Movie House Revival: The Return of Classic Theaters

Once thriving entertainment centers, classic movie theaters began to disappear at the end of the last century. But a new revival movement is giving them new life and new purpose.

The first thing Barbara Horan did when she purchased the delipidated Texan Theater in Greenville, Texas was to restore the giant neon sign. “The theater had its big marquee,” says Barbara proudly.” “It looked like a theater again.” Once a staple of downtown entertainment, the Texan had long been run down and repurposed. That was until 2010 when Barbara bought the building and converted it into a 114-seat multipurpose cultural center.

The Texan Theater is just one of many former movie houses around the country that have been restored to its former glory. Like the Texan, Oakland’s New Parkway Theater has recently been converted to a multipurpose venue, offering second-run films and live events. Berkley California’s Rivoli Theatre is currently being used as the home of a 99 Cent store, though the original ornate theater décor can still be seen. And the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto had once been converted into a Borders Books, with the understanding that it could be returned to a theater space if needed. Borders eventually went bankrupt in 2011, and in 2015, tech company SAP teamed with Blue Bottle Coffee to open the theater as HanaHaus, a café, and innovative hub.

A crowd enjoys a show at the Texan Theater (Photo: Dallas Morning News)

The history of movie theaters dates back more than a century. The first theater dedicated to screening films was Edison’s Vitascope Theater, which opened on Oct. 19, 1896. 1905 saw the opening of the first nickelodeon in Pittsburgh at which theater owners Harry Davis and John Harris charged patrons a nickel to see the latest film. Nickelodeons, which would be the basis for our modern movie theaters, grew in popularity, and by 1914 an estimated 27 percent of Americans were going to the movies every week.

While many new movie theaters were constructed, some were converted vaudeville theaters, such as The Orpheum Theater in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Opening in 1906, the Orpheum had been a venue for live acts like Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny, and Bing Crosby, but by 1920, with vaudeville on the decline, the Orpheum began only showing silent films.

Despite its growing popularity, attending the movies was generally reserved only for the working and lower classes. That would change in the mid-1920s when extravagant and luxurious movie palaces began popping up. Catering to a wealthier class of patrons, these movie palaces included larger sitting areas, air conditioning, and even childcare services.

It was around the same time that popcorn made its way into movie theaters. Prior to 1925, popcorn was found most commonly being sold at circuses and by street vendors. That changed when inventor Charles Manley marketed his new electric popcorn machines to movie theater owners (the Great Depression a decade later would bring in concessions like candy and soda as a method to take in extra income for owners).

The late 1920s and the early 1930s ushered in new technologies that advanced the movie-going experience. 1927’s The Jazz Singer featured the first film with synchronized speech and music, which was followed by the first Technicolor film in 1932. Hollywood’s Golden Era would peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with musicals, westerns, and gangster films being pushed out by the studio system. Drive-in theaters, which appeared as early as the 1930s rose in popularity, with as many as 4,000 and 5,000 drive-ins in the United States.  The advent of televisions forced film studios to try to lure patrons back into theaters, including filming on large Cinemascope or adding gimmicks like “Smell-o-vision.”

Texan Theater owner Barbara Horan on stage with comedian Bill Engvall (Photo: Barbara Horan)

Suburban expansion in the 1960s would give way to multiplexes, which would mark the beginning of the end for classic movie theaters. By the mid-1970s, many theaters, once a thriving focal point of entertainment, began to shutter their doors. But many of those doors are starting to reopen.

Barbara’s original intent for the Texan was to use the venue as a space just to conduct interviews, but interest in the theater quickly grew. “I started getting calls from people asking to perform,” says Barbara. “Then last year the Bloomquist brothers from the New York area asked if we would show a film they had made, and I wrote back and asked if they would come to speak with the film. We had a showing of their film with the producers, an actor and the cinematographer, and we asked them questions after the screening. Through my connections with the Austin Film Society, we’re planning to have Richard Linklater come with one of his movies and talk with him. I’m very excited about opportunities like that. You don’t usually get that unless you go to a film festival or go to SXSW.”

By enlarge, the reception for the Texan Theater from locals has been good, though a few have mentioned concerns. “There are some people that are overjoyed that we are here,” says Barbara. “However, I recently got to do a sit-down conversation with Brett Michaels, but because I’m charged the same amount as an arena, tickets were a bit pricier because I can only hold 100 people. That upset some people. But overall, people are very excited.”

Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxcars performing at the Texan Theater (Photo: Barbara Horan)

The theater has hosted shows and meet and greets with performers like John Schneider, Bill Engvall, Billy Bob Thornton and Tiffany, but the biggest selling point of the Texan, according to Barbara, is the variety. “We are using the stage for a Facebook live event every Wednesday, and we are going to be recording live performances on Friday afternoon,” says Barbara. “We recently had a traveling show of Driving Miss Daisy, and we’ve had dance recitals, high school reunion, and weddings. Plus, we still show movies. Every Sunday at 1:00 we show not-first run movies for free. Not to mention the lobby coffee shop is open seven days a week.”

Barbara is thrilled that people have appreciated the work she has put into renovating the Texan and that they love what it has to offer, but she still has some high expectations. “My goal is for the Texan to be a destination place like Carnegie Hall,” says Barbara. “If something is going on here, people aren’t going to want to miss it.”

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