A Piece of Houston History
Now more than ever: The River Oaks Theatre is a Houston treasure
Four summers ago, a huge uproar erupted in Houston, sparked by rumors of the impending demolition of the Landmark River Oaks Theatre and another 1930s-era building in the River Oaks Shopping Center.
The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance added the two, along with the former Alabama Theater (1939), to its list of endangered buildings; more than 23,000 Houstonians signed a petition asking for the buildings to be spared; and socialite Carolyn Farb led a decorous night protest in which 100 people dressed in black held glowing popcorn bags aloft in front of the old theater.
The unusual stir over historical buildings, which burst into headlines, was surprising in the context of a sprawling, economically successful city famed for fostering new business, for ever-newer structures springing into the spotlight of multiplying skylines.
Today, one corner of Shepherd and West Gray looks considerably different than it did in mid-2006. As part of the subsequent redevelopment of a site encompassing a chunk of what originally was known as the River Oaks Community Center, which was completed in 1937, a new two-story bookstore and four-story parking garage went up on West Gray.
On the opposite side of the street, the River Oaks Theatre, which debuted in 1939, is still standing, although it once was predicted to bite the dust in 2008. Now with the Angelika Film Center's recent demise, it's the only for-profit theater in town exclusively showing art and independent films. Also still doing a brisk business is its neighbor two doors down, the Epicure Café, which recently marked its 20th year at 2005-C West Gray.
Over the past two decades, I’ve come to think of the theater and cafe as complementary, well -functioning Houston business landmarks. Both efficiently offer novel, top-quality treats, while working a nostalgically happy-making magic. The theater’s beautiful, original Art Deco interior décor is the real thing. So are the Old World-courteous service and European-café flair of Epicure, where theater patrons often stop in for a meal or Viennese treats handmade by the co-owners, brothers Khan and Amir, who both earned Master Pastry Chef certification from a culinary school near Vienna.
These days, many longtime River Oaks Theatre patrons are munching its award-winning popcorn, and mulling over its thought-provoking foreign and independent films, with enhanced appreciation. The chilling fear of losing something – or someone – especially dear and long-familiar has a powerful way of exposing the real value of that thing or person to us.
I think certain buildings begin to claim a special place in our hearts over time because they are the visible repositories of countless happy memories, some dating back generations before us. If we lose such a building, we feel we’re losing an important part of ourselves on the timeline of our lives, as well as a point of identification with our city. The old River Oaks Theatre is Houston’s Last Picture Show, as its oldest functioning movie theater. It naturally evokes sentimental feelings among those who’ve frequented it for many years, who have that Houstonian pride of place.
But beyond that, from a strictly commercial point of view, the River Oaks Theatre, to me, represents the crowning glory of that retail walkway section of West Gray. Its marquee has a unique curb appeal that invites newcomers, as well as longtime Houstonians, to patronize the agreeable mix of old and new that coexists today along that elegant, palm-tree-punctuated strands.
Houstonians are pioneers, known for boldly carving out the newest of beautifully designed structures all over a town that continually reinvents itself, and prospers doing so. I love that progressive image and identification. At the same time, I like to think of our city, and ourselves, as mature enough to appreciate and accommodate the entire age span of Houston’s actively contributing business-citizens.
When I dropped by the theater and café recently, I was glad to see both of my old friends looking hale and hearty, supported by hordes of customers. On my first stop, the theater, a staffer with whom I was chatting about the building’s early days suggested that I take a look at the two framed photos that hang humbly in the shadows on the left side of the stairs.
One of the black-and-white photos shows the original, free-standing River Oaks Theatre building. Its marquee proclaims: “LESLIE HOWARD/MERLE OBERON in ‘SCARLET PIMPERNEL’ with DONALD DUCK CARTOON.” The second photo shows the theater at a later date; the signs over the three neighboring businesses read: “HAMBURGERS,” “DON’S STEAKHOUSE,” and “INTERIORS.” The theater marquee reads: “JOAN BLONDELL and BING CROSBY, ‘EAST SIDE OF HEAVEN,’ NEWS-COMEDY-PUPPETOON.”
Another nostalgic treat awaited me at Epicure, a short walk down the sidewalk. As it was an exceptionally hot summer day, even for Houston, I glanced at the array of homemade ice cream in the glass case. There, I beheld a novel work of art entitled “Pistachio with Chocolate.” The pale-green tint of that ice cream was so luminous, it looked as if it were lit from within, as another admiring customer commented.
As I imagined the rich density of that cold pistachio cream, dappled with dark-chocolate shards, melting on my tongue, my mouth started watering. I felt the same delicious anticipation as I did when I was a little girl, awaiting my Swiss Chocolate at the ice cream shop where my parents used to take their kids as a special treat. Amazingly, the beautiful ice cream I was enjoying as an adult tasted as good as it looked -- exactly the way I remembered ice cream was supposed to taste, but with a whole new flavor.
These days, it’s a rare delight to find a traditional treat, like ice cream or movie popcorn, that tastes that good. The taste is even more delicious in a kindly, familiar environment like that of Epicure and the River Oaks, where so many happy memories are stored, where grandparents and parents and children now are making new ones. I think both Houston experiences provide a taste of something special that’s well worth savoring and supporting for many years to come.