Now showing at Texas’ vintage movie houses: a film of dust. The old-fashioned single-screen theaters that dominated small-town life for more than half a century are boarded up and falling down. They have become the architectural equivalent of silent movies — mute reminders of a vanished age that were eclipsed by grander amusements. Defunct picture palaces and storefront theaters remain highly visible monuments to abandonment; often centered on Main Street or the town square, their prominent marquees and eye-catching decor are at once familiar and forgotten. No other small-town icon remains as affecting or as forlorn.
As early as 1907 “nickel madness” swept the country. Preachers, teachers, and other moralists of the day railed against movie theaters showing inexpensive and dubious entertainments. But hedonism prevailed. Texans — most of whom, like that era’s Americans in general, were staunchly rural — particularly welcomed the advent of the movie house as a source of diversion after a week of hard work. By 1912 even hamlets like McGregor, just west of Waco, boasted their own cinemas. Theaters ranged from the 1,300-seat Texas in San Angelo — huge for the region — to the tiny 200-seat Rivas in Eden. Most early theaters were open on weekends only; full-time operation arrived only after World War II.
Many Texas theaters started life as opera houses, such as the Grand in Electra; when it opened there in 1920, it was the fourth theater in a town of eight thousand and included eight dressing rooms for the traveling troupes purveying operettas, minstrel shows, and trained-animal acts. As the popularity of cinema mushroomed, the Grand’s owners converted the orchestra pit into extra seating and installed a screen on the stage where vaudevillians had once pranced. Many theaters, like Big Spring’s Ritz, featured a pipe organ to provide sound effects for silents, and others, like San Angelo’s Texas, rented luxurious box seats.
As necessary alteration to older theaters — and an integral part of newer ones — was the projectionist’s room, where the massive, heavy film projectors unreeled the night’s double feature. In the thirties and forties, projectionists weren’t merely button pushers but skilled workmen who could not only operate the complex machines but repair them too. Because early film was treated with nitrate, it was highly flammable, and many theaters reassured patrons by implementing extensive fireproofing measures. At the Texan Theater in Junction, the tiny projector room was lined with metal. If a fire burned out of control, the devoted technician on duty would be history, but the paying audience would be safe. By the forties, another newfangled essential was air conditioning, often described puffily as “hygienic ventilation” or “pure washed air.”
Every Texas town of a few hundred or more had its Grand or its Plaza or its Palace. Less commonly, names reflected a town’s heritage or pride: New Braunfels had the Brauntex, Edinburg boasted the Citrus, and Nacogdoches possessed the SFA (for Stephen F. Austin). But across the state, in big cities and small towns alike, the most popular theater name of all was the Texas or Texan: Junction, Seguin, San Angelo, Llano, Bronte, Hamilton, Palestine, Ballinger, Marfa, Kilgore, Sweetwater, Temple, and many others proudly claimed a cinema so named. And it was at the Texas Theater in Dallas’ Oak Cliff that Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested on November 22,1963.
City theaters often anchored shopping centers. In Dallas, for example, where Karl Hoblitzelle established the Interstate Theaters chain in the twenties, his posh Lakewood Theater dominated several blocks of retail stores on Harry Abrams Road. The famous art deco building, which still stands and is still a movie theater, bore a sixty-foot lighthouse tower whose neon drew most of the marquee’s seven thousand watts. But in small towns, the theater served as a — often the — social hub. The actual movies, generally accompanied by a cartoon and a newsreel, were only part of the appeal. Friends and family regularly greeted one another at the showings, and the dramatic setting fueled the special-night-out feeling. Many theaters were wonderfully atmospheric, bedecked with soaring blue-painted ceilings, elaborate filigreed prosceniums, swagged velvet drapes, and elegant stenciling (slender shafts of wheat, like those still visible on the walls of Odessa’s Ector, were a popular Texas motif). San Antonio attorney Bill Munter, whose family operated the Aztec Theatre in Eagle Pass, recalls that it was a popular meeting place for politicians: “It was sort of the local U.N. I remember, when I was eight or nine, regularly choking on all the thick cigar smoke. I grew up there — all of Eagle Pass did.”
Eagle Pass, a border town with a large Hispanic population, also drew many of the 16,000 National Guard soldiers stationed in and around the town. The price of admission — originally a nickel, but ultimately 35 cents — was low enough for all comers. But one minority missed out on the unrestricted fun of the movies. Up through the fifties, black Americans were relegated to small balconies set apart from the all-white ones favored by high school sweethearts. In Electra’s Grand, for instance, the black section contained only 66 of the theater’s 1,000 seats, and a waist-high wooden wall enclosed it, ensuring the black patrons would enter and leave by a separate door. That double standard was a given at most Texas theaters. But picture shows were ubiquitous, popular, and cheap, and their cheerful constancy helped Texans of all races weather calamities such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II.
Most small-town theaters were family affairs — several generations in succession shared popcorn-selling, ticket-taking, and sweeping-up duties. In Lubbock the Lindsey family created a local theater dynasty, The rancher-founder, J.D. Lindsey, built the first in 1916, after admiring a theater in St. Louis at the end of a trail drive. Eventually the family ran seven theaters, including, as of 1940, the “New Lindsey,” touted as “the Pride of the Plains.” An opening-night brochure described the $250,000 showplace as “an entertainment castle” complete with two smoking lounges, earphones for “the hard of hearing,” “genuine spring-cushioned seats” with “swanky upholstered backs,” and “the unusual application” of a “spectacular mercury vapor light at the top of the Lindsey tower and sign.” A hand-painted mural of a hat-waving cowboy atop a white horse dominated the north wall. In McGregor, while her husband fought overseas in World War II, young Margaret Smith ran the Texas Theater he had inherited from his parents. Now 75, she recalls, “There I was, twenty-three or twenty-four years old, making sure the old drunks weren’t still asleep in there when the movie was over, and getting quite an eyeful from the couples smooching in the back rows.”
Throughout the fifties, the country’s booming post-war economy sustained a constant flow of new movie theaters, but the decade also began to spell the end of the Main Street movie house. Inspired by America’s love affair with the automobile, the major theater development of the decade was the drive-in. As more and more Americans hit the road, new federal and state highways crisscrossed the nation, bypassing many small-town main streets and their downtown theaters and giving rise to garish roadside drive-ins on the outskirts of town. And then came television. Fascination with the small-screen novelty — its constantly updated news, its variety of entertainments — further hurt big-screen venues. But picture shows hung on until the sixties, when chains like AMC tumbled to the idea of the three- or four- or six-screen cinema attached to a mall, where theatergoers could park easily in huge paved lots and choose from several shows to watch before or after shopping. The multiplex marked the end of the old-fashioned movie house, which was quickly becoming a symbol of the past. In 1966 rising Texas writer Larry McMurtry published The Last Picture Show, a novel about small-town teenagers and the loss of innocence. (McMurtry never named the theater in his book, but in the 1971 movie it was the downtown Royal in McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City.) Some cinemas attained star status themselves: For example, scenes from three period movies — The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), with Robert Redford; Raggedy Man (1981), with Sissy Spacek; and Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), with Vanessa Redgrave — were filmed at the Texas Theatre in Seguin. Musicians too seized on the last picture show as a great Texas icon that had gone the way of the trail drive and the gusher. Songwriters Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen collaborated on “This Old Porch,” a celebration of Texas nostalgia: “This old porch is the Palace walk-in on the Main Street of Texas / That’s never seen the days of G and R and X’s / With that ‘62 poster that’s almost faded down / And a screen without a picture since Giant came to town.”
In the minds of Texans, hometown theaters long ago achieved star status. Like the great movie queens, they remain flawless, radiant, forever larger than small-town life.