On The Town

At Some Point in the Near Future, the River Oaks Theater Will Rise Again

Houston-born filmmaker Richard Linklater calls River Oaks “one of the cornerstones of Houston film culture."

By Craig Lindsey July 28, 2022 Published in the Summer 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The theater as it appeared before construction of the adjacent shopping center in the 1940s.

This March, a big press conference happened outside the now once-upon-a-time defunct River Oaks Theatre. Press and loyal supporters gathered while ushers in classic uniforms offered popcorn. “What a great day for the city of Houston,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, one of several people who hit the mike that day, expressing enthusiasm over the big announcement. “The River Oaks Theatre is open again and will be preserved for future generations.”

Just a year before, the art house, spearheaded by Landmark Theaters chain, had to close up shop after unpaid lease obligations caused by the pandemic. 

After weeks of negotiations between Landmark and landlord Weingarten Realty, the theater ultimately went out on a sad note. Longtime fans and curious moviegoers convened outside the theater to hold a candlelight vigil.

Over the years, Houston movie houses specializing in indie cinema, foreign films, and other art-house programming have become a dying breed. The Greenway 3, which was located beneath Greenway Plaza for 35 years, also owned by Landmark, shut down in 2007 after losing its lease. And 25 years ago, the Angelika Film Center chain opened up an eight-screen multiplex Downtown at Bayou Place, but that abruptly closed in 2010. The Sundance Cinemas chain came in and reopened it a year later, but that was also short-lived. It’s now an AMC dine-in multiplex.

The River Oaks, which initially opened in November 1939, has always found a way to keep pushing. Even as other historic theaters became properties for other businesses (the Alabama Theatre, which opened in the same month as River Oaks, is now a — gasp! — Trader Joe’s), and TV, cable, home video, 30-screen megaplexes and streaming platforms began luring moviegoers away, the movie palace adapted and persevered. After decades of being a one-screen, two-story auditorium, the theater underwent severe renovations in the mid-’80s, turning the balcony into two separate screening rooms. 

Since the late ‘70s, the theater has always been about playing art-house movies, whether they’re acclaimed masterworks, future Oscar winners or controversial conversation-starters (a 1982 screening of the notorious Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, led to vice-squad officers coming in and arresting the manager during a raid). But it’s also been a prime destination for midnight-movie fare, playing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a weekly weekend basis. 

Houston-born filmmaker Richard Linklater, the man behind such art-house hits as Dazed & Confused, the Oscar-winning Boyhood, and the Before trilogy, calls River Oaks “one of the cornerstones of Houston film culture. I know Wes Anderson feels this way — I feel this way,” Linklater told Houstonia. “It was where I got my, you know — I saw great films really for the first time; right at that moment, I was initially interested in cinema. I was lucky to be in that generation that, you know, you saw everything on film. 35mm print is River Oaks Theatre — it doesn’t get much better than that!”

Linklater is just one of many people who’ve been vocal about the theater’s unfair, unfortunate closing. Friends of River Oaks Theatre is a collective of concerned fans who are always ready to raise awareness of the theater and its legacy. When the finish was imminent, there was discussion that the Friends could run the theater themselves. Some of them have experience — co-founder Maureen McNamara worked at River Oaks for 23 years, popping popcorn and selling snacks before becoming the manager. (She would later open and operate historic, independent movie theaters all over the country.) 

“So when it became clear that the lease wasn’t gonna be renewed with Landmark, then we stepped in and said, ‘OK, well, what would it look like for us to operate the theater and possibly have the nonprofit organization’ — because we had extensive experience operating theaters among our group — operate the theater as an independent theater through a community-based nonprofit?” 

Mayor Turner joined Kimco and River Oaks Theater's CEO and President Omar Kahn during the public announcement.

Image: Corey Watson

Thankfully, a newly formed company has come in to make things right. River Oaks Theatre Inc., which owns and operates such food and entertainment establishments as Star Cinema Grill, State Fair Kitchen & Bar, and Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, organized an agreement with Kimco Realty, which now owns the property after merging with Weingarten last year, signing a new lease on the building. 

“Weingarten and Kimco were in negotiations with many different cinema operators to make the economics work, to keep the theater a movie theater the entire time — to my knowledge,” says Jason Ostrow, vice president of River Oaks Theatre Inc. “I don’t think there was ever intent to do otherwise with it.” 

The company is now planning to renovate the theater into another dine-in complex, which Ostrow says will take millions of dollars. There is still no definite date when the theater will officially open for business. But Ostrow assures that its rep as an art-house temple will remain intact once it is open. “The River Oaks Theatre will be programmed like the River Oaks Theatre always was,” he says. 

McNamara hopes that River Oaks Theatre Inc. will keep her and the ride-or-die Friends in the loop. 

Friends of River Oaks Theatre always at the ready to raise awareness of the theater and its legacy.

“The theater has had to be saved many times before,” she says.” We wanna make sure that — like other historic theaters all over the country that are now continuing to thrive because they have some support from a nonprofit organization — that we were like, well, whatever it looks like, we’re in it for the long haul. Keeping the theater healthy and thriving and, you know, operating as a cinema, even if there’s some crossover with some other programming — that’s our priority, to keep the theater from being a bookstore or a Trader Joe’s or an Acme Oyster Company.”

As these Friends have shown, when enough people in the community come together, change can happen. “It’s still a place you kind of cherish and take seriously and want others to take care of,” Linklater says.

“I think that was a good example of citizens’ voices being heard. Like, Houston got together on that one and made it pretty clear that we weren’t gonna accept them just tearing down that piece of Houston history. Enough of that has happened in the past and you gotta draw the line.”

 

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