Posts Tagged 'Historic Preservation'

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.

Super Happy Relics of Theatres Past

MaryAnne Marino

MaryAnne Marino becomes one with the fun at Super Happy Fun Land. Behind her is a movie screen from the AMC Town & Country Theatre.

First off, an apology for the length of time between posts. Moving from one home to another can play havoc with normal schedules.

So when theatres die, do they go to Cinema Heaven? Despite the flippant nature of the question, it does bring up the topic of an afterlife for movie houses. Some find new usage in the form of churches, or are revamped into retail space – two prime examples of this being the Tower Hollywood Video and the Alabama Bookstop. Both have since closed down, are currently vacant, and have a questionable future (with the Alabama being a topic for an upcoming month). However, most are simply razed in the name of progress, to make way for an office building or parking lot, again proving the wisdom of Joni Mitchell’s words (They tore down paradise…).

Either way, be it total demolition or incarnation, the theatre is still a sum of its parts. What of the parts?

This question raised its head this last Wednesday when attending a show at Super Happy Fun Land, one of Houston’s more colorful music venues. Most of the acts passing through during the week are part of the Austin SXSW overflow, which the Fun Land has made a yearly ritual. I was there for Mary Anne Marino – more on her later in this article.

Describing the Fun Land is rather like explaining Houston’s Orange Show to anyone who has not experienced it. The space defies a simple description, but if a music club, a circus, vintage toy store, a thrift shop, and a home interior were tossed together higgledy-piggledy and set up in a warehouse, this would be it. The seating arrangement in front of the stage is comprised of row after row of theatres seats, each bearing an AMC logo on the handrest.

As it turns out, these came from the AMC Town & Country Theatres (as did the white movie screen behind the stage), all leftovers from when Houston Community College acquired the property. Herein is new life for something that might have otherwise been destined for the landfill.

Cinema artifacts can be found all around the town, if one looks hard enough. When the grand downtown palaces were torn down in the seventies, many of the furnishings were auctioned off. One of the chandeliers from the Majestic Theatre hangs from a home in the Heights. The Wurlitzer pipe organ from the Metropolitan now resides in the Houston Community College main auditorium. One set of bronze entry doors from the Loew’s State adored Lipstick’s Cabaret for many years. More importantly, another set became the entry doors for Wheeler Avenue Church. Largely populated by African Americans, the churchgoers now enter through the very doors that were barred to them for four decades.

A pair of theatre seats from the AMC Festival 6 now sits at my own home, pulled from a dumpster when the theatre space was being cleared. The rest of those chairs – more than a thousand – probably rest under a mound of dirt and debris now.

Perhaps Cinema Heaven can be found piecemeal, in venues such as Super Happy Fun Land, where relics of a theatrical past still manage to have some function. Sadly, these are the lucky few that survive as a reminder of what they once were. The rest are history.

As to the performance that evening, Mary Anne Marino was superb. Originally based in New York, she first reached my ears when she handled vocals for November Project. Recently, she relocated to New Orleans and is now establishing herself to the region… New York’s loss, our gain. To hear more of her music, check out her My Space page at http://www.myspace.com/maryannemarino or her website: http://www.maryannemarino.com.

Historic preservation during an economic downturn

The Capitan Theatre relighting ceremony in Pasadena on June 20, 2000

The Capitan Theatre relighting ceremony in Pasadena on June 20, 2000

The date is June 20, 2000. It is a cool, summer evening, and a small crowd has gathered at one end of the Corrigan Center. The event is a lighting ceremony, rather like the street lighting events that take place in Uptown Houston every November to kick off the December holiday season. In this case, it is not about streets or Christmas, with its trees all lit and adorned with decorations.

This is a relighting ceremony, signaling the complete restoration of a building exterior. That building is the Capitan Theatre, and the city of Pasadena has purchased the building, with plans for a full restoration and conversion of the space into a civic center. After funds were allocated for stage one of the restoration, work began on the exterior. Now, the results are about to be unveiled to the public.

The switch is thrown by Edward Carleton, the theatre’s original manager who had flipped the switch when it first opened. The Capitan lights up in all the glory of its heyday of more than fifty years earlier. The crowd lets out a cheer (and some good Texan “Whoops”) to the sight. In a town that has destroyed a good majority of its movie theatres, there is hope at least for the Capitan.

Fast forward to the present. The May 2009 issue of the Houston Chronicle’s GLOSS magazine features a swimsuit pictorial, showcasing model Julie Henderson of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue fame. For a suitable background for the shoot, the photographers picked the interior of the Capitan, whose walls are ornately decorated with ocean-themed murals.
The images are stunning, the models, lovely, and the walls of the theatre…

GLOSS_100pAh, there’s the rub. While the walls serve as a perfect accent to the photo session, it is noticeable that the restoration to the building exterior has not carried forth to the inside. Because preservation costs money, plans for the Capitan had to be done in stages, and things have slowed down since the lighting ceremony. Now, with a global economic downturn in force, the Capitan will have to wait even longer. Historic preservation is a difficult business, especially when its historical value is outweighed by the power of the dollar. Meanwhile, the Capitan auditorium is void of seats, and is used for storage, and the photo session will be the height of its action for a while.

The estimate for bringing the Capitan back to life is $2 to $3 million, and there is hope that the theatre will be resurrected in the next several years. But original estimates did not include a wilting economy, nor did it factor in Hurricane Ike, which has redirected the city’s focus for the time.

So for the time being, the Houston Chronicle offers a small glimpse of what once was and might be again, if only currently a backdrop for fashionable swimwear.


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.