The first film ever shown at the River Oaks Theatre was “Bachelor Mother” in 1939 starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven. The last film, it seems, will be the Oscar-nominated “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand. When credits rolled after the 7:30 p.m. showing on Thursday, the theater was expected to lower its curtain for good.
“It’s such a shame,” a bystander said as she and her dog passed under the theater’s iconic, black and white awning.
As Houston’s last remaining vintage movie theater, the River Oaks has held court on West Gray since 1939. After Landmark Theatres was founded in 1974, the River Oaks became one of its first acquisitions just two years later.
A spokesperson for Weingarten told the Chronicle they were “grateful for Landmark’s long tenure at River Oaks Shopping Center, and we appreciate the strong ties so many Houstonians have to the theater. Contrary to reports, there are no plans to redevelop the theater at this time. We look forward to finding the next great operator for the theater space.”
In February, Landmark Theatres’ president and chief operating officer, Paul Serwitz, confirmed the company had not paid rent since spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The River Oaks was closed just shy of six months, from March 16 through Sept. 9.
“With the closure, we had no business to operate. There was no other revenue stream,” Serwitz said. “Our whole company was shut down. We closed the corporate office, and everyone was furloughed. There was no capital to pay rent.”
Weingarten since proposed an “offer waiving much of the 12-month past due rent and providing a 24-month payment plan for the balance. We also proposed to allow Landmark to pay half rent for the next six months to get the theater through the worst of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Landmark was unable to see a path to profitability in order to renew the lease. Therefore, they have decided to close at the end of their lease term.”
See here for the background. It’s super sad, but given the past year and the toll it’s taken on the movie theater business, it’s hardly a surprise. Weingarten’s announcement that they have no plans to redevelop the theater (at this time, anyway) is interesting, because the last time the River Oaks Theater faced an existential crisis, that was the reason – Weingarten wanted to build something bigger on the property. It’s basically what happened on the other side of the street, where the old strip center was torn down and the Barnes and Nobles (among other things) was built in its place. If the classic theater facade is maintained, as has been the case with other former theaters around town, will people come to see that as some form of mitigation? You may not be able to find a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, but at least the neighborhood retains a bit of character. Check in again in a decade or so and we’ll see how everyone feels then.