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Don't go, River Oaks Theater: Houston iconic venue faces risk of closure again

Chron logo Chron 3/5/2021 Alison Medley
a sign on the side of a building: The iconic H-town landmark, River Oaks Theater faces a real threat with its lease ending at the end of March, and Weingarten and Landmark Theatres have failed to come to an agreement about its fate.  Featured image: River Oaks Theatre © Andrew Dansby

The iconic H-town landmark, River Oaks Theater faces a real threat with its lease ending at the end of March, and Weingarten and Landmark Theatres have failed to come to an agreement about its fate.

Featured image: River Oaks Theatre

Oh yes, Houston barely emerged from the winter hellscape to experience yet another catastrophe looming. The iconic H-town landmark, River Oaks Theater, faces a real threat with its lease ending at the end of March, and Weingarten and Landmark Theatres have failed to come to an agreement about its fate.

Houston, this is not who we are. We can't throw away one of the cherished iconic venues in town like it's just some disposable structure on the landscape. River Oaks Theater (ROT) should never be in jeopardy or suffer a fate with a wrecking ball. Even though the historic theater has been given landmark status by the city of Houston, the defining home of art house films in Houston might vanish.

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"The River Oaks Theater is a city of Houston landmark," Preservation Houston's David Bush told KHOU's Jason Miles. "Its been designated a landmark. However under our preservation ordinance, landmarks can be demolished."

The thought of the theater turning into a Texas-sized parking lot on steroids or another condo project is like ripping away the chapters of our city's history. It's not just about the nuances of Houston history in this cool art-deco theater freshly minted in 1939. It's more about our shared history and ethereal, heartfelt moments spent together in one beautiful space, in that theater. Whether it was Houstonians laughing at the irreverent "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel," the River Oaks Theater was the quintessential spot for Houstonians to share some of the most enduring film moments.

There was something sublime about sitting in Houston's River Oaks Theater, just as the newly-released 2014 Richard Linklater film "Boyhood" rolled out its opening credits. Further into this honest film, it became more of this transcendent experience. Cut to Patricia Arquette in her poignant scene with her son, Mason, who's leaving the nest for college. She breaks down and cries as she's packing the boxes for her son's trip to college—and says something deeply resonant.

"This is the worst day of my life." Olivia tells her son candidly. She then talks about all the milestones that have punctuated her life, and her son doesn't quite know what to say. "I just thought there would be more," she said at the end of the scene. Yes, I got it, like a bullet in the heart. Tears started to flow. But it wasn't just me who got it. This moment was shared with others in the space, with my friends who sat right next to me, brushing back the tears.

Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater described his days viewing screenings at River Oaks Theater as more of a spiritual experience. People won't soon forget their big-screen experiences, Linklater told Sight & Sound.

"Sometimes it’s hard to articulate [what makes cinemas special] but I always tell people it’s about life experience," Linklater said. "You have those great experiences with movies, and it’s the place, it’s the community around you, or even if it was a sparsely attended movie, it’s remembering the whole experience of watching it in a theatre. Ask people about their top movie-going experiences and no one’s going to say 'Oh, that afternoon I sat on this side of my couch'…'We're communal beings."

Don't go, River Oaks Theater. As Linklater once said about movies and the special moments created in one theater, "These are the markers in your life, and they are tied to a space."

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