The River Oaks Theatre turned 70 a couple of months ago and we celebrated with cake and drinks. The party reminded me how special that cool historic building is to me – and how it’s more than just a movie theater. It’s a touchstone in my life.
I went there as a kid when it was a repertory theater and I got to see exciting new worlds in movies like Nicholas and Alexandra, although I didn’t get to stay to the end as I have a vague memory of my parents whisking me out because of some disgusting food scene. Later, as an adult, I loved going there not only for the wonderful art films, but also for the camaraderie, the delicious herbal tea and foreign chocolate bars.
By then I was so smitten with the theater that I became a manager in 1993. Two years later, I gave birth to my older son, Alexander, and he grew up there, hanging out in a pack on my back, climbing on silver banisters, taking tickets and being carefully guarded by an usher who rolled him back and forth in a stroller while greeting the public.
I stayed at the theater until 2000, learning the behind-the-scenes world of theater management, which in the Landmark Theatre chain included projecting films, putting films together and counting popcorn bags – all while marketing the movies. During my tenure I co-founded the Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (now QFest) with Landmark’s full blessing, and I survived a riot during a screening of Blair Witch Project. Did I mention that I also mopped vomit on a daily basis during the run of that film because queasy patrons couldn’t handle the film’s jerky camera movements?
I also wore rain boots to walk in the theater when it flooded due to a malfunctioning sump pump during one of Houston’s famous rainstorms. Luckily, we were showing Das Boot, and I turned the problem into a marketing gold mine – joking about the appropriateness of showing a film about boats in a theater that was flooding!
The theater became a family affair as we all became entangled in my life there: I argued with my dad when he walked out on Mel Gibson’s Hamlet (“I can’t stand Mel Gibson in that role!” he said). My brother saved me from an angry film critic when I was marketing Secrets and Lies. My mom saw me more often since she patronized the theater. My husband jumped in and became the bouncer after the Blair Witch incident and my young son was practically another employee. My father-in-law, who spent many joyous days of his youth seeing films there, stood by my side as he spoke eloquently at City Hall to get the theater designated as a City Landmark with my group, Save Our Landmarks.
The River Oaks Theatre has become part of the collective memories we have as Houstonians, serving not only as the longest-running neighborhood theater in Houston but also as a unique art deco jewel that sets it apart from today’s megaplexes. It opened to much fanfare on Nov. 28, 1939, with the film Bachelor Mother, starring David Niven and Ginger Rogers. At the time the theater was independently owned, but was later bought by Interstate Theatres (also owner of the Alabama Theatre) and then Movie Inc., a company that took over in 1977 and eventually became Landmark Theatres.
Cinema Houston author David Welling credits the River Oaks Theatre for inspiring his lifelong love of art houses. His book carefully chronicles the theater’s history, and I highly recommend it to those that want to delve further.
I'm grateful that it’s still here despite floods, the threat of demolition, protests, rumors about ghosts and a waning interest in films on the big screen. The theater still sates my passion for art films and keeps me connected to a community that also wants to see films that stimulate them. I plan to keep going there as long as I can – snacking on Swedish chocolates, drinking herbal tea and cheering the theater on to its next 70 years.