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.


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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,

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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