The Alabama Theatre and the River Oaks Theatre; the two
go hand in hand.
Both were built in 1939, less than a month apart. Both
have survived intact, and are still functional to the public.
In the case of the Alabama (Bookstop), films have not been
shown there since 1983, yet it is more appreciated now for
its "theatreness" than it was during its final
years as a movie house. Likewise, the Bookstop has survived
to a large degree because of the building itself, and is
unlike any other cookie-cutter bookstore it is a
space with character.
The Alabama and River Oaks are the only two survivors from
Houstons golden era. As of 2006, both are vulnerable
to being lost.
When it opened in 1939, the Alabama was Interstates
tenth theatre in the Houston area, the others being the
Metropolitan, Majestic, Kirby, Delman, Eastwood, North Main,
Tower, Bluebonnet, and the Yale. In addition, it was the
first and largest of four November openings, with the independent
Stude, Navaway, and River Oaks theatres following.
Its opening feature was Man About Town, with
Later remodelings included that of the lobby on two occasions,
updating the undersized concession stand, and rebuilding
the box office into the theatre front. Original plans for
a shopping center to surround the theatre eventually took
Featured films during the Alabamas history ran the
gamut from The Glen Miller Story to blockbuster
titles of the seventies and eighties, such as The
Sting, The Omen, The Towering Inferno,
American Graffiti, and Reds. The
Sound of Music attracted audiences for over a year
during its run. Long lines of science fiction fans wrapped
around the building in 1977 for Close Encounters of
the Third Kind, Alien in 1979, and The
Empire Strikes Back the following year.
Competition from multicinemas, cable television, and videotape
cut deep into Alabamas attendance and profits. The
movie era of the Alabama died in early December 1983. Its
final presentation was the low-budget horror flick, Mortuary,
a title that paralleled the theatres final days.
The entire Alabama Center underwent a facelift, and after
a careful restoration of the theatre space, the former movie
house was reopened as a Bookstop book store.
In July 22, 2006, front page of the Houston Chronicle
detailed unconfirmed plans to raze portions of the River
Oaks Shopping Center (including the River Oaks Theatre),
and a multistory Barnes & Noble would be constructed
where the Black-Eyed Pea restaurant stood, thus making the
Alabama Bookstop (operated by Barnes & Noble, and located
a few miles away from the River Oaks theatre) obsolete.
Efforts were made by various local groups to
save these structures, including an August 1, 2006 appeal
to Houston City Council, and a petition drive. Society philanthropist
Carolyn Farb spearheaded a preservation effort in front
of the River Oaks Theatre on August 30, with a crowd of
supporters wearing black Save Our Shrines T-shirts.
All of this was of of little use.
A portion of the historic 1937 shopping center was unceremoniously razed, and replaced by a brand new Barnes & Noble store. As expected, the Alabama Bookstop was immediately closed. In 2011, the interior was partially gutted, and the slanted floor leveled and cemented in. It's new tenant, a Trader Joe's grocery store, opens in September 2012.
For links to past media coverage on the Alabama and River Oaks
theatres, click here.