We sell tickets to theatres, not movies.
This is a book of shadows.
Recollected through words and pictures, it embraces a time gone by, places that no longer exist, and the people who made it happen. Mostly it is about rose-colored glasses—which is, after all, what the cinema has always been about. Movies offer a touch of the fantastic to a sometimes too harsh reality.
This sense of wonder is magnified when experienced through the eyes of a child, for whom the surrounding world seems exaggerated and extra large—perhaps because the smaller we are, the bigger everything around us appears. Is it any surprise that people's memories of their first movie experience are awash with more than the usual rose tinting?
Understandably, the screen—for that matter, the whole auditorium—seemed huge at that age. As the smell of candy and popcorn permeated the air, we sat in chairs way too big for us, some with spring-loaded seats that we could barely weigh down. The fear of darkness swelled uncontrollably as the house lights dimmed, plunging the auditorium into black—only to be dispelled as that first image appeared before us on the screen.
I remember—if only in bits and pieces, which is to be expected from a five-year-old. Early childhood recollections are elusive and slippery, not quite tangible in the way of later experiences. They come in flashes of half-formed moments.
Yet I remember the theatre clearly . . . and as much as I would like to claim that those early memories were of a spectacular picture palace, with its grand antique-filled foyer leading to a massive auditorium adorned in gold trim and deep, plush velvet curtains—my recollections instead are of a worn-out small-town movie house not far from Houston.
The old Alvin Theatre had long since seen its glory days. The seats were worn and torn, the floors sticky from the layers of candy mixed with soda syrup, the air reeked of stale popcorn—and age. It had accumulated a lot of that. The passing years had slowly diminished whatever magic had been entrusted to those walls. This was a modest, unpretentious, bare-bones kind of affair. The darkness that enveloped the auditorium helped mask the neglect that the theatre had endured over its three decades of existence.
In short, the theatre was a rattrap. That was what my brother called it, and even joked of the tug-of-war he had waged with an oversized rat after dropping his Mars bar to the ground. The tug-of-war was dubious; the oversized rats were not. The place was a dump.
Of course, none of that mattered to us kids. The Saturday matinee was the never-never land for us. Movies offered escapism, and it made little difference whether the cinematic fare was a western—naturally popular in a small Texas town—cartoons, or cheap science fiction.
The attraction on that particular day was Godzilla vs. the Thing, featuring a man in a rubber monster suit and some really bad dubbing. I had tagged along with my older brother, who more than likely had been given parental orders to take me with him.
After a visit to the cramped concession stand, positioned in the matchbox lobby behind the ticket window, we took our seats in the kid-filled auditorium. The lights dimmed. The projector lit up the screen. My life has never been the same since.
Eventually, my parents forbade us from going to the Alvin movie house—something to do with its nasty condition. This reason made little sense to us kids. What did we care if the floors were sticky and the walls were destined to fail the white-glove test? Regardless, it was deemed off-limits. The old theatre would close soon after that, leaving Alvin without an indoor theatre until a new one was built in 1968. When the old theatre eventually opened its doors again, it was as a place for religious revivals, and people came for prayers and sermons, not cowboys and Indians. Eventually, it would close for good, falling into disrepair before facing demolition in 1996.
Long's Alvin Theatre, as it was originally called, was quite a big deal when it opened in 1936. A story ("New Alvin Theatre to Open Friday, Feb. 28th") in the Alvin Sun touted its modern design and construction, which featured a vaudeville stage accented with rich, crimson velvet curtains and large dressing rooms on either side. The townsfolk flocked to the February 23 gala event, paid their twenty-five-cent admission, listened to a mayoral dedication, and then watched the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way. The Alvin High School girls pep squad presented the patrons with spring flower arrangements as they entered.
As a second newspaper story ("Completion of New Theatre Is Source of Pride to Citizens of Alvin and Community," Alvin Sun, February 28, 1936) noted, this was the fifteenth theatre in Johnny G. Long's theatre circuit, which included houses in Texas towns such as Bay City, Port Lavaca, El Campo, and Beaumont. His was an independent chain that booked second-run films, usually after their initial showings in the Houston movie palaces. Long had previously bought the Alvin Grand Theatre, which had been showing flickers since 1919.
For Alvinites, Long's theatre was a center of activity, back in much simpler times. People would "go downtown" on Friday and Saturday nights for a movie or just to sit in their cars and watch the crowds go by. That was Saturday-night entertainment.
Aside from a steady stream of motion pictures, live appearances by such luminaries as Tex Ritter and his Musical Tornadoes, Ramblin' Tommy Scott, and Luke McLuke were also common occurrences. A Bonnie and Clyde stage show, complete with a bullet-ridden Model A Ford parked in front of the theatre, would sell out the house. Midnight spook shows with live productions were also held, as were occasional church services.
The popularity of television, among other forms of entertainment, took its toll, not only on the old Alvin Theatre but also on Long's entire theatre chain. By the sixties, the Alvin Theatre was a pale ghost of its former glory. Finances were thin, repair and upkeep difficult, and for the wages paid, janitors did a bare minimum. Finally, the roof that had long been weakened by water damage gave way. It came crashing down into the auditorium during an evening feature. Amazingly, only one minor injury occurred. As for recompense, the patron was quite satisfied with the theatre management covering her doctor bill, and never was heard the discouraging word "lawsuit." Again, those were simpler days.
The roof was rebuilt, but the theatre's end was in sight. Long's closed down, and except for its brief stint as a place of worship, sat dormant, neglected, and forgotten. The roof would eventually collapse again, exposing the balcony to the elements. A few years shy of demolition, the balcony itself would fall, effectively barricading the lobby entrance. Rusted theatre chairs and torn remnants of the movie screen were all that was left inside.
The old Alvin Theatre was razed in 1996 as part of a downtown-revitalization program.
Tales of the big city were not that different from those of its small-town cousins. In an early-seventies edition of the Houston Post there ran a short paragraph paying homage to one of Houston's great movie houses. Accompanying the text was a series of photographs of the abandoned theatre, taken by a staff photographer. Below these images ran the following copy:
In January 1923, reporters hailed the new Majestic Theatre at 908 Rusk as the "playhouse the duplicate of which cannot be found in America." On opening night, Houstonians from Rev. Peter Gray Sears to Mayor Oscar Holcombe flocked to the Majestic to see Henry B. Walthall starring in The Unknown. This week—after almost 50 years of vaudeville, musical productions, dramatic performances and movies—little is left from the Majestic except for the rubble of demolition crews. Modern economic conditions and contemporary entertainment trends had taken their toll. Now the broken and discarded remains of Greek statues, Roman pillars, Italian Renaissance fixtures and electric exit signs are mute testimony to the years gone by.
Architectural obituaries such as this are rare. Unless they are noteworthy landmarks, most buildings fall with little or no fanfare. This is especially true of Houston's movie houses, which die without the crowds, reporters, or klieg lights that heralded their ribbon-cutting births. Instead, there may only be a passively curious onlooker as the demolition crews do their work.
Left behind are memories, along with newspaper clippings and photographs, for a legacy. Reduced to rubble, these structures are swept away to make room for newer structures, freeway construction, and that ever-popular use for property, the parking lot. Some are converted to retail space, their innards ripped out and discarded in the name of commerce. Euphemistically, it is called progress. For historians, it goes by another, less favorable word, but by any name, the buildings are forever lost.
What remains today of the downtown Houston theatres can be counted on one hand. The 1926 Ritz/Majestic Metro Theatre is the only downtown movie house to have been restored, and now functions as a venue for special events. The artistic integrity of the restoration rivals that of the suburban Alabama Theatre, which was restored and reopened as part of the Bookstop chain of bookstores. In both cases, though no longer commercial cinemas, they succeed for other uses because the architecture remains faithful to its original intent. In fact, they are more appreciated now for their "theatre-ness" than they were during their final years of running flicks.
The building that housed the Isis, Houston's first deluxe theatre, sat unused for years before undergoing a restoration in 1998 (although the theatre itself was long gone). Only a few architectural remnants remained from its movie house days. The Zoe/Capitol building, at 719 Main, still stands, but the theatre is gone. The Scenic, at 113 Travis, was neither glamorous nor expansive, merely a nickelodeon-style business operating in the early teens. It is now is part of Treebeard's Restaurant in Old Market Square. The eatery takes up the former 113, 115, and 117 lots, and the space for the former movie house is still visible on the floor.
Historical respect is an elusive thing, especially when dealing with the intangibles that make something historic. If the qualifying factor is age, then at what point does a building make the transition from just old to historic?
In Houston, a structure is eligible for historic status after fifty years; the ill-fated Shamrock Hotel (1946-1986) was razed after only forty. Other buildings don't last even that long, falling quickly to the wrecking ball.
Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin have all held on to their Majestics, refurbishing them into performing arts centers. Efforts to raise public interest, find sponsors, and secure much-needed funds can effectively turn a losing proposition into a profitable one. Houston missed the boat in this area. Yet with the current revitalization of the downtown area, and the conversion of previously vacant buildings into private lofts, the prospect of such a restored performance center could have been quite feasible. The downtown theatres originally died off because of the push toward suburbia. Now the downtown district is rediscovering itself, but sadly, none of the original showplaces still stand. More's the pity.
Likewise, the original suburban theatres, which lured patrons from the downtown area, have also faced extinction. These were never palaces on the grand scale of their predecessors. Instead, they offered what is now considered the stereotypical theatre design, rich in art deco and exteriors of bold neon.
Of this period, from roughly the thirties through the fifties, only the River Oaks has survived intact and active—and at the time of this writing, its future is uncertain. Some others still stand, either gutted and serving other functions or closed and abandoned. The rest have been demolished.
Taking the place of these theatres are the multicinemas and megaplexes, which have grown to as many as thirty screens. After a long period of throwing up matchbox theatres, movie-house owners are slowly rediscovering spectacle. Stadium seating, the reappearance of large-scale auditoriums (and large-scale lobbies), and food bars are all part of the redefining of the modern cinema.
Still, even the most expansive of these new cinemas can't hold a candle to the palaces of the twenties. Nowadays, they would simply cost too much to build. No more Greek statues, mezzanines filled with fine antique furniture, or Egyptian temple interiors. All this was of a different time, when movies, along with the places that showed them, were magic—palaces of light that did not stand the test of time.
But a wealth of photographs does survive. It is these photographs, along with a wide variety of other documentation, that form the heart and soul of this book. For those too young to have known the Metropolitan, Loew's State, or the Majestic, this is as much of their grandeur as we will ever get to experience. Going to the movies was meant to be a spectacle, both on the screen and in the theatre itself. It was meant to be larger than life. It was meant to be remembered.
Here, then, is a celebration of what once was and will never be again, of an age when going to the movies was a magical experience. If you look hard enough, you may very well find that the photographs here still contain that magic.
Sit back, enjoy, and don't forget the popcorn.
The art of acting consists in keeping people from coughing.
Sir Ralph Richardson
I didn't like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions—the curtain was up.
"I recall going to a movie back in 1898," reminisced former Houston mayor A. E. Amerman in a 1948 Houston Press column by Paul Hochuli. "And a Mr. E. E. Taylor—who ran the movie—told me that when he operated it, the movie was the first in Houston."
Recollections such as this, found in yellowed newspaper clippings, represent all that is left of Houston's introduction to motion pictures. According to Amerman, the movie house was on the east side of Main Street between Rusk and Capitol, right next to a rose garden.
Amerman died in 1958. The theatre is long gone. So are the roses.
In the same article, Joseph Hornberger told of his first movie, also around the turn of the century. "The first one I attended was on Congress Avenue, on the (then) present location of Zindler's, and was about in the middle of the block. In order to make the room dark, they had black-painted canvas stretched around the room. There were a few chairs, and a sheet was used as a screen. Admission was 10 cents.
"In those days, when a picture was finished, the house was cleared. If you wanted to see it again, you had to pay again. I saw it four or five times."
The Houston of 1900 was a fast-growing city with a population of 44,600, an increase of over 17,000 from the decade before. Cotton and lumber were the major sources of commerce, as was rail transportation, Houston being a junction for fourteen railroads. Water connections through Buffalo Bayou and the Gulf of Mexico served as the other factor in the city's growth. As with most cities, the hub of activity was the downtown area, and this is where the first motion pictures appeared.
"The film I saw," continued Hornberger, "was about a fisherman sitting on a plank extended over a small stream. Along came a fellow in a covered wagon, who stopped, picked up a big rock, and threw it at the opposite end of the plank. Up in the air went the fisherman, coming down in the water. This caused a great deal of laughter, and that's all there was to the show."
What Hornberger remembered was typical of both motion pictures and the houses in which they were shown. Movies were new to Houston—and the world—and would not gain legitimacy for years to come. While opera and dramatic performances had their own venues in town, it would take time for the motion picture to find its own home. Movies would be sandwiched between live performances as filler or left to the small storefront rooms as described by Hornberger.
Once introduced to Houstonians, the movies would play an integral part in redefining downtown architecture. The Houston movie theatre would evolve from the performance hall to the nickelodeon and reach its grandest heights in the opulent palaces of the twenties. Still ahead would be the deco-based neighborhood theatres, the drive-ins, the multicinemas, the large multiplexes of the eighties and nineties, and the stadium-seat auditoriums of the new millennium.
However, the roots of Houston's movie houses date back to the 1830s, well before the first motion picture, with the establishment of live theatre. Before the flickers, the stage reigned supreme.
Houston's First Performances
John Carlos and Henri Corri
The foundations of Houston's movie theatres began in the 1830s. The playhouses from this period, although crude at first, served a multitude of functions: as entertainment venues, as lecture halls and forums for subjects ranging from literature to politics, and as centers of social activity for much of the population. Plus, an opera house brought respectability and culture to a city. For Houston, support for the dramatic arts was strong at the outset, and much of the patronage came from the political wing of the population, the city being the capital of a new republic. Support would continue with some difficulty after 1839, when the capital was moved to Austin.
In 1837, an early attempt to start a theatrical venue in the city ended in tragedy. G. L. Lyons, an actor from the East, had posted a notice in the March 28 issue of the Telegraph and Texas Register, announcing plans to establish a "dramatic temple" in Houston. After assembling a troupe, he and his players set sail in the Pennsylvania. A gale capsized and sank the schooner, leaving only two survivors.
The city's first true dramatic performances occurred the following year, when merchant John Carlos furnished a building for use as a theatre. At the same time, the Saint Charles Theatre troupe of New Orleans, under the management of Henri Corri, was sailing to Houston from Louisiana. Corri had placed a notice in the Telegraph on May 30, stating that as soon as he had made arrangements for a theatre, the city would be given "amusements worthy of their patronage." Initial attempts to lease a building called Hubbard's Exchange led to a problem: to get the playhouse, Corri would have to make Carlos a partner. Carlos lacked Corri's knowledge of theatrical matters, and therefore grudgingly agreed to be coproducer. Houston experienced its true first night on June 11, 1838, with the presentation of J. Sheridan Knowles's popular comedy, The Hunchback (1832). Absent from opening night was the orchestra, still en route from Mobile, Alabama.
The Carlos-Corri partnership was short-lived. On August 15, Corri bought a fifty-foot-wide lot in the middle of the block of Congress, between Milam and Travis, opposite Market Square. Meanwhile, financial setbacks forced John Carlos sell his theatre building. It was bought by Samuel G. Powell in a sheriff's sale on July 15, 1844, and renamed the City Exchange.
Corri's Houston Theatre
The year 1839 started off well for Henri Corri. His new theatre—the first true theatre building in the republic—opened on February 25 with Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777). During the 1839-1840 season, his theatre took on the permanent name of the Houston Theatre.
The Houston Theatre's operational history was uneven. In October 1839, the theatre closed after a presentation of The Golden Farmer and The Romp because of the "indisposition" of some of the company—or, said the Houston Star, because of the "indisposition of the people to attend and see good pieces murdered." Attendance slowly dropped over the next several years, in part because of the relocation of the capital. On April 30, 1841, Corri filed for bankruptcy, and by year's end he and his wife, Eliza, had booked passage back to New Orleans.
The Houston Theatre building and property was bought by Robert P. Boyce, the contractor who originally built the playhouse. After completing repairs to the building, A. S. Newton, a member of Corri's original acting troupe, reopened Corri's theatre in 1845 with a new company of players.
Perkins Hall (Pillot's Opera House)
The February 16, 1860, issue of the Telegraph announced a new building under construction on Franklin near Main, being built for Captain E. S. Perkins and James H. Perkins. Perkins Hall, as it became known, would go on to feature most of the great contemporary American performers during its nearly thirty years in existence and to establish itself as the first great playhouse in Houston. In 1879 its name was changed to Pillot's Opera House when Eugene Pillot undertook a complete renovation of the building.
Although Perkins Hall was finished just before the Civil War erupted, it apparently did not open until 1866, when James Perkins—popularly known as "Brother Perkins"—presented Camille on April 12.
In December 1867, the spectacular play Under the Gaslight by Augustin Daly was brought to Houston from New York, where it had opened in August. The five-act melodrama dazzled the audience with such stunning effects as New York lit by gaslight, a ferryboat powered by real steam, a climactic rescue from the wheels of an oncoming locomotive (the first use of what would soon become a clichéd suspense device), and a plot turnabout in which the heroine rescued the male.
About a year later Perkins Hall was lit with gas for the first time. In 1870 it was remodeled and its seating capacity increased to 1,000. However, by the end of December the theatre had succumbed to the "disease of empty benches," as described by playhouse actor Edmund D. Langley.
Despite this slump, during the early 1870s the theatre hosted such performers as Edwin Forrest, Maurice Barrymore (father of John, Ethel, and Lionel), Buffalo Bill Cody's company, and Joseph Jefferson.
City Hall Opera House (Scanlan's Folly)
In the 1870s, Mayor Thomas H. Scanlan decided to tear down the old Houston City Hall and replace it with a fancy combination city hall and market house. Several additional square miles of territory were annexed to acquire the tax base to support the bonds for the project. Originally estimated to cost $250,000, the project became a $470,000 fiasco because of overruns and miscalculations, garnering nicknames such Scanlan's Folly, Scanlan's Palace, and Scanlan's Scandal. The ground floor contained the city market. An upstairs auditorium, officially titled the Academy of Music, was commonly known as the opera house. According to Dr. S. O. Young, vaudeville was first established in Houston by Ed Bremond. The building was completed in the summer of 1874, and then burned in July 1876. Since the structure had been insured for only $100,000, the insurance company made some repairs, but the building burned again a few years later.
After Scanlan's death, his daughters spent a part of their legacy on the construction of a memorial office building—the Scanlan Building. Stella and Lillian Scanlan were also responsible for constructing the Ritz theatre in 1926.
With the city hall opera house gone, only Perkins Hall was left to service Houston's stage-entertainment needs. However, the hall had become outdated, causing many performers to refuse to appear there. In January 1879, Eugene Pillot announced he would completely renovate Perkins.
Another new theatre was announced for the 1879-1880 season: Gray's Hall, located on the west side of Fannin across from the courthouse, was to be converted into a usable playhouse. With Gray's and Pillot's, the public was given twice the amount of theatrical entertainment as well as the prospects of a theatrical rivalry for the first time since the Carlos-Corri wars.
At the end of 1882 a new contraption was added at Pillot's—a telephone, allowing playgoers to reserve seats by phone. In 1884, Pillot's was wired for electric light, as was Gray's the following year.
In 1887, after years of waiting, Houstonians finally were able to see the great actor Edwin Booth. For his performance of Hamlet on February 23, tickets quickly sold out far in advance; in an early example of ticket scalping, seats originally priced at $2 and $3 went for as much as $24 before the show. His Houston engagement also included Othello and Julius Caesar.
The final performance at Pillot's Opera House was on April 14, 1886. On May 3 the building burned to the ground. The fire appeared to originate from the Bell Variety Theatre, later called the New Variety, around eight in the evening. Within half an hour, both houses were consumed by the blaze.
The Sweeney & Coombs Opera House
Gray's Opera House, now the only playhouse on the block, was never well suited to theatrical needs. It did, however, encourage the building of a new house. On January 15, 1890, new owners J. J. Sweeney and E. L. Coombs announced plans to tear down the existing house and build a new opera house to be ready for the 1890-1891 season. Sweeney declared that by the next season's opening, Houston would have the "neatest and prettiest opera house in the south."
The Sweeney & Coombs Opera House opened on November 3, 1890, with the Grau Opera Company performing Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, but patrons nearly froze when the heating system failed to work. As reported in the next day's Houston Post, "There was a large audience present, but it was not a good natured one, the house being too cold to render those present thoroughly sensible to the divine charm of music."
The divine Sarah Bernhardt appeared on February 4, 1892, and many were surprised when instead of the lean figure shown in photos of her, there appeared a short plump individual. Many disappointed patrons left before the play was half over, and some even suggested that madam was walking through her part.
New owners took over Sweeney & Coombs in 1904: Hyman Prince, who had previously built the Olympia Opera House in Houston in 1903 (see Chapters 2 and 10 for details), and Harvey T. D. Wilson. The opera house underwent renovation and reopened on Thursday, September 29, 1904, under the new name of the Houston Theatre. Construction was not complete, and chairs for the lower area would not arrive for another week, but the show went on regardless. Two Men and a Girl, with Tim Murphy, was the premiere play. At his curtain call on opening night, Murphy said, "God knows you needed a new opera house," which garnered enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
The building would stand only three years before falling victim to fire. A massive blaze swept through several blocks of downtown Houston late in the evening on Sunday, December 1, 1907—beginning in the Dunn Building, where an explosion raised the roof several feet. Evidence suggested arson as the cause. Ironically, great lengths had been taken against fire in the renovation of the theatre, including installing an alarm system and encasing the auditorium in brick firewalls.
Performances were moved to the Winnie Davis Auditorium, which required extensive remodeling to accommodate the demands of the detoured performances.
The Winnie Davis Auditorium and the City Auditorium
The Winnie Davis Auditorium had been opened in 1895. The hall, located at the corner of Main and McGowen and named after the daughter of the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, sported electrical connections, but the plumbing was primitive at best. It served its function for the next fifteen years. The Metropolitan Opera appeared there in 1901 for a performance of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin. Two hundred and fifty extra incandescent lights supplied additional illumination. After a repeat performance four years later, the Met did not return to Houston for forty-two years.
In 1910, the new City Auditorium replaced Winnie Davis. A well-proportioned hall that featured a grand proscenium arch, the City Auditorium was used for conventions, society balls, and occasional performances by theatrical stock companies. It was also headquarters for the annual No-Tsu-Oh festivities. No-Tsu-Oh ("Houston" spelled backwards), also known as the Houston Carnival, was the big social event of the year and included horse and auto races, poultry and pet stock shows, rodeo events, and daily band concerts, all leading up to a spectacular parade and ball.
A highlight of the City auditorium's history was the 1920 appearance of Enrico Caruso. Caruso disliked performing live, and therefore asked for exorbitant fees for his solo appearances. He demanded, and received, $12,000, which was placed in a bank thirty days before his appearance. The ticket office was swamped by hundreds of people for the sold-out show. Unwilling to turn them away, concert organizer Edna W. Saunders asked the ushers to open all the doors and windows of the hall. The evening air was filled with the voice of the most revered tenor of the day, heard by hundreds of people on the sidewalks outside the auditorium.
The City Auditorium was razed in 1963 and replaced by Jones Hall.
After the Houston Theatre fire, Prince and Wilson laid out plans for a new theatre, to be built on the site of the destroyed playhouse. The Prince Theatre, as it was christened, became Houston's true transition venue from live entertainment to motion pictures—and in the coming years the two would oftentimes be intertwined, sharing bills and auditoriums.
The picture palaces were still years away; after all, motion pictures, still in their infancy, required time to grow.