinema Park, was built in the early seventies on Highway 6, just outside of town. Then there was the Telephone Road Drive-in on the other side of Pearland, where I spent many an evening, including the night when I heard over the radio that John Lennon had been shot.

According to an article that ran on February 19 in The Pearland Journal , plans are underway for a new one to open in the Pearland/Alvin area, although the exact site has yet to be determined. The endeavor is spearheaded by Andrew Thomas, who restored the 1968 Alvin Towne Plaza Theatre, and reopened it as the Welborne Cinema Four. The work included a restoration of the original auditorium, which had once been twinned, back to its original single-screen size.

So here’s to enjoying a double feature under the Texas stars, with fold-out chairs, and sound piped in over the radio. I can’t wait! For a full account of the new drive-in, here is a link to the Journal article. If not working, here is a post of the story.

Something old, something new

Movie watching is all about the experience.

Early theatre operators understood this, creating massive picture palaces as a respite from normal life. For the masses, going to see a movie meant attending an ornate cathedral, with a full program of shorts, live entertainment, and a feature film. Over the decades, this magic was lost, with the theatres reduced to a simple auditorium of chairs and a screen. Granted, the movies have continued to evolve with the times, offering spectacle in state-of-the-art sound, color, and clarity—but somewhere along the way, the space lost its importance.

iPicYes, there have been attempts to recapture the thrill of going to the movies, from the drive-ins of the fifties and sixties to the recent combination cinema/restaurant such as Alamo and Studio Movie Grill. Now comes the newest attempt, adding upscale sensibilities to the movie experience.

The iPic Theatre opened on November 6, amid the ongoing construction of the new River Oaks District shopping center. Anyone who has driven the stretch of Westheimer between Highland Village and The Galleria over the last year will have seen the massive structure going up. For people inside the loop, iPic offers another cinema to choose from, given a healthy pocketbook.

The latest addition to the Florida-based theatre chain opts for a different kind of opulence in its approach to the movie experience. The eight auditoriums hold less people, with a general capacity of less than a hundred people, but with far larger seats.

The center area seats are more akin to a home recliner, with tables set in front, and a select area features deluxe seating pods, dual seats that offer more privacy, perfect for a date night. As with the other restaurant-style theatres, special emphasis is placed on food and drinks. A deluxe bar is located outside the auditoriums for those who want to socialize prior to their film.

Of course, this all comes at a price. Seating is reserved, advance ticket purchase recommended, and price ranges from $18 to $24.

The opening was well covered in the media, including Channel 2, Houston Press, the Houston Business Journal, and the Houston Chronicle.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited reopening of the historic DeLuxe Theatre took place on December 14, with a grand opening ceremony attended by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and other public officials. For full coverage on the reopening, see the article on the Houston Public Media website.

Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website,

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.