Friends on Film and a New Dawn for the River Oaks

The saga of the Houston River Oaks Theater has been a long and ongoing one, but with a promising future. At the beginning of 2022, its fate looked uncertain. The classic theatre had closed in March of the previous year as negotiations between Landmark Theaters and Weingarten Realty broke down in renewing their lease. Despite a very large public outcry, the cinema closed its doors.

Months went by. No word of its fate.

That changed quickly with the merger of Weingarten with Kimco Realty in August 2022. Around the same, an agreement fell into place for new operations under the name of the River Oaks Theatre Inc., a company that owns and operates such food and entertainment establishments as Star Cinema Grill, State Fair Kitchen & Bar, and Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette.  The resulting sentiment was summed up well by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, stating, “What a great day for the city of Houston. The River Oaks Theatre is open again and will be preserved for future generations.”

As we reach the end of March 2023, the theater space is still closed. Work goes on behind the scenes. The waiting game continues. But the theater still stands with an endgame in sight.

One result of the RO closure was the founding of the Friends of River Oaks support group, a vocal entity for the preservation of its namesake theater as well as other historic sites. Its latest endeavor is the Friends on Film podcast, which released its first episode this last month. I’m both thrilled and honored to have been featured in its initial podcast and in the same company as Richard Linklater, Maureen McNamara, Justice Tirapelli-Jamail, Margot Gerber, Robin Jones, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Dwayne Cathey, and Cary Darling.

You can hear the Friends on Film podcast here:…/friends-on-film/id1675430469


The River Oaks Theatre: Is It Any Surprise?

First things first: The River Oaks Theatre is under serious threat of closing down at the end of the month. Their lease is up. Negotiations between Landmark theatres and Weingarten Realty have been strained. I could spend paragraph upon paragraph talking about this topic, but much of it has already been said in detail by the local media. For some of the coverage, see the following links or do a simple Google search. You will find plenty to read:

Don’t go, River Oaks Theatre: Houston iconic venue faces risk of closure again

Houston film group launches new push to save beloved River Oaks Theatre

Protect the River Oaks Theatre! Write Your Mayor!

If you want to support the River Oaks Theatre, please do so by giving them your patronage. Alternatively, if you feel uneasy about going to a theatre due to Covid concerns, purchase a ticket online and give it to a friend or consider it a charitable act. Make your voice heard. Post about it on social media. Write a letter to the mayor. Do what you can.

How this ends is still in question. Negotiations are ongoing. We do what we can to support the cause and hope for the best.

However, it did get me to thinking. The River Oaks Theatre opened in 1939, the same year as the Alabama Theatre. The Alabama eventually became a retail venue, the Bookstop, and now operates as a Trader Joe’s. The River Oaks is the only theatre from the classic age to be still showing movies. For the record, it has been doing so for over eighty years.

So here is the question: If it disappears, what will be the oldest operational theatre left in the city?

All the historic picture palaces of the teens and twenties have been torn down, the lone survivor being the Majestic Metro (Ritz Theatre, 1926) which now functions as a special events venue. The theatres of the thirties, forties, and fifties are all gone, except for the Granada and Capitan, and they are nothing more than shells with the possibility of restoration at some point (There are high hopes for the Granada with interested parties working for a revitalization). The sixties saw the opening of the Gaylynn and the Cinerama Windsor Theatre, among others, and the seventies brought in the era of the twins and multiplex theatres. All of them – the General Cinema Twins, the AMC and Loews trios, fours, and six-house theatres – no longer stand.

Others rose through the seventies, eighties, and nineties: The Woodlake, the Westchase 5 (with its 70mm screen), and the great Cineplex Odeon cinemas on Augusta and West Gray. All these have also perished, with most of the spaces now occupied by massive apartment complexes.

These led the way to the stadium theatres, and even these are not immune to progress, such as the Tinseltown USA Westchase on Richmond at the Beltway. It opened in 1996 and was razed in 2008.

Houston’s theatrical remnants are few and far between. Operational ones, even less. Not counting the institutional auditoriums such as the Museum of Fine Arts and Rice Media Center, the torchbearer is the America Cinemas Houston at Sharpstown Mall. Originally built as a Cineplex Odeon theatre in 1992, it is one of the only cinemas left prior to the stadium seating boom that erupted later in the nineties.

The America Cinemas Sharpstown. Photo: Cinema Treasures

There you have it. Houston’s theatrical past over the last century, all gone, kaput, with only a few structures still standing but abandoned. Now the bulls-eye is on the beloved River Oaks.

Meanwhile, Austin has its Paramount (1915), Dallas has its Majestic (1920), and San Antonio has its Empire (1914), Aztec (1926), and Majestic (1929). All standing. All restored. All operational.

How do you feel now, Houston? Let’s build another high-rise.

Laughing Through 2020

Most everyone agrees: 2020 was a difficult year. People have had their lives uprooted in one way or another, more time spent at home, more Zoom calls, and there are the masks, lots of them. While 2021 looks optimistic, we are only in the beginning months.

With so much time on our hands over the last year, people have found inventive ways to pass the hours. Videos on YouTube and TikTok are ample proof of that. One of the treasures to come from this is the weekly Silent Comedy Watch Party, which is nearing its first year anniversary. Every Sunday, the hour-long YouTube streaming program showcases two or three silent comedy shorts, accompanied by pianist Ben Model. For those who need a good chuckle, this is proof that humor is the best medicine for trying times.

Model is no stranger to film preservation. He has created musical scores for hundreds of silent films over the last thirty years, and is the resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre. May of those scores have been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies and released on DVD/Blu-Ray. In addition, he has released a series of rare silent titles with his independent label, Undercrank Productions, including films preserved by the Library of Congress.

The Silent Comedy Watch Party began as a way to showcase some classic shorts during his down time as the Pandemic shuttered movie theaters and live performances. His co-host for the program, Steve Massa, is also well recognized in silent film circles for his series of books on the subject, including Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy, Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy, and Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle. He has organized comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Every Sunday, online audiences are treated to comedy shorts with live piano accompaniment from Model’s home, and detailed introductions and discussions by Model and Massa. The list of comedians range from the expected geniuses – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon – to the more obscure names such as Alice Howell, Harry Watson, Jr. (Musty Suffer), Billie Ritchie, and Louise Fazenda. For many, this program can be seen as a weekly college course in silent comedy, hosted by two people who really know their stuff.

It’s doubtful that either of them expected to be doing this for more than a handful of programs, more of a way to pass the time and showcase a few films that they held dear. Now close to a year into it, their efforts are still going strong. It’s a great diversion for a Sunday afternoon, and is a way to discover new comedy shorts while revisiting some of the classics.

And let’s face it; we all need to laugh right now.

New and past episodes of Silent Comedy Watch Party can be found at​.

Suppose They Showed a Movie and Nobody Came

The drive-in theater has become a respite for movie lovers in the age of the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the Drive-in at Sawyer Yards

On October 4, 2019, Joker – Todd Phillips’ dark reimagining of the Batman villain with Joaquin Phoenix – danced its ways into movie theaters across the United States. Critics and audiences were split in their opinions. Many found it far too grim to be enjoyable. Despite this, Joker received eleven Academy Award nominations and won two, including a Best Actor trophy for Phoenix.

Other movies from 2019 included Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, 1917, Ford v Ferrari, Alita: Battle Angel, and Us (just to name a few). Sequels and remakes included It Chapter 2, Terminator: Dark Fate, Little Women, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Downton Abbey. In all, it was a packed twelve months for movies.

How much difference a year can make. Now in October 2020, the joke’s on us. After several good months of new titles, the industry shut down, and one by one, all the significant film release dates have been pushed back to 2021 and beyond. Cinemas have been shuttered on and off with no end in sight, and the major theater chains are teetering on the verge of collapse.

Thank you, coronavirus. You’ve made this a year to remember.

In a previous blog, I mentioned the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and its effects on the entertainment industry. The similarities between that epidemic and the current situation are many and could hardly be covered in detail here. However, there are differences as well, the most notable being the catastrophic results of a shutdown that went from days and weeks to months. In both cases, the population was asked to stay indoors as much as possible, avoid crowds, wash their hands, and wear face masks. Houston’s October 1918 shutdown covered large gatherings and meetings, public places, schools, performance halls, and movie theaters. It lasted for two weeks, a mere blip when compared to the current state of affairs. Once the proclamation was lifted in the latter part of October 1918, life soon got back to normal. The flu ran its course.

Over its century-plus history beginning in the 1890s, movies and the places that show them have had to deal with multiple threats, both internal and external. The struggle for legitimacy lasted well into the twenties before it became recognized as a reputable art form as well as a source for entertainment. Competition rose in the form of radio, then television in the fifties, home video and cable in the eighties and beyond, and more recently, the added expansion into streaming services. Despite all this, theaters have managed to stay intact. The core fact is that the optimum condition for watching a movie remains a communal experience.

Covid-19 changed all that and has become the single biggest threat to movie theaters’ survival and the industry in which they operate. The warning signs came early with shutdowns in other countries prior to the infection spreading across the United States. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo closed on March 11, 2020, halfway into its schedule. It was supposed to run until March 22. AMC and Regal theatrical chains shut down in mid-March, and an official stay-at-home order was issued for Harris County on the 24th of the month. Many thought it would only be a matter of several weeks before life resumed as usual. This was not the case.

The first cinemas to reopen were the smaller chains, beginning with the Star Cinema Grill in May. AMC and Regal held off until August.

The closure of the legitimate movie houses brought about a resurrection of a venue long considered to be dead: the drive-in movie theater. In retrospect, this seems a logical progression since cars offered the needed social distancing to operate. The Showboat in Tomball had been around since 2006, and except for a brief shut down earlier this year, has operated as usual but with some additional precautions taken due to the coronavirus. The Rooftop Cinema Club opened the Drive-in at Sawyer Yards in response to the shutdown, with the image projected onto the grain silos. Others included the Space City Shows at 2300 Runnels Street and the Moonstruck Drive-in Cinema at 100 Bringhurst Street.

The larger problem has not been where to show the movies but what to show. Most of the product has tended to be films initially released just before the pandemic or older “classic” movies, a harder sell since most of these are readily available on cable, home video, and streaming services. Meanwhile, the major studios have re-evaluated how to best release their product.

Universal Pictures fired the opening volley when it pulled Trolls World Tour from a traditional theatrical release in lieu of digital rental. AMC did not take kindly to having the rug pulled from under their feet and announced that they would not support simultaneous theatrical/digital releases.

The release dates for major films such as No Time to Die keep getting pushed back.

Major titles for this year have been rescheduled one or more times, pushing the dates back to the end of 2000, into next year, and even into 2022. The two top movies under scrutiny have been the latest James Bond movie in the franchise, No Time to Die, and Wonder Woman 1984. No Time to Die moved from an original release date of November 2019 to February 2020, then April, November 25, and finally April 2, 2021. Wonder Woman 1984 is still slated (as of this writing) for a holiday release on December 25, after being bumped from June to August, then October. For a full list of release dates, see the related article in Vulture.

The one sacrificial lamb offered to cinemas was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which opened domestically on September 3 to small crowds. While it did well worldwide, the uncertainty of venturing into a movie theater kept many away. Others did not even realize that local theaters had reopened.

On a personal note, I’ve been to the movies in the theater multiple times during this crisis. I have felt perfectly safe there. Then again, the auditoriums were mostly empty, which indicates the inherent problem the industry is facing. The theater chains are bleeding.

Tenet proved not to be the savior that many in the industry had hoped for.

Cineworld, owners of Regal, announced that they would shut down their theaters again on October 8 for an unspecified time. AMC and Cinemark are still open as of this writing. Multiple news reports suggested that AMC would exhaust all of its cash reserves by the end of the year. Along with other cinemas, it has taken to renting out their auditoriums for private events, a means for generating additional income during these uncertain times.

As of today, October 17 – seven months since Houston theaters first closed their doors, there is still no end in sight. Many in the industry speculate on the future of theatrical releases and the legitimate movie theaters. While a substantial part of the problem stems from the pandemic, there is also the movie studios’ symbiotic role with the theater chains. Theaters depend on new product. By pushing release dates back, it only makes existence more difficult for cinema chains and those who work for them. Nor is skipping a theatrical release and moving directly to cable/direct streaming a viable solution. It only removes a key revenue source before reaching the additional avenue that would be a part of the equation anyway. 

There is no easy answer for this, but it is likely tied to an equally difficult question: When will this pandemic – which has cost so much in the number of lives lost, of economic hardship, and changed the way we live every aspect of our lives – come to an end?

The only thing for certain is in the volume of future movies that will deal with this subject. Perhaps we might see it in a theater – if they are still around.

Cleopatra Meets the Spanish Flu

Cleo-AD-retouched-smallAs I write this, the movie theaters in Houston have been closed for over two months. Regal and AMC were the first to take action, voluntarily making their announcement on March 17. The remaining cinemas had little choice when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers and businesses. It remains unclear how much longer the movie houses will remain shuttered since the decisions are now being made at the corporate level, affecting the chains nationwide. To date, only one Houston theater has reopened. The Star Cinema Grill resumed operations on Friday, May 8 after incorporating new public safety and social distancing measures.

The movie industry has reacted in kind, moving back the release dates for their most important films—or in the case of Universal, switching their animated Trolls World Tour movie to a video on demand release, much to the ire of the theater chains who planned on the masses of children flocking into their auditoriums, and the dollars piling up from snack bar sales of drinks, popcorn, and candy.

Not to worry; the postponed films will get their proper release and will be around for a long time after their initial run in the cinema. Once they get their time on the large movie screen, they will make their way to streaming, cable, blu-ray, 4-K, and all the other means available to keep the movie alive for decades to come.

This is not the first time that local theaters have shut their doors. Most of the time, it has taken place due to forces of nature and lasted only a matter of days. Houston’s last closure took place in August 2017 in the aftermath of the Hurricane Harvey. Those instances are fortunately few and far between and most have been minor discomforts to the operations of a movie house.

The most notable closing took place a hundred years ago. The parallels between the current Covid-19 pandemic and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 are many, one being how a city shut down for a stretch as the illness ran its course. Places of mass entertainment were particularly targeted and so the city’s theaters closed their doors for two weeks.

Cleopatra was one of the casualties of that time.

When it first premiered in 1917, the William Fox feature about the Queen of the Nile was big news, largely due to its star. Theda Bara had become a household name several years earlier as the vamp in A Fool There Was. She quickly became associated as the ultimate femme fatale, the destroyer of men. Her line, “Kiss me, my fool,” became the popular catchphrase of the day. The film was far from Shakespeare, and Bara overacted to the hilt, but the public ate it up.

Cleo1It was only a matter of time before she took on the role of the ultimate seductress, Cleopatra. Fox launched the production in May 1917, reportedly spending $500,000 on the sets. Reproductions of the pyramids and the Sphinx were constructed in Ventura County. Hundreds of rugs and tapestries were purchased. The Battle of Actium featured countless extras. Most notable were Bara’s costumes, or lack of. The skimpy outfits left little to the imagination. This only added to her image as a wanton seductress.

Cleopatra reached Houston on Saturday, October 5 for a full-week run at the Crown Theater with special orchestral accompaniment. As noted in the Chronicle review, “It will be some time before a type will be found into which the savage beauty and personality of Miss Theda Bara enters more perfectly.”

The Crown only ran the film for four full days. Due to the threat of influenza, the city of Houston issued orders for schools, entertainment venues, and many non-essential businesses to close on Wednesday afternoon until further notice. Churches were asked to use discretion but should consider doing the same. The closure lasted fifteen days.

As for Cleopatra, it joined the ranks of approximately eighty percent of the films made before 1930 that are now considered lost. At the time, movies were not considered to have a long shelf life. Motion pictures had only been around for two decades and it would be many more before the idea of archives and film preservation came into play. When the talkies appeared in 1927, the older silent were considered to be worthless. Many studios chose to destroy their own product for silver content.

Cleo2The last two existing prints of Cleopatra were lost in fires, one at Fox in 1937 and the other at the New York City Museum of Modern Art. For film historians, it is considered to be the holy grail of lost films, alongside London After Midnight and Erich Von Stroheim’s complete eight-hour version of Greed. Only brief fragments of the film have survived.

But for four days in 1918 during the height of the Spanish Influenza crisis, Houstonians saw Theda Bara at her seductive best.

Drive-In Footprints in the 21st Century

Telephone Rd - 11020 Telephone Rd

Telephone Road Drive-in

First off, a hard local fact. Most all of Houston’s drive-in theatres are long gone. They had their heyday in the fifties, sixties, and into the early seventies. Then, one by one, they slowly died off. Many of them fell due to rising property values. The final nail in the coffin came with the advent of cable and home video. The last Houston outdoor theatre to arrive, the I-45 Drive-in, was the last to leave. It opened in 1982 and operated for a full decade before its closing.

The one remaining drive-in theatre in the region is the Showboat in Hockley, a relative newbie as it opened in 2005. Fifteen years later, it’s still running double bills on two screens. More on this later.

For the most part, architecture leaves no trace. When a building is razed, the property is quickly repurposed with another structure. That is the way of things, especially in Houston where demolition is a daily event, as common as the dirt left behind after the wrecking crew leaves. Any reminders of the older structure are in the form of old photos and memories of those who attended. That issue represented one of the major hurdles for me when writing Cinema Houston, since a majority of the theatres in the book (both indoor and out) were snuffed out years before I typed a single word.

Drive-ins, however, are a unique beast in this respect. Yes, all of Houston’s outdoor theatres are extinct, like dinosaurs and rotary phones (and if you don’t know what that is, you’ve just shown your age). Many were replaced by new developments, retail centers, business parks, and residential subdivisions (to quote the brilliant Firesign Theater comedy team, “Civilization, ho!”). But in a few cases, there are ghosts left behind of older times.

With GPS so much a part of our daily lives, we don’t often take into account the historical possibilities of satellite imagery. Google Earth/Maps offers a unique way of rolling back the clock while in search of architectural fossils. In the case of the drive-in, their size and structure leaves behind a unique footprint that occasionally withstands redevelopment. It may not be visible from the ground, but when looking down from a bird’s eye view, patterns can be clearly seen.

 I recently reviewed the list of the local drive-in theatres that once stood As expected, a majority of those properties are host to homes and office buildings. There is no evidence of what once drew carloads of people, some in pairs and others with their kids in tow for a pleasant evening and a movie or two.

However, in just a few instances, the bones of a drive-in theatre can still be seen. The markings are easy to spot: a series of parallel, slightly curving lines, much like the layers of an onion slice. From that, it is easy to estimate the size and placement of the theatre as well as the location of the screen tower.

The most obvious of these is the old Telephone Road Drive-in. As of 2020, the property is still vacant (see photo at top). While the screens and snack bar area are gone, the patterns from one of the two screens are still evident. I know this theatre well, having spent many evenings there during my teen years, either with friends or with dates (the ideal place to go to in high school when in search of privacy). As seen in the photo, the markings for the car rows are still evident.

What is fascinating about this is that the passage of time does not immediately eradicate this signature. Other, less distinct markings can be found in the areas around the King Center at 6400 M.L. King Blvd. (formerly S. Park Blvd.). It opened in 1952 and closed in 1981. Some guesswork is still involved. In this case, the address suggests a location across the street from the markings.

King Center-6400 MLK Blvd

King Center Drive-in

A similar footprint can be found near the address for Chocolate Bayou Drive-in at 10200 Cullen. It later changed its name to the Cullen Drive-in when the street name changed from the older designation of Chocolate Bayou Rd.

Chocolate Bayou DI - 10200 Cullen

Chocolate Bayou Drive-in

Similarly, there are formation around the Epsom Downs Drive-in at 9716 Jensen Dr.(originally 9700 Humble Road). It first opened around 1946-47. The theatre later changed names first to the Bronco, and then the Peliculas Mexicano Auto Cine.

Epsom Downs - 9700 Jensen

Epsom Downs Drive-in

But that’s it for Houston, folks. The remainder of those local former locations, as seen from satellite views, show nothing but an array of buildings and homes. And for those properties that still bear marks of their cinematic past, that will eventually change when the land is wiped clean for yet another office park or subdivision—and the onion marks will disappear for good.


Showboat DI - 22422 FM 2920 Hockley

As a counterpoint to the above archeological digs, shown above is an overhead view of the Showboat Drive-in, located at 22422 FM 2920 in Hockley. It’s still operational. If you want to spend an evening under that stars, watching a movie in your car as in the old days, it is well worth the drive. It’s not that far, less than an hour, depending on what part of Houston you live in. It’s like a trip to Galveston, but instead of the beach, you get outdoor movies, sound pumped in on the radio, and munchies from the snack bar.

And it’s still a great place to take a date. Woo-hoo!

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.

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.