“THE HISTORIC RIVER OAKS THEATRE LIVES ON”
THE HISTORIC RIVER OAKS MOVIE THEATRE is the oldest continually operating movie theatre in Houston and is an art deco gem tucked in among modern retailers and a swanky neighborhood. I managed it in the 1990s and it has always been a special place to me – and to Houstonian and theatre history buff David Welling, who chronicled its history in Cinema Houston. The River Oaks opened to much fanfare in 1939 with the movie “Bachelor Mother” and was one of the few air-conditioned spaces at the time. It was built at the end of the wave of majestic movie palaces across the United States from the 1910s–1940s. In Houston alone, there were many such theatres, including the Majestic, Loews State, The Metropolitan, the Ritz, the Rialto, the Texan, the Iris, the Isis, the Liberty, the Cozy and the Queen. The Alabama Theatre (now a Trader Joe’s) was also built in 1939 and both were owned by the Interstate Theater Company, whose founder Karl Hoblitzelle called himself a pioneer in vaudeville and movie presentations and prided himself on upscale performance spaces.
The River Oaks went through many owners over the years, including Landmark Theatres, and with the advent of video, its programming was changed from the screening of competitive first-run films to a rotating calendar of foreign and independent films.
In 2006, there were rumors that the theatre would be torn down by its landlord, Weingarten Realty Investors, because they had applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness. Those Certificates are required for projects that would alter the exterior appearance of a designated historic property – sadly, once the owner gets one, they can still tear down a property after 90 days. After massive community push-back, the city’s Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC) quickly designated the theatre and the shopping center as a City Landmark but it remains one that is not “Protected” since Weingarten has not applied for landmark status. This means it can still be torn down but I am hopeful that it won’t be.
These days, the River Oaks is still operated by Landmark Theatres, which is owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. Weingarten Realty has announced that they are building a 30-story residential luxury high-rise on the east side of the River Oaks Shopping Center, safely away from the theatre. The regular fare of indie films will continue and the midnight films for September include “Cowboy Bebop” (September 1 and 2); “Purple Rain” (September 8); “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (September 9); and “The Seventh Seal” (September 15 and 16). The ticket box is the theatre’s original one and there is now a full-service bar upstairs. Things are hopping at the historic River Oaks – here’s to many more years to come!
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