There’s a good chance that Richard Linklater wouldn’t be Richard Linklater without the River Oaks Theatre. In the early eighties, he was a college dropout who wasn’t sure how he wanted to spend his life. Linklater had dreamed of playing professional baseball and earned an athletics scholarship to Sam Houston State University, but a heart problem put an end to that. He left school and got a job as an oil worker. When he wasn’t on an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, he spent his time watching movies — especially cheap weeknight screenings at the River Oaks. “I would sit really near the screen in those days, in the middle, a few rows from the front,” Linklater later recalled. “I remember watching Taxi Driver for the first time, leaving the theater in a daze.”
Those screenings, and similar experiences at other indie theaters in Houston and Austin, helped Linklater realize that he wanted to be a filmmaker. Today, he’s the state’s preeminent auteur, the Academy Award–nominated director of Boyhood, Waking Life, Slacker, and more than a dozen other feature films. Meanwhile, the theater that opened his mind closed last week after its owners were unable to pay rent during the pandemic; moviegoers and members of the Texas film community are now rallying to try to find a way to reopen it. On Wednesday, Linklater joined rapper Bun B, local theater historian David Welling, and Houston Chronicle arts editor Cary Darling in a Zoom panel titled “Save Our Landmark: Houston’s Historic River Oaks Theatre.” All attested to the theater’s important role as the city’s last vintage cinema; Linklater said, “The River Oaks Theatre is where I saw the world. … We have to do whatever it takes” to preserve it.
The River Oaks Theatre, which opened in 1939 with a screening of the rom-com Bachelor Mother, joins a litany of indie theaters that have closed in Houston. The 1,200-seat Tower Theatre, which sat on the corner of Westheimer and Waugh, flashing its neon lights, shut down in 1978 after more than forty years. It briefly became a venue for live concerts and plays until the early 1990s, when it was turned into a nightclub. After half a decade of housing nightlife, it served briefly as a home video rental store before it was restored in 2010 to be El Real, a Tex-Mex joint. Now it’s becoming an oyster house.
Similarly, the Alabama Theatre, which was built in 1939, was converted into a bookstore after forty years of business. Since 2012, it’s been a Trader Joe’s. The Garden Oaks Theatre, which opened in 1947, is now a Grace Church campus. The list, unfortunately, continues.
“It would be terrible if, Houston being the fourth-largest city in the nation … there was no place to showcase that diversity, no place to present local art in terms of cinema,” Bun B said during the panel. “It would just be a black eye on the city.”
It’s not just Houston that’s being stripped of its theaters, of course: roughly 70 percent of small and mid-sized U.S. theaters are at risk of going bankrupt or shutting down during the pandemic, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners told Variety late last year. Even the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, a fan-favorite chain with 41 locations nationwide, recently declared bankruptcy. There are signs of relief as coronavirus vaccines become more widely available and Americans start to consider returning to theaters, but that shift may come too late for River Oaks, which is operated by the Los Angeles–based Landmark Theatres. The theater and its landlords at Weingarten Realty tried for weeks to come to an agreement over unpaid rent, but without success.
“Going forward, Landmark felt like the past rent wasn’t really fair because the movie theater industry is not the same as it was pre-COVID,” said Landmark’s publicist, Kathryn Smith. “There are still a lot of people not going to theaters, and [Landmark] just realized that there was no way they could pay pre-COVID rent. It wasn’t a smart business decision, and Weingarten wasn’t really willing to negotiate at that point.”
Weingarten didn’t return Texas Monthly’s request for comment, but in a statement released in late February, a spokesperson said that Landmark hadn’t paid rent since March 2020: “Conversations have indicated that their business model does not support paying more than a fraction of the previous rent going forward.”
Advocates for the theater have championed its historic and architectural value. Its classic red and gold color scheme, art deco architecture, and old-timey marquee sign, complete with little retro bulbs, remain the same as they were in 1939.
The building was designed by two prominent architects from Dallas, H.F. Pettigrew and John Worley. They specialized in movie theater design and went on to design many arthouse theaters in the late thirties, including the Garden Oaks Theatre in Houston, the Queen Theatre in Bryan, and the Broadway Theater in San Antonio.
James Buchanan Winn Jr., another prominent Texas artist, sculpted the goddess reliefs that flank the River Oaks Theatre’s auditorium screen. On the right there’s the “Land,” and on the left there’s the “Sea,” poetically pulling the space together.
Houston’s Archaeological and Historical Commission has designated the building as a city landmark. It’s not clear how much that will help, though: according to Preservation Houston executive director David Bush, landmarks can still be torn down under the city’s preservation ordinance. Generally, if a building is a landmark, it’s protected, but that isn’t the case in Houston, which famously lacks zoning laws.
“People call us thinking that the city can just step in and stop anything from happening to [the River Oaks Theatre], but our preservation ordinance allows landmarks to be demolished ninety days after the owner applies for a demolition permit,” Bush said. (Weingarten has not applied for such a permit.)
Other Texas cities, including Dallas and San Antonio, have managed to protect historic theaters, but Bush said that Houston’s lack of zoning prevents it from being able to do the same. In the Bayou City, anything can be built anywhere, which is why skyscrapers and towers stand next to historic buildings and shopping centers, and why landmarks can be gutted and turned into grocery stores or nightclubs.
The River Oaks Theatre was one of the only places in Houston to see rereleased movies, foreign movies, or any nonmainstream film. It was also the only place in the city to see the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show on a raucous Saturday at midnight. And the theater carved out a space for independent filmmakers to debut their work.
“It was the venue that showed the best of independent and international films from diverse filmmakers that you just couldn’t see in other theaters,” said Laurence Unger, executive director of the Houston Cinema Arts Society. “It’s a crucial piece of Houston’s film history and, in many ways, the heart of independent film in the city.”
Many Houstonians feel the same way. A candlelight vigil was held on closing night, and a fund-raising campaign on the theater’s behalf—as well as one for its former employees—is ongoing. Protests took place March 1 and March 7, with more than one hundred demonstrators decked out in their Rocky Horror costumes, chanting “Houston history is not for sale” and holding signs asking Weingarten to save their “home.” The group Friends of River Oaks Theatre is planning future events as well.
On March 27, Warehouse Live and the Royal Mystic Order of CHAOS, which is Houston’s Rocky Horror cast and crew, held a three-hour variety show to fund-raise and try to prevent the River Oaks Theatre from being torn down or turned into another business. They also wanted to make sure that if the theater does end up being demolished, preservation groups could salvage some of the original architecture. Through a fund set up with the nonprofit Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP), the show raised almost $10,000.
“If we can, in three hours, raise $10,000, then some of the people that are heavily involved in this can absolutely make a difference,” said Kyle Vaughan, the director and owner of CHAOS and former Rocky Horror performer. Actors in costume—fishnets, corsets, eight-inch stilettos, hot pink surgical gloves—perform onstage while Rocky Horror, the campy, horror-musical film, plays behind them. It’s a collaboration between the performers and audience members: audience participation is heavily encouraged and people often yell back lines at the screen, throw props, or dance and sing along to the film.
For Mary Keene, a former River Oaks Theatre employee, the theater is a place overflowing with memories of taking home trash bags full of leftover popcorn every night, listening to her manager tell stories about his band, and watching her coworkers lie on the floor after drinking too much soda.
“I was really excited to work [at the River Oaks Theatre],” said Keene. “I’ve always loved going there, and my coworkers were the best. There’s really no place like it.”
For Amane Numata, a history major at the University of Houston and frequent Rocky Horror–goer who uses singular “she/them” pronouns, the River Oaks Theatre is a safe space—a place where they said that they felt comfortable and free to be themself, where they could dress up as Columbia from Rocky Horror and feel confident with all the gummy glue and white powder slathered over their eyebrows, a place to meet friends. A 2016 documentary, Rocky Horror Saved My Life, explored how the film’s fans and performers created a community that welcomed everyone.
“I got all dressed up … and had a blast dancing in the theater, singing along to all the cheesy songs and doing all the weird things you do during Rocky Horror,” Numata said. “Even if I went on my own, I made friends there—people would ask me to join them. There was just an energy of being a part of something.”
Vaughan echoed that, saying that he and the rest of the Rocky Horror cast and crew are bound tightly by their experiences performing and chatting backstage, amid glitter and hairspray fumes, at the River Oaks Theatre. For him, the theater is home.
“It was performing Rocky Horror at the River Oaks Theatre where most of the cast found their tribe and, eventually, their family,” said Vaughan. “Every time I came back, I was uninhibitedly welcomed. We operate like a family, we’re a network of people who understand that without each other and this space, we might not have anywhere else to go.”