Houston’s historic theater pandemic saves a public good

HOUSTON (AP) — After a historic Houston theater apparently closed permanently last year due to the economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, its supporters — including moviegoers, curators and directors Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson – got to work trying to revive it.

But they also wondered if they should do it in the midst of a global 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 going on in the world, it would have been easy to say no to the venture.

But for Vaughan and those trying to save the theatre, the pandemic was not just about basic survival centered on food, shelter and good health, but also about trying to prevent another loss, that of a precious 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’s getting very easy for 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. the pain when you come out the other side, there is no art, there is nothing to look forward to.”

The closure of cinemas, museums, concert halls – places of creation and sharing – around the world during the pandemic has highlighted the important role that arts and culture play as a public good that supports the good -being people during the struggle.

“What the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching societies is that in times of crisis, culture is a major resource for resilience, connection and recovery… It is a global public good that must be fully protected and promoted for the benefit of humanity,” said a report released last month by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency.

Last month, Star Cinema Grill, a Houston-area movie theater chain, announced it would reopen the River Oaks and keep it “true to its soul.” It opened in 1939 and for the past 45 years has been an arthouse theater showcasing independent and foreign cinema. The theatre, which could reopen by the end of the year, will benefit from various improvements. But the new operator should preserve its Art Deco architecture and what made it quirky, including midnight movies.

While the River Oaks Theater has been granted a reprieve, other venues and groups around the world that showcase arts and culture – a contemporary dance company in Toronto, a popular acting troupe in Madrid – don’t weren’t so lucky.

The cultural and creative sectors have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 10 million jobs lost worldwide in 2020, according to the UNESCO report.

In Houston, after the theater closed in March 2021, “a small army” of supporters came together. They met weekly via Zoom, flooded the mayor’s office with emails and calls, and hosted a charity show and other events.

“Sometimes…we weren’t sure he could be saved,” said Sarah Gish, who, along with Vaughan, was part of the Friends of River Oaks Theater group.

Vaughan, who is also part of a group, the Royal Mystic Order of Chaos, which played the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” monthly during midnight sessions, said what also motivates him is that the theater was a “safe space”. for young homosexuals” who were able to be themselves during these midnight screenings.

Linklater, who was born in Houston and got his film education watching movie marathons in River Oaks, said the arts are a “community campfire where we all share experiences, interpretations of the world. That’s all.

“To me, preserving something like River Oaks…is self-preservation, for the community, for the soul,” said Linklater, whose films include “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise.”

For Jennifer Ho, director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the pandemic made her think of the 2014 novel “Station Eleven,” which is set in a pandemic and discusses the idea that ” survival is insufficient” in times of crisis.

Ho said the arts and 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 an integral part of 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 to give them a moment of peace.

In Houston, after flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, theater groups and the city’s symphony orchestra provided much-needed respite to thousands of evacuees staying at a convention center shelter, John said. Abodeely, CEO 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 of Star Cinema Grill said his company CEO Omar Khan’s passion for movies was probably the biggest factor in the decision to reopen the theatre.

“The opportunity for us … to be the one to save and continue to operate this very important and culturally significant cinema in Houston, it just made sense,” Ostrow said.

Maureen McNamara of Friends of River Oaks Theater said her group had tried unsuccessfully to buy the theater and run it as a nonprofit, but hoped to work with Star Cinema Grill to ensure his survival.

McNamara’s group is grateful to have been able to play a role in reversing at least one pandemic loss.

“The thing is, we don’t want to come out of the air-raid shelter and see everything is devastated and black. We want to get out of the air raid shelter and see there is light and hope,” she said.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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