Culture / Entertainment

Houston’s Historic River Oaks Theatre is Saved — Art Deco Jewel to Show Movies Again With a Slight Name Change

Acclaimed Director Richard Linklater Weighs In — a PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 02.02.22

Houston’s cherished landmark River Oaks Theatre is not going quietly into the night. Instead, the vintage arthouse cinema and Art Deco jewel is getting a comeback worthy of a movie.

Shuttered and dark since March of 2021 and seemingly in serious peril, River Oaks Theatre’s movie showing days are getting resurrected thanks to a new deal between Kimco Realty and Houston-based Star Cinema Grill.

“The longterm solution to River Oaks Theatre being here is frankly butts in seats,” Kimco Realty’s vice president of leasing Andrew Bell tells PaperCity. “We want this concept here. We want this theatre to thrive.

“The last thing you want to do to take down a building that opened up two months after the start of World War II.”

It was a win-win decision for Kimco to preserve the treasured 83-year-old Art Deco cinema, according to Bell.

Just the thought of River Oaks Theatre’s return is enough to bring a sense of sheer relief for many Houston cinephiles. In an exclusive interview with Paper City, Academy Award-winning director Richard Linklater notes that the silver lining is that River Oaks Theatre is “saved from the wrecking ball.”

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“I’m pretty excited,” the Houston-born and raised Linklater tells PaperCity. “It’s a good start. I think it’s lined up to be the cinema hub we all hope it could be. A community-based media and film center.

“That’s what people need it to be culturally. A lot of people worked pretty hard to have this happen.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the iconic Art Deco-era River Oaks Theater, which opened in 1939, was saved from the wrecking ball and will again exhibit films to Houstonians.
The impending return of River Oaks Theatre’s movie showing days brought out plenty of fanfare. And popcorn. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On Wednesday night, Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Bell, Star Cinema president and CEO Omar Khan and local activist group Friends of the River Oaks Theatre to reveal that the ever-resilient Art Deco treasure has a new lease on life.

“We want to build a future business city, but we want to hold onto many of historical buildings, venues,” Turner says. “You don’t want to just plow over your history. River Oaks Theatre represents a part of our culture and our personality.”

“The follow-up question is: ‘Well, are you going to preserve it for all time? Will you designate it as historical landmark that can’t be demolished or developed into something else?’ ” — director Richard Linklater 

The River Oaks Theatre Closing Saga

It turns out River Oaks Theatre’s brilliant light was only temporarily dimmed after it was closed on March 25, 2021. It endured a time of tumultuous negotiations in 2021 after lease talks between Landmark Theatres and Weingarten Realty fell apart, creating a dramatic shuttering.

Fast forward to Wednesday night when the new owner Kimco Realty — which bought Weingarten’s portfolio — publicly rolled out the new plans to restore the 83-year-old River Oaks Theatre and revive it to its earlier cinematic glory. The new reimagining will feature a new dine-in theater concept. Star Cinema’s Kahn is eager to begin the work of restoration.

“I love film. This is a huge passion project for me, and I love cinema as an art,” Kahn says. “I’m so excited to help this shape River Oaks into what it used to be, in its glory days. I’m super excited.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the iconic Art Deco-era River Oaks Theater, which opened in 1939, was saved from the wrecking ball and will again exhibit films to Houstonians.
The iconic River Oaks Theatre’s marquee is having fun again. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

One relatively small change? The name of River Oaks Theatre will be slightly altered to River Oaks Theater.

Richard Linklater Pushes For a Historic Next Step

Linklater believes that this new step towards restoration is an opportunity for Kimco to be a strong corporate citizen and partner in saving the icon. For all time.

“It’s a jewel for Houston,” Linklater tells PaperCity. “You don’t expect cultural centers to go quietly. You renovate them, you update them and you live around them. To solidify that, it would be great. It’s a question for Kimco.”

When Linklater speaks of “solidifying” River Oaks Theatre as a cultural center, he means moving to put the theatre building on a historic registry. That’s the next step in the acclaimed director’s mind.

“Kimco obviously examined the whole situation and decided to keep it a theatre, so that’s the good news,” Linklater says. “The follow-up question is: ‘Well, are you going to preserve it for all time? Will you designate it as historical landmark that can’t be demolished or developed into something else?’ ”

For Friends of Rivers Oaks Theatre’s spokesperson Maureen McNamara, Wednesday’s announcement is long time coming.

“Our perseverance paid off,” McNamara says of the local group which held protests to try and save Houston’s movie theater. “The River Oaks Theatre is going to stay a movie theater, and that is just fantastic. What will make it work for the future will be the support from the Houston community.

“There’s such a feeling of connection and ownership about this theater within our community. The Friends of River Oaks Theatre will help cinema survive and thrive. To support the theater in all that it can be.”

Historic preservationists, movie theater lovers and regular Houstonians who care about the city’s treasures can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. River Oaks Theatre is coming back to life as the movie palace it always should be.

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