As of two years ago, it seemed a sad state for the old Tower Theatre on Westheimer. The building had served as a neighborhood movie house from it’s opening in 1936 to it’s closing four decades later in 1978. It then enjoyed a second life as a venue for live events, with talent such as John Prine, Burt Bacharach, Tori Amos, Laurie Anderson, and The Pretenders, as well as ensemble productions, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” being the most noteworthy. I saw several shows there during this time, including an evening pairing of Sarah McLachlan and the amazingly underrated October Project. Sadly, all good things come to an end and the Tower was no different.
After it’s closure as a live event hall, it sat dormant for a while, before becoming part of the Hollywood Video chain. On the plus side, the exterior marquee and neon was restored to it’s original vibrant glory. Unfortunately, the interior was gutted, the floor leveled, and made to look like any other of the video stores. No trace of it’s theatrical past remained inside, at least to what was visible under the newly added drop-down ceiling.
Then Hollywood Video went belly-up and the theatre was abandoned once more, susceptible to the fate that has claimed nearly all of Houston’s vintage movie theaters.
Ah, but now movies have returned to the Tower Theatre, but in a way quite different from what it once was. The former Tower is now the El-Real Tex-Mex restaurant, an upscale eatery serving up yummy Mexican food.
This change was first announced last June in Nancy Sarnoff’s Houston Chronicle Prime Property column. The then-unnamed restaurant was the venture of Bill Floyd and chef Bryan Caswell of Midtown’s Reef restaurant and Robb Walsh, former food critic for the Houston Press.
Like it’s video predecessor, El-Real has retained the theatre exterior for it’s cinematic visual value. Under the front marquee, the entrance previously sealed by Hollywood has been reopened and the space converted into a covered outdoor dining area. The main changes are left to the interior, but with only hints of what it once was.
There is no restoration to what the Tower auditorium once looked like. The drop-ceiling has been removed, leaving bare walls above. Stairs have been added to the reopened balcony area, used as additional table space. In the rear, the remains of the original projection booth can be seen. And as a nod to the building’s previous life, a new movie screen has been installed in front, running a steady stream of western movie excerpts and trailers.
What is unique about the space is that is serves as a shrine – not to its older life as a theatre, but to another Houston landmark.
It is well understood that you are not a true Texan unless you have an insatiable love for Tex-Mex, which is why there are so many Mexican restaurants in town, both good and otherwise. Among the greats was Felix, a small restaurant a few blocks away at 904 Westheimer just past Montrose. It originally opened in 1948 by Felix Tijerina and served good family-style Mexican food for six decades before finally closing down in 2008. Now much of its interior trappings – tables, chairs, doors, menus, and multiple shelves of articles, clippings, and photos – can be found in the Tower. A large wall display cabinet that features mementos of Felix’ history is located along one wall in the balcony.
With that as the backdrop, El-Real serves up their upscale brand of Tex-Mex to hungry Houstonians in need of a fajita fix. One thing is certain; unlike the Felix menu on display, the price of a regular dinner is considerably more than fifty cents.