Texas Living

A New Life for Texas’ Old-Fashioned Movie Theaters

By Peter Simek 2.4.19

For decades, the local movie theater was a fixture of nearly every town square in nearly every little hamlet in Texas.

Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, motion pictures swept across the state, and Texans eager for weekend entertainment flocked to picture shows. The story of the Texas movie scene is even at the center of one of the state’s most iconic and significant films, The Last Picture Show, which tells of the closing of a tiny cinema in writer Larry McMurtry’s native Archer City, a metaphor for the slow disintegration of the community.

Sadly, most of Texas’ theaters have gone the way of Archer City’s movie house. In larger towns and cities, the arrival of television and then suburban megaplex cinemas put smaller neighborhood theaters out of business. In the late 20th century, many went under, and for years they sat vacant.

But in recent decades, Texas has seen a revival of its old-school movie houses. Now, from community performing arts centers to acclaimed music venues, Texas’ old-fashioned movie theaters are experiencing a renaissance.

Here are some of Texas’ old movie houses that have found their second act.

Bastrop Opera House, Bastrop

Where else to start but with one of the most historic arts centers in the state? The Bastrop Opera House opened in 1889, hosting performances, plays, balls, and special events. After 1910, it was converted into a movie theater and operated until after World War II. In 1979, a nonprofit brought the theater back to life with its earlier purpose of hosting live theater.

Plaza Theatre, El Paso

This onetime vaudeville house hosted Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Ethel Barrymore, John Wayne, and Clark Gable. The theater began showing films during the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s. It closed in the early 1970s but was restored and reopened — complete with a restoration of its historic Wurlitzer organ — in the 2000s. Today it hosts live performances and special events.

“The Famous Seat” courtesy of The Texas Theater.

The Texas Theatre, Dallas

Most famous as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to hide out in the hours after he assassinated John F. Kennedy, this Oak Cliff neighborhood institution was once owned by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Since its late-2000s revival, the theater has become one of the country’s most acclaimed independent movie houses.

Plaza Theatre, Paris

Paris’ stately Plaza Theatre opened in 1926, a Spanish-Moorish architectural feat complete with rounded arches, tiled roof, wrought-iron railings, ornate foyer, and majestic pipe organ. Long having ceased showing motion pictures, the Plaza is now home to the Paris Community Theatre.

Cactus Theater, Lubbock

Despite the Cactus’ inauspicious beginnings as a second-run theater back in the 1930s — it was driven out of business by the midcentury — its fortunes turned when music producer Don Caldwell bought the venue in 1993 and reimagined it as a live performance hall. It’s since become a gem of West Texas’ legendary musical scene.

Yucca Theatre, Midland

The Gothic Revival Yucca Theatre opened with a bang in 1929 when it featured not just a screening of the Hollywood musical Rio Rita but also a performance by a New York-based musical comedy revue. Over the years, the theater continued its tradition of staging vaudevillian musical comedy acts with its annual Summer Mummers performances — locally produced melodramas still held to this day.

The Kessler Theater, Dallas

The Kessler opened in 1941 (it was purchased by cowboy singer Gene Autry four years later). However, its years as a movie house were cut short after the building was destroyed in a tornado in 1957 and then in a fire just three years later. It was rescued in 2010 and repurposed as a boutique music venue that has quickly established a reputation for hosting some of the world’s best musicians in a unique, intimate setting.

The Aztec Theatre, Albany

The Spanish-revival Aztec Theatre opened in 1927 as a movie house but has evolved over the years into a multiuse performance space, hosting live music and theater performances. It still shows a variety of second-run film screenings.

Photo by Gary Smith

The Globe Theatre, Bertram

Built from red granite mined from the same quarry that provided the stone for the state capitol, the Globe opened in 1935 after the people of the small town northwest of Austin decided their community needed a modern movie house. The Globe screened movies until finally closing in the 1980s. After its purchase in 2009 and an extensive renovation, it’s reopened as a live music venue as well as a movie house.

Hauschild Opera House, Victoria

As in Bastrop, German settlers in Victoria couldn’t imagine a town without an opera house. They opened the Hauschild in 1894 and hosted vaudeville shows, plays, and silent films. After the establishment went out of business in the 1980s, the space was converted into a restaurant, religious bookstore, antiques mall, and events venue.

You might not be able to see films at all these old-fashioned movie theaters anymore. But you can check out these drive-in theaters, where retro movie-viewing is no thing of the past.

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