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'This is a crucial moment': Richard Linklater on fight to save River Oaks Theatre

Chron logo Chron 4/6/2021 Alison Medley
Richard Linklater talking on a cell phone © Rick Kern/Getty Images

It was more than an existential, gut-wrenching stab in the heart for Texas director Richard Linklater when River Oaks Theatre closed on March 25.

The independent auteur took the shuttering of this cherished icon in quite a different way. The River Oaks Theatre won't go quietly into the night, Linklater definitively told Chron.

"River Oaks Theatre is a church of the arts. It's one of those times when a city takes a temperature about what's important," Linklater said. "It's a crucial moment. You can't undo a 1939 historic theatre. This is a cultural touchstone for the city."

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When he was just a college student, Linklater found his true education at River Oaks Theatre. His well-laid plans to become a professional baseball player didn't quite pan out, so he left school and took an off-shore oil worker job. When he had weekends free in Houston, he swiftly fell love with film and made a point of seeing of almost every indie double feature at the River Oaks Theatre.

"That was my education," Linklater said.

For the "Boyhood" director who calls River Oaks Theatre his "film school" and "church of the arts," the farewell to this 1939 Art Deco cinema was more like a battle cry and call to action for all who have loved the theater throughout its 82-year venerable run. In an exclusive interview with Chron, Linklater revealed more about why River Oaks Theatre was such a sanctuary for him growing up and why it's so critical that Houstonians fight to save the venue.

Chron: Why is River Oaks Theatre so important to you?

Linklater: In my own development, films just opened up a whole world for me. I had never left Texas much as a kid. But I really got to know the world through the films...[River Oaks Theatre] was my art form, my art school.

What do you think should be the next step in saving River Oaks Theatre? 

Linklater: I just feel that where there's a will, there's a way. If it's important to Houston, it can be done. It truly is vitally important...These buildings are sacred places. They can't be replaced. You can build some new ones. You can't build a new historic theatre.

What do you say to viewing the 1939 theater from sheerly an economic perspective?  

Linklater: [Texas is] the economic Wild West. What goes with that is a cultural erasure. Other cities have old theatres but they've been preserved. So whoever owns it, they go out of business. Someone else picks it up and makes it a non-profit, and they get donations and renovate it. It then becomes the crown jewel of the city's performing arts. That's how these things survive.

How do you think the River Oaks Theatre could ultimately be rescued and preserved? 

Linklater: Houston has to look at it and go, "What's it take for this to be here?"...Houston needs to rally for River Oaks Theatre, come what may. Make it more of a community center, instead of a national chain. If it survives, cool things could happen. The film world is up for renewal always.

How do Houston film buffs hold onto the hope that that River Oaks could be protected?

Linklater: Don't let River Oaks go quietly into the night. We'll learn something soon about the path forward. City officials need to get involved, everybody. River Oaks Theatre is a church of the arts. It's one of those times when a city takes a temperature about what's important. It's a crucial moment.

What's the future of cinema after the pandemic shuttered so many theatres around the country? 

Linklater: This is just unfortunate timing. For so many theatres, its been a wipe-out. But you can get shuttered venue money from the government in the COVID-19 relief. There's just ways to do this. Everybody's working it out. In Austin, at the Film Society, we've worked it out. You have to really care. I got the feeling that the people in this situation with River Oaks didn't.

What was one of your fondest film moments at River Oaks Theatre? 

Linklater: During my college years, I was working off-shore, and I was getting really interested in film. So I started looking around, I found out about River Oaks Theatre. That's when I put the calendar on the wall and started going to everything. That was my education. I remember so much. Louis Malle did a six-part documentary called "Phantom India." I remember watching it all in one night. It was also the first place I saw "Citizen Kane," "Days of Heaven," "Taxi Driver" and "Badlands." There's a collective memory there...It's just special.

What film project are you working on right now?

I'm in post-production on a Houston movie called "Apollo 10 1/2." It's about being a kid near NASA. It's my growing up in Houston movie.

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