Archive for April, 2010

Sweet Home Alabama

Alabama Theatre

The Alabama Theatre in the 1980s after its conversion to Bookstop. To its left was Cactus Records (which now thrives at its current location a few blocks further South at 2110 Portsmouth), Whole Earth Provision Co., and Butera's deli. To the right is Fonda San Miguel and Whole Foods.

I’m thinking back to May 1979, watching Alien in 70mm at the Alabama Theatre. At a pivotal moment, the alien appears, and I screamed into the ear of the friend I was watching it with. To this day, he reminds me of that. And while I had seen many movies there before (including multiple midnight showings of Rocky Horror), that memory has stuck with me.

I also am thinking of the countless hours spent in the theatre, after its 1984 conversion into the Bookstop; leafing through magazines, sipping on coffee in the former balcony area, and sitting in one of the many alcoves with an open book in hand. Mostly, the time was spent admiring the architecture, which had been lovingly restored. Even though it no longer functioned as a cinema, there was no doubt what its original function was, and in a strange twist of fate, it was appreciated more for its “theatre-ness” than it ever was as a movie house. Why shop in any old ordinary bookstore, when there was the Bookstop?

So here we are in 2010, and to quote Lynyrd Skynyrd, I miss Alabamy once again.

Earlier last month, word started spreading about the fate of the old Alabama, which had been sitting vacant since late 2009 when Barnes & Noble moved the store to its new location at Shepherd and West Gray (in itself another point of contention for area preservationists).

Rumblings began on March 23 with coverage in J.R. Gonzales’ Houston Chronicle Bayou City History blog. This was a direct follow-up from coverage on Swamplot. Subsequent articles have followed on Nancy Sarnoff’s Chronicle Prime Property blog, KTRK,  and on Gonzales’s tweets.

The initial talk was of Staples to take over the former Bookstop space, a rumor that Sarnoff later reported to be false. “Weingarten has not signed a lease nor has any lease under (letter of intent) with any particular tenant at this time,” said Weingarten’s Kristin Gandy in the article, also noting that there were several tenants reviewing the property, but no definitive agreement was in place. What was most disturbing was the report by Swamplot that Heights Venture Architects had drawn up plans for an entire gutting of the theatre interior and a leveling of the original sloped floor.

Meanwhile, there were separate reports of new talks with Triple Tap Ventures, owners of the Katy and West Oaks Mall Alamo Drafthouse theatres. According to Nancy Sarnoff, a set of discussions between Weingarten and Tripe Tap had taken place more than six months ago, but the negotiations fell apart when the groups couldn’t come to an agreement. Those talks have restarted. Said Neil Michaelsen, a partner with triple Tap Ventures, “With the groundswell of support, we’ve re-engaged discussions with them.”

On April 6, the Houston Chronicle published a letter from the Staples public relations director indicating that they did not have a lease agreement for the space and were not considering a store at the site. The latest, as of April 6, was in the Houston Business Journal and subsequently covered in Swamplot with the headline “Weingarten Exec Blames Those Alabama Theater Demolition Drawings on Staples.”

Which all raises the question of what is in the cards for the Alabama Theatre? With news on this evolving daily, and the key players saying as little as possible, it is hard to gauge what the outcome will be. Staples is evidently out, Alamo would like to be in, and the whole affair has the air of a top secret government operation, with news released either on a need to know basis or through the expected leaks and hearsay.

As expected, there is a very vocal public outcry to all of this, much akin to several years ago with the Alabama’s sister 1939 theatre, the River Oaks. Both share a tie, not only to their birth year, but in that they are the only two remaining theatre spaces from that era still standing and in some usable form.

What has evolved is a separate push by the community to see the space used for something more than a place to buy pencils. Sara Gish offered suggestions on how to get your voice heard in her Gish Picks column . I highly, highly, highly, recommend visiting her site and adding your voice to the fray!

In a separate push, there is a Facebook group established named Put Alamo Drafthouse in Houston’s Alabama Street Theater! At the beginning of April, it had 2,847 members. Now, as of April 10, that number has grown to 4,242. It is evident where many people stand on the subject, especially those who feel passionate about preserving some of Houston’s past.

As for me, I would love to go back to the former theatre and see it used as an entertainment venue. Such a conversion would bring the space back to what it was originally designed for. It would bring the Alabama home. And while it may not be what Lynyrd Skynyrd originally intended with their song, the refrain is stronger now than ever.

Sweet home Alabama. Lord, I’m coming home to you.


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, www.CinemaHouston.net.

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.