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.

Happy 103rd birthday, Isis

ISIS3_daw-blogThe Isis is 103 years old this month, even though only a few remnants remain of its theatrical incarnation. The Isis Theatre was Houston’s first truly deluxe motion-picture theatre. Built in 1912, it brought audiences from the nickelodeons into a larger, plusher world. When it opened on April 16, the world was still reeling from the news of the Titanic, which had sunk only four days earlier.

The theatre never made it to the talkies. By 1928, the Isis had closed down, and the space later converted to retail. However, in 1998, the structure was given a chance for renewal. The former theatre space reopened as the Mercury Room and the Mercantile Brewery. When the drop-down ceiling was removed, a long-hidden artifact from the Isis days was discovered. On an upper sidewall was a highly detailed sculpture running the length of the room, with ornate flourishes and five faces spaced throughout. Although in need of restoration, this decorative element would become a highlight of the finished brewery, earning it the “Best Atmosphere” listing in the Houston Press’s 2000 “Best of Houston” issue.


Since that time, both venues have closed, only to reopen under different names. Most recently, the space has been given new life as the Prohibition Supper Club and Bar, featuring food, drink, and most importantly, live entertainment – the first time that the former theatre has functioned as a theatrical venue since its closing in 1928.

For more information, see the Prohibition website at

Preservation in Three Dimensions

ManInTheDarkOf all the film technologies to come along in the last century, 3-D may be the most contested in popularity. Those who adore the effect of objects jumping out of the screen are equally matched by those who refuse to see any film in more than two dimensions.

What is striking is that for a process that has been around for nearly a hundred years, we are now in the new renaissance of 3-D movies. Technologies have advanced significantly in the last decade. Gone are the days of red and blue glasses, out-of-focus images, and headaches due to eyestrain. Top theatrical films are released in both 3-D versions as well as traditional for those who favor a flat image. Many of these are then released in 3-D Blu-ray for home use, with clarity equal to that of the theatre. Simply put, for the 3-D lover, the medium today is better than ever.

Like color, sound, and wide-screen, 3-D had origins in the silent era. Edwin S. Porter experimented with 3-D test footage in 1915, and the first 3-D feature, The Power of Love, had at least one booking in Newark, NJ, before being released flat as The Forbidden Lover (1923). But 3-D experienced its heyday in the fifties, when the studios looked for any way to combat the threat of television. Its popularity was short-lived, lasting only a few years, but it continued to reappear throughout the subsequent decades.

It should be noted that not all modern 3-D movies are actually filmed with 3-D cameras. Many are what have been termed “3-D video conversions” with a flat film processed into 3-D. This technology has made it possible for older films to be given the 3-D treatment, examples being Titanic, Top Gun, Jurassic Park, and Disney’s Little Mermaid.

This ability has also allowed the studios to release some classic vintage 3-D titles that look better than they ever have before. The Vincent Price chiller, House of Wax—arguably the best 3-D film of the fifties, is now out on Blu-ray, as is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Neither of these have been released before on home video in 3-D. Meanwhile, Universal released a stunning Blu-ray of Creature from the Black Lagoon, previously only released to home video in 3-D back in the eighties with the red and blue glasses. The new conversion eliminates the two-color treatment of the black and white film. Now, it is truly black and white, with 3-D layering never before seen in the film.

Here is where it gets interesting. Some of the lesser 3-D titles from the fifties are beginning to appear in Blu-ray form. Twilight Time, a video company that produces limited-edition titles, released the Noir drama Man in the Dark (1953) in a limited edition of 3,000. This was the first 3-D movie to be released by a major studio, shot in eleven days, and beating House of Wax to the theatres by a mere 48 hours. The Blu-ray comes with both 2-D and 3-D versions.

While this is a treat, and suggests that other little-known 3-D titles may find their way to the home market, it also showcases how preservation is now targeting what many once considered a cinematic gimmick.

DragonflySquadronDragonfly Squadron is an even rarer bird. This black and white war film was made in 1954, right at the end of the 3-D craze. While filmed as a 3-D picture, it was never released in that format; the distributed prints were all flat. This is the first time—ever—that the public has ever seen Dragonfly Squadron as it was originally intended.

Does this mean that other vintage 3-D titles might soon receive a proper Blu-ray release? There is a wealth of titles that have not been properly seen in their 3-D format, and would benefit from a home release. Hondo with John Wayne, MGM’s Kiss Me Kate, the softcore antics of The Stewardesses, and the infinitely bad Robot Monster are among those that could find new 3-D life.

Having already released Creature, one can only hope that Universal’s It Came From Outer Space will soon find it’s way to Blu-ray. Then I can finally retire my old VHS tape from the eighties that came with the colored glasses.

Stage 28 Update


All the concern and effort in preserving Stage 28 has come to naught. The stage was razed on September 20.

Photo courtesy of


Stage 28: A different kind of theatre preservation

Stage28-1Much has been written in this blog about the loss of older movie theatres, despite attempts to preserve them. Many movie palaces of the twenties, representing the finest period of construction, have been lost. Now a different kind of theatre is in danger of being destroyed, one with a long movie history… and it’s not even real.

Stage 28, at Universal Studios in California, is under threat of being torn down. Most people know it as the Phantom Stage. The building was constructed as a permanent stage in 1924 for the Lon Chaney vehicle, The Phantom of the Opera. Key to the interior was a full-size opera house. The opera set remains, much as it did in 1924, and has been used in countless other movies such as The Sting, Psycho, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera (both 1925 and 1943 versions), Jurassic Park, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Charade, and many others. It was last seen as the theatre in The Muppets.

Stage28-2aPlans were announced to tear down the stage for theme park expansion. The response so far indicates that the Phantom Stage is an icon to the lot, with two petitions already in place to save the structure.
Below are links to additional articles about the stage and what can be done. Most importantly, here are the links to two petitions to halt the destruction of Stage 28. The first is a request for National Historic Landmark status through with the goal of 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, aims for 10,000 signatures with a less specific goal to “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition.

Please sign up if you feel any passion for the movies. Few structures have lasted this long and have this much history behind them.


Please sign: National Historic Landmark status for Stage 28

Care2 petition to save the Phantom Stage from demolition


Here are additional articles and blogs about Stage 28:

Stage28-4The Studio Tour: Universal Studios Hollywood Stage 28 – The Phantom Stage

Inside Universal: Historic Soundstage 28 Set To Close

Variety: Universal to Demolish ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Soundstage, But Preserve Silent Film’s Set

The Nitrate Diva blog: Save the Phantom Stage!






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 writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. 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.