The curtain closes on the River Oaks Theater after 82 years

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The first film ever presented at the River Oaks Theater was “Bachelor Mother” in 1939 with Ginger Rogers and David Niven. The last film, it seems, will be the Oscar nominee “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand. When the credits rolled after the 7:30 p.m. screening on Thursday, the theater had to lower its curtain for good.

“It’s such a shame,” said one spectator as she and her dog walked through the theater’s iconic black-and-white canopy.

As Houston’s last vintage cinema, the River Oaks has courted West Gray since 1939. After Landmark Theaters was founded in 1974, the River Oaks became one of his first acquisitions two years later.

For the past 30 days, Weingarten Realty, which owns and operates the River Oaks Mall, and Landmark Theaters have been locked in a public dispute over the theater’s lease, which expires on March 31. could not come to an agreement. And the time is almost up.

The Oaks River has already been threatened. In July 2006, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance declared that three art deco buildings owned by Weingarten Realty were “in danger”: the River Oaks Theater, the River Oaks Shopping Center and the Alabama Theater, which is now the Trader Joe’s grocery store. .

That year, more than 23,000 people signed an online petition to spare the buildings. And philanthropist Carolyn Farb helped organize a “Save Our Shrines” protest in the street outside the River Oaks Theater.

This time it’s completely different, said Liz Allen. With over 13 years of box office experience, she is the longest-serving employee of the theater.

Most of the theater’s final performances sold out quickly. When Allen started his 3pm shift on Thursday, there were only 10 tickets to “The Father” at 7pm – those seats were purchased within minutes.

“People were very disappointed, they wanted to see one last show,” Allen said. “And some people bought tickets just to take pictures in the lobby. They didn’t know I would have just let them in.

“This is the place where you go to see movies that you can’t see anywhere else,” said Sharon Samson.

She and two friends, Mary Wood and Marsha Dougherty, attended the afternoon screening of “The Father” after Wood scored tickets online. The trio have come to town from Cypress, as they have for the past 20 years, to see a movie in River Oaks. Their plan was to make it a night out and have dinner at the nearby Café Epicure after the show.

The sidewalk has become a magnet for selfies since management wrote, “Thanks for 45 years of support, farewell,” on the marquee the week before. Several well-wishers dressed the room to say goodbye. At least one man was wearing a blazer with gold sequins.

A fitting farewell given the River Oaks’ glittering past. In the 1920s, Karl Hoblitzelle co-founded the Interstate Theaters Company, a chain of vaudeville-style homes, and opened Majestic Theaters in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston. Other cities in Texas have been successful in protecting historic theaters from neighborhood-oriented development by reusing them as places for live entertainment.

The difference, said David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston, is the zoning.

“Another old Interstate theater that we are currently working on is the old Tower Theater on Westheimer. It was El Real (Tex-Mex), and it became Acme Oyster House, ”said Jim Parsons, program director for Preservation Houston. “He lost his interior a long time ago, but he still has that great exterior that is a landmark in the neighborhood. I think it’s quite interesting that a company has created so many buildings that we still consider landmarks.

A spokesperson for Weingarten told The Chronicle that they are “grateful for Landmark’s long tenure at the River Oaks Shopping Center, and we appreciate the close connection so many Houstonians have with the theater. Contrary to reports, there are no plans to redevelop the theater at this time. We are eager to find the next major operator for the theater space. “

In February, Landmark Theaters President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Serwitz confirmed that the company had not paid rent since the spring of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Oaks River was closed for just under six months, from March 16 to September 9.

“With the closure, we had nothing more to do. There was no other source of income, ”Serwitz said. “Our whole business has been closed. We closed the head office and everyone was fired. There was no capital to pay the rent.

Weingarten has since come up with an “offer waiving much of the 12 month past due rent and providing a 24 month payment plan for the balance.” We also proposed to allow Landmark to pay half the rent for the next six months to get the theater through the worst of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Landmark could not see a path to profitability in order to renew the lease. Therefore, they decided to close at the end of their lease. “

Landmark declined to comment for this story.

Some fans refuse to let go. A candlelight vigil was scheduled for Thursday evening, a “Save the River Oaks” performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Warehouse Live and a “Save the Landmark: Houston’s Historic River Oaks Theater” discussion with director Richard Linklater and musician Bun B takes place at 7 p.m. next Wednesday.

But barring a twist ending in the third act, the credits rolled for the River Oaks Theater.

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