By Ramona L. Hopkins
For over seventy years the River Oaks Theater has operated at 2009 West Gray in Houston’s affluent River Oaks community. Although the theater has changed over the years, it remains an integral part of Houston, the city’s culture and history, and of the movie industry in the second half of the twentieth century. The River Oaks Theater was the tenth Interstate Theater to open in a seven-year period and one of the last Art Deco buildings constructed in the city. Other historic theaters have been closed and demolished. Like them, the River Oaks Theater has also found its existence threatened.
Ever since a group of women fought to save President George Washington’s home in the mid-nineteenth century, groups have fought to preserve homes, churches, parks, and commercial buildings. In the 1960s and 1970s, organizations formed to protect the old movie theaters that were a central feature of most cities and towns. Communications professor Janna Jones contends, “Old movie theaters produce powerful feelings of nostalgia.” The building itself, for many, serves as a real connection with the past. Everybody has memories of going to the theater with family and friends, the food they ate, the sights and sounds, and the film’s ability to transport them into another world. “To see a unit etched in our cultural memory reduced to rubble is a disturbing experience, one that severs tangible connections to our individual and collective heritage,” architect Joseph M. Valerio and Daniel Friedman explained.
In July 2006, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance (now Preservation Houston) publicized news it received that property owner Weingarten Realty Investors planned on demolishing the Art-Deco-style River Oaks Community Shopping Center and the River Oaks Theater, which sat across the street from each other. With plans to build a Barnes and Noble Booksellers on the property, the existence of the nearby Alabama Theater, which housed a bookstore, was also in danger. Public outcry led to a movement to save all three properties. Despite the efforts of concerned Houstonians, part of the River Oaks Community Shopping Center was torn down in September 2007, and in 2008, construction began on a parking garage. Weingarten planned on tearing down the theater when its lease ended in 2010, but that never occurred. Instead, Houstonians have been left to wonder what the fate of their beloved theater will be. Should the River Oaks Theater be saved? People on both sides of the issue feel very strongly, and they seem to be unable to find common ground.