You Get What You Give

The Lesson of the River Oaks Theatre

Houstonians need to get more proactive when it comes to saving the landmarks we love—or else they'll all face the wrecking ball.

By Craig Hlavaty March 24, 2021

Image: Amy Kinkead

here lies The River Oaks Theatre, the freshest corpse in the battle to save Houston’s past century of history.

Over the weekend we learned that Landmark Theatres, parent company of the River Oaks Theatre, and Weingarten Realty couldn’t make a deal on rent, and Landmark decided to let its lease end on March 31.

The movie theater business model, even pre-pandemic, was a precarious enterprise. Even back in December when I spoke to a Landmark representative for a Houstonia piece, they noted that the theater business was in trouble. The next generation doesn’t have the same attachment to the movie theater experience the rest of us older folks might. For them, movies stream on laptops or on Samsung screens. Streaming passwords get passed around, movies and TV shows get pirated without a second thought.

And let’s be honest, the River Oaks area, with its private security guards and neighbors that distrust outsiders, is not the most hospitable place in H-Town to visit.

Movie chains that can diversify their programming, like the Alamo Drafthouse, have a chance to survive. Maybe in its next life, the River Oaks Theatre won’t be showing Oscar-friendly, art-house offerings and midnight cult movies, but well-meaning Houstonians have to stop looking to the nebulous rich and so-called greedy developers to save things for the rest of us. It’s not their job to do our bidding.

Their goal is to make money. However, we can let them know that we can and will support them if they choose to preserve our history. But we have to keep up our end of the deal. Many people openly admitted they hadn’t visited the River Oaks Theatre in ages—long before Covid-19 shut it down for months. Some said that ticket prices were prohibitive, while others said they didn’t like the parking in the neighborhood, or they simply preferred to stream movies at home. Even if the theater was saved, who’s to say we wouldn’t be back in the same spot in a year or two, rallying around the marquee?

As Houstonians, we need to become proactive when it comes to saving the landmarks we love. We can’t wait to bring flowers and protest signs to the hospice.

Maybe the goal should be giving these landmarks life beyond their original uses. Things can live on, albeit in strange new forms. In Houston, our landmarks seem to reinvent themselves almost as much as we do as a city. The Jefferson Davis Hospital is now the Elder Street Artist Lofts. The disused Union Station saw new life as part of Minute Maid Park. The Summit has been Joel Osteen’s personal TV studio for over 15 years, while the Zone d'Erotica footprint next to the Galleria now sells expensive, yet delicious Dallas tacos.

In Houston we’ve even given our former movie houses life after their last picture show. The Heights Theater now books roots-rockers and singer-songwriters for concerts, as well as the stray wedding, while the old Alabama Theatre has done time as a Bookstop and is currently a Trader Joe’s grocery store. The Majestic Metro is a special events venue where countless Houstonians have celebrated their nuptials. And Montrose’s Tower Theatre has been everything from a rock club to a video store and even the dearly departed El Real Tex-Mex Cafe; soon, it will see new life again as the Acme Oyster House.

Those all took adventurous developers willing to hold back a wrecking ball.

So what could be next for the River Oaks Theatre? Maybe the key here is reinvention. Would it be too cringy and on-the-nose-Texas as an H-E-B location? Would you be okay exchanging the cinematic experience with Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Riff Raff for a midnight munchies run to pick up some Creamy Creations ice cream and pretzels if it meant that iconic marquee could stick around?

I can see it now: “Now Showing: Live Crawfish!” 

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