The Last Photo Show

The sign, of course, has been a familiar landmark to Houstonians for decades, with its vertical, art-deco letters spelling out "A-L-A-B-A-M-A." But in the image hanging on the wall, there's no Bookstop or Cactus Records store nearby. Instead, there are hundreds of well-dressed men, women and children clamoring to get into Jack Benny's Man About Town under a marquee that also promises "Lights, Fireworks, Music, Celebration." The year is 1939, a time when going to the movies was an event. That era is lovingly evoked in the "Vintage Movie Theatre Photo Exhibit" at the River Oaks 3; opened in 1939, the River Oaks is the oldest operating movie house in the city.

There's a shot of a smiling young woman behind a well-stocked snack bar at the Kirby Theatre in the '40s, and one of the Airway Theatre advertising its run of the Henry Fonda film The Farmer Takes a Wife under a sign that reads "any seat 5 & 15 cents." Look at the rest of the elegantly framed photos of varying sizes and you'll see the Garden Oaks, Iris, Broadway and El Capitan theaters, many with interiors that prove "stadium seating" is hardly a new concept. Then there's the Rainbow, the Ritz, the Majestic -- grander names, and places that made Houston moviegoers feel they were part of the magic on-screen, unlike today's MightyPlex 30, where unspooling film is almost secondary to the activities in the adjoining video-game parlor and pizza restaurant.

These vintage houses, though, are now either demolished or radically altered, and remembered mostly by history buffs and senior citizens. But the "Vintage Movie Theatre" exhibit returns us to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- in glorious black and white. Bob Bailey Studios, which has been capturing images of Houston and Houstonians since 1929, culled the photos from its archive of more than 300,000 images. Exhibit co-curator and self-described "nostalgia lover" Sarah Gish of Landmark Theatres (parent company of the River Oaks 3) says she got the idea for the exhibit after seeing a cinema-themed calendar the Bailey studio produced.

"I just fell in love with the photos, and I knew there was something really special there that I wanted people to see," she says. Gish hand-picked the images along with the studio's Barry Baxter.

In the days before television, movies were full-blown events. "People today are used to having ample opportunities to see movies, and that's not even counting television, cable and video rentals," Gish says. "Houston is a market that's completely overscreened. Every five minutes, you can [visit] a different theater, whereas in the '40s and '50s, there just weren't that many around."

Many of the movie houses in the exhibit were also independent businesses -- not part of the chain system that's so prevalent today. Hence, each had its own character and style (though most favored the seemingly prerequisite vertical neon signage). Almost all have fallen victim to changing tastes and times -- like a real-life version of The Last Picture Show.

And though the fact that it's still in operation today makes it an anomaly, the River Oaks, too, has seen its share of changes. One photo, which captures the movie house showing the Leslie Howard version of The Scarlet Pimpernel (along with a Donald Duck cartoon), illustrates this quite visually -- the boxlike building stands alone; today, it's surrounded by strip malls.

The past, as they say, is gone, but that doesn't mean it has to be forgotten, says Gish. "Houston has a real lack of interest in historical documentation. I think there should be a museum dedicated to the city's history. Just from what I saw ... looking through the photos, there's a lot about Houston that people [don't know]." As for what she hopes people take away from the exhibit, Gish says, "I hope they have an appreciation and a better understanding of just how unique movie theaters in Houston really were."

-- Bob Ruggiero

The "Vintage Movie Theatre Photo Exhibit" continues through Thursday, April 23, at the River Oaks Java Cafe, located upstairs at the Landmark River Oaks 3, 2009 West Gray, 524-2175. More info: 850-0217.


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