To the uninitiated, the news last week that Houston’s River Oaks Theatre had received a reprieve from its long-threatened death sentence may seem underwhelming. Unlike, say, San Antonio, Houston has long been a place where developers’ bulldozers have easily rolled over whiny preservationists, where the future of the city’s remaining historical buildings has always been tenuous against the coming of any new high-rise or highway.
Then, too, the River Oaks could never be mistaken for one of those grand old movie palaces like the Majestic or the Aztec that still survive in San Antonio. It is a small art deco structure, built in 1939, that suffered from some crummy eighties-era renovations that converted the balcony section into two tiny additional theaters where the seating was tighter than coach on United. Despite some dreamy bas-reliefs in the interior, its architectural value may not have been as important as its cultural contribution: the River Oaks was the only place in a city of 2.3 million people to exclusively feature first-run foreign and independent films, the art house kind written up in the New York Times or the New Yorker, the kind whose aficionados preferred watching movies in a darkened theater to sitting on their couches at home, at least before the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, it was one of those places that was beloved in spite of itself. As time passed and wealthy Houstonians became wealthier, real estate along West Gray Street, conveniently situated adjacent to both the River Oaks and Montrose neighborhoods, became ever tonier. National chains replaced many local businesses, a luxury high-rise sprouted on the north side of the street, and there were not one but two Starbucks outlets on a busy corner. The then-owner of most of the properties on the street, Weingarten Realty, gave the beautiful black-and-white art deco River Oaks Shopping Center a makeover reminiscent of some Houston socialites: its distinctive lines were replaced by a generic, if expensive, face.
While those “upgrades” proceeded apace, the theater remained untouched, a somewhat suspicious victim of benign neglect. The aroma of mildew could sometimes mix unpleasantly with that of the popcorn, and the sprint to the cramped upstairs restrooms was a little nerve-racking. (The single one downstairs was marked “Handicapped Only,” making its use a moral and ethical hazard for the nondisabled who couldn’t bear the thought of missing a pivotal scene, and who were willing to confess their sin with some semi-audible toilet flushing.)
But it wasn’t just the movies from Czechoslovakia or the Coen brothers, or even the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday nights that fans attended in costume that made the place special. Going to the River Oaks was the opposite of the multiplex experience. It was clubby in a good way: you could run into friends and share a drink in the upstairs lobby bar or make new friends with other film buffs. River Oaks matrons stood in line with Montrose gays. Millennials actually talked to the elderly. A good Indian film would bring in Indians from the far-flung suburbs, and the equivalent would happen for movies from Mexico, France, Britain, Brazil or wherever. The River Oaks was a twofer: a place to reconnect with your neighbors and connect with the larger world at the same time. The loss of it wasn’t just about the loss of a venue to see smaller films; the city stood to lose a place that built and nurtured community.
Which explained the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when Weingarten announced last March that the theater would close, with the pandemic-induced drop in attendance as the explanation. A disagreement over rent during COVID between Landmark, which leased the theater, and Weingarten, could never get to yes, probably because neither wanted to, probably because the theater was sitting on some very prime real estate. (Weingarten backed down on its plan to close the theater following protests in 2007; after that the theater was loosely protected by a relatively toothless city ordinance.) “Both sides were just done with the other one,” said a person involved with the negotiations, who added that “Weingarten was no friend to preservation.”
What followed was a genuine grassroots rescue operation that included two women who had previously worked at the theater, Sarah Gish for seven years and Maureen McNamara for more than twenty. They swiftly formed a group called Friends of the River Oaks Theatre, which began meeting weekly on Zoom and initiated letter and email campaigns. The group grew quickly to include local film buffs and preservationists, along with the likes of Bun B and Richard Linklater, for whom going to the River Oaks as young Houstonians was formative. (The same was true of Wes Anderson, who kept up with developments through his pal Linklater.) “I feel like the theater is my firstborn child and somebody else got custody of her and I wasn’t sure they had her best interest at heart,” McNamara said of the effort to save the River Oaks.
At the same time, philanthropist Phoebe Tudor, who has a degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and is vice chairman of the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, implemented her catch-more-flies-with-honey brand of arm-twisting with city officials, including councilwoman Abbie Kamin and Houston’s chief development officer and all-around consiglieri, Andy Icken. “Everybody kept the dialogue going,” said Minnette Boesel, chair of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission and former assistant to Mayor Sylvester Turner for cultural affairs. The email and letter-writing campaign instituted by the friends group made the theater’s dire situation impossible to ignore: “The mayor’s office took a look at eight hundred emails and paid attention,” Tudor said.
There were vigils outside the theater by Rocky Horror fans, and an eighty-third birthday party with clips from movies the theater had previously shown projected on a back wall of the building. Various permutations were considered: putting together a group of investors to buy the theater outright, running it as some kind of nonprofit, or some public-private combination. “We were really coming together to buy it for the market,” Richard Linklater explained. “But the market took care of it. I like the Houston-ness of that.”
Indeed, what may have made the biggest difference in the River Oaks’ reprieve was the acquisition of Weingarten by Kimco Realty for $3.8 billion in April 2021. Kimco, in turn, handed off operations to a Houston-based company, Star Cinema Grill Group, which also owns, along with a plethora of local dine-in theaters, popular restaurants such as State Fare and Liberty Kitchen. They have promised to tailor their offerings to River Oaks theatergoers, which will undoubtedly include real food and a better alcohol selection in the upstairs bar. “The intention is to keep the soul, the architecture, the feel,” said Jason Ostrow, vice president of development for the company. New carpet, lighting, and seats are coming. “You are still going to feel like you are in the 1940s, but cleaner.” (Asked about the downstairs restroom issue, Ostrow was caught unaware, but promised to “look into the situation.”)
“It’s a win-win,” said Tudor of the sale. And maybe, just maybe, historic preservation will become less of an anomaly in Houston. “It’s becoming more mainstream and more of a consideration,” she said. “There’s a long way to go but it’s better than it was.”
Or, as Linklater put it, “Let the honeymoon begin!”