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Alabama Theatre

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Alabama Theatre

Opened:
November 2, 1939

 

The 1984 commemorative Bookstop poster, created by Houston illustrator Mike Dean. From the collection of David Welling, illustration 1984 Mike Dean

 
 

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 Houston’s golden era. As of 2006, both are vulnerable to being lost.

• • •

When it opened in 1939, the Alabama was Interstate’s 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 Jack Benny.

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 place.

Featured films during the Alabama’s 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 Alabama’s 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 theatre’s 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.

The Alabama Bookstop interior in 2006. Photo by David Welling, 2006


The Alabama in 1983.
Photo courtesy Jim Koehn

The inlaid design on the walkway outside the lobby; a spiraling: yellow motif that bears a suspicious resemblance to the yellow brick road from “The Wizard of Oz,” which opened at Loew§s State three months prior to the Alabama's opening. Whether the similarity is deliberate or mere coincidence is a matter of speculation.
Photo by David Welling, 2006

© 2012 David Welling