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.

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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 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.


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