It was a somber but still celebratory atmosphere as Landmark River Oaks Theatre closed up shop on Thursday, March 25.
After weeks of negotiations between Landmark Theatres and Weingarten Realty — aka the landlords — over unpaid lease obligations caused by the pandemic, the theater that has shown many independent and foreign films throughout the decades was unfortunately forced to vacate.
This makes River Oaks the last Landmark theater in the city to close its doors. (Landmark Greenway closed in 2007, while Landmark Saks was done sometime in the mid-’90s.)
Various people came to show their support by attending the theater’s three final, sold-out screenings of Oscar-nominated films The Father, Minari, and Nomadland. They also shared some memories. Haylee Williamson, a North Carolinian who moved to Houston to work in commercial real estate, remembered the first time she went to the theater — to check out a weekend, midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — but she couldn’t get in to see it.
“I completely underestimated how many people would be in line,” said Williamson. Her friend, Canadian-born nurse Daphne Latourelle, drove from New Orleans to hang out and see a movie before the place shut down. “I grew up in Montreal,” said Latourelle. “We had so many small movie theaters that showed, like, French films and things like that. I can see how Houston is losing an integral part of its history by this closing down. It’s really sad.”
As for 74-year-old Linda George Smith, she remembers was River Oaks still a one-screen operation, when she and her BFF saw the 1954 John Wayne movie The High and the Mighty. “We went and saw it from the balcony,” recalled Smith, “which was a very big deal for seven-year-olds, to be able to go up in the balcony.”
Filmmaker Michelle Mower was carrying around a placard that said “Greed throws away everything” on one side and “Save our treasured icons” on the other, flashing it for passersby in their cars. As someone who had a sold-out premiere screening of her 2012 film The Preacher’s Daughter at the River Oaks, the last thing she wants to see is another business occupy the property, like the way Trader Joe’s currently occupies what used to be the Alabama Theatre.
“Oh my God, I would never set foot in a Trader Joe’s,” said Mower.
At the end of the night, remaining moviegoers and spectators convened outside for a vigil, where Gish Creative owner Sarah Gish, who managed the Houston Landmark theaters in the ’90s, spoke to the people, answered questions and invited others to come to the mike to share their memories with the theater. Some cried, some didn’t. One person even declared that one of the property owners needs to go back to jail.
While Gish (who has set up a “Friends of River Oaks Theatre” Facebook page) would like to see River Oaks rise again, she knows nothing will happen unless Weingarten signs off on it. “We can explore opportunities,” said Gish. “We can talk to rich investors. We can do all kinds of things. But we can’t do anything until we know what Weingarten is doing.”
This is one of those times where you wish a rich benefactor would come in and keep the theater going. That’s certainly what some people thought last night.
Said Smith, “I wish I had a direct number to Ted Turner — and I wish he did not have some level of dementia — and I wish that, somehow, he would have bought the theater, because he obviously cares deeply about cinema.”