Historic Houston theater’s pandemic rescue a public good
HOUSTON (AP) — After a historic Houston theater seemingly closed for good last year due to economic challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, its supporters — including film lovers, preservationists and directors Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson — got to work to try and revive it.
But they also grappled with whether they should be doing this amid a worldwide crisis in which people were dying or suffering economically.
Kyle Vaughan, one of those behind the effort to save the River Oaks Theatre, said with everything that was happening in the world, it would have been easy to say no to this endeavor.
But for Vaughan and those trying to save the theater, the pandemic wasn’t just about basic survival centered around food and shelter and good health, but also about trying to prevent another loss, one of a treasured place that was an artistic and cultural touchstone as well as a place of community for many in Houston.
“The world is very uncertain right now. It becomes really easy on your little hierarchy of needs to say no right now, we just need to survive,” Vaughan said. “I just don’t think it’s worth it when you come out the other side, there isn’t art, there isn’t something to look forward to.”
The closure of movie theaters, museums, concert halls — places of creating and sharing — throughout the world during the pandemic has highlighted the important role arts and culture play as a public good that supports people’s well-being during struggle.
“What the COVID-19 pandemic teaches societies is that, in times of crisis, culture is a major resource for resilience, connection and recovery ... It is a global public good that needs to be fully protected and promoted for the benefit of humanity,” said a report released last month by UNESCO, the U.N.’s culture agency.
Last month, Star Cinema Grill, a Houston-area theater chain, announced it would reopen the River Oaks and keep it “true to its soul.” It opened in 1939 and for the last 45 years had been an art house theater showcasing independent and foreign cinema. The theater, which might reopen by the end of the year, will get various upgrades. But the new operator is expected to preserve its Art Deco architecture and what made it offbeat, including midnight movies.
While the River Oaks Theatre got a reprieve, other places and groups throughout the world that showcase the arts and culture — a contemporary dance company in Toronto, a popular acting troupe in Madrid — weren’t as fortunate.
The cultural and creative sectors were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with over 10 million jobs lost worldwide in 2020, according to UNESCO’s report.
In Houston, after the theater closed in March 2021, “a little army” of supporters banded together. They met every week by Zoom, inundated the mayor’s office with emails and calls and held a charity benefit show and other events.
“Sometimes ... we weren’t sure if it could be saved,” said Sarah Gish, who along with Vaughan was part of the group Friends of River Oaks Theatre.
Vaughan, who’s also part of a group, the Royal Mystic Order of Chaos, that every month had acted out the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight showings, said what also motivated him was that the theater was a “safe space for queer youth” who got to be themselves at those midnight screenings.
Linklater, who was born in Houston and got his film education watching movie marathons at the River Oaks, said the arts are a “community campfire where we all share experiences, interpretations of the world. It’s everything.”
“To me preserving something like the River Oaks ... it’s self-preservation, for the community, for the soul,” said Linklater, whose films include “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise.”
For Jennifer Ho, the director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, the pandemic made her think of the 2014 novel “Station Eleven,” which takes place in a pandemic and discusses the idea that “survival is insufficient” during times of crisis.
Ho said the arts and the humanities are just as important as food, shelter and science, and that art has always been part of the process of wellness and healing.
“Art has always been integral to survival,” Ho said.
During the Holocaust, Jews created art in concentration camps. People flocked to movie theaters during the Great Depression to temporarily escape their hardships. In the current war in Ukraine, refugees have been greeted by pianists playing music outside train stations as a way to give them a moment of peace.
In Houston, after flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, theater groups and the city’s symphony provided a needed respite for thousands of evacuees staying at a shelter at the convention center, said John Abodeely, chief executive officer of the Houston Arts Alliance.
“The arts are an instrument of resilience and recovery that should be leveraged by our community leaders,” Abodeely said.
Jason Ostrow, with Star Cinema Grill, said the passion for films his company’s CEO, Omar Khan, has was probably the biggest factor in deciding to reopen the theater.
“The opportunity for us ... to be the one to save and continue to operate this very important, culturally significant cinema in Houston, it just made sense,” Ostrow said.
Maureen McNamara, with Friends of River Oaks Theatre, said while her group made an unsuccessful pitch to buy the theater and run it as a nonprofit, its hoping to work with Star Cinema Grill to ensure it’s survival.
McNamara’s group is grateful they were able to play a part in reversing at least one pandemic loss.
“The thing is we don’t want to come out of the bomb shelter and see everything is devastated and black. We want to come out of the bomb shelter and see that there is light and hope,” she said.
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