River Oaks Theater MIGHT Be Saved

The premiere of Stick 'Em Up in 2011
The premiere of Stick 'Em Up in 2011 Photo by Marco Torres
It looks like the expected closure of the Landmark River Oaks Theatre might be averted after all. It was announced earlier this week that Weingarten Realty had declined to respond to repeated attempts from Landmark to renew their lease or come to terms with outstanding rent after a year of coronavirus-induced poor business. The staff at the theater prepared to shut down the historic theater, which first opened in 1939, at the end of the month and has been run by Landmark for 30 years.

Then suddenly – and possibly after Weingarten CEO Andrew Alexander was visited by three ghosts in the night – the realty company re-opened talks. According to the Houston Chronicle, Weingarten has offered to forgive past due rent from when the cinema was closed for business and work out a 24-month repayment plan for the remaining balance. Landmark has not yet responded to the offer.

Even with Weingarten being more reasonable in the face of an ongoing economic crisis brought about by the most destructive plague more than a century, the River Oaks Theatre is going to remain constantly in danger. Like most theater chains, Landmark is just now beginning to re-open its cinemas, and like the larger chains it has been hit hard by the safety restrictions necessary to combat the plague. Weingarten’s deal sounds generous, but there will still need to be a load of cash flowing to keep River Oaks an ongoing concern. Despite Governor Greg Abbott lifting all restrictions, big audiences at the movies are not likely to come back just yet.

Frankly, it’s time for the City of Houston to begin considering what we can do to protect the last of the great art deco theaters still in operation. It’s not enough that the site has been declared historic. As most news stories about River Oaks have noted, that designation does not protect it from bulldozers.

Nor should merely preserving the building be enough. The fact that the Alabama and Bel Air theaters still exist as grocery stores does not really do their storied histories justice. A cinema of River Oak’s majesty and legacy still operating into the twenty-first century is a marvel worth maintaining.

This isn’t the Astrodome we’re talking about, a behemoth that is held hostage by the rodeo and would cost a fortune to do anything with anyway. We’re talking about one medium sized building in River Oaks being replaced by vanity boutiques and upscale restaurants that will have their pick of other spots thanks to COVID closures.

It’s in the City of Houston’s best interested to ensure the River Oaks continues to operate. In addition to be a landmark and one of the few bits of old Houston still around, it’s a site where local filmmakers like to debut their movies. It adds prestige and weight to our ever-expanding film industry and serves a valuable community purpose.

If Landmark can’t meet Weingarten’s demands, then the City should step in to help both parties come to terms. This includes up to and including financial help. We’re already slated to now have a budget surplus thanks to President Joe Biden’s American Recovery Plan, and a little money dropped to hold onto some of our heritage instead of dashing it away would be well spent.

Houston at this point should think very seriously about owning this place that so many people love and which only enriches our city, at least in some part. Left purely to the agents of profit, the River Oaks will eventually be doomed, even if this reprieve goes through.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner