When I was eight years old, I went to Miller’s theater in Navasota, Texas, on a Sunday afternoon.
I guess the film was really boring and I fell asleep. When it came time to close for the day — no evening show— whoever was in charge of closing up failed to this sleeping little boy.
When I woke up, lights were off and the theater was closed, no one around.
I got scared of course and tried to get out by pushing on the doors but a skinny eight year old wasn’t match for the big heavy securely locked doors.
I was finally able to jimmy open the lock to the box office and get to the phone.
My parents were a little frantic that I had not shown up for dinner and they had called the police. Before the police got there, I called them to say I had gotten locked inside the picture show and couldn’t get out.
My dad called the owner, Mr. Wallace (he was always chewing on a cigar), and he came down and let me out.
My dad wasn’t angry or anything but more amused as this was just another mishap I had gotten into.
But the post-script to all this was when my brother found out what had happened, he said, “you were alone in the picture show and you didn’t raid the candy counter? You’re a dumbass!”
It was around 1952 or 53. I was eleven or twelve years old. The Plaza Theater on 26th street in Lubbock was the venue. Saturday afternoons were full of cartoons, western movies (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, etc.), Abbot and Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle and many others. A few years later, the Plaza was also where live music events took place occasionally, including Buddy Holly and his band.
At the time in question, there was a cry room at the rear of the theater. It was enclosed with a glass window that was hard to see into, but easy to see out of . The room was heavily insulated so crying babies couldn’t be heard in the theater. The door could be locked from the inside. Some boys that I knew (one of them very well), would once in a while be able to talk some girls to go into the cry room with them, lock the door, and take part in some kissing games. On one occasion, a real mother with a real crying baby wanted to go into the cry room, but found the door locked. She knocked a few times, but the little lads and lasses inside were much too busy to hear her. She finally went to the manager, who had a key. He unlocked the room, rudely interrupting the kids.
There was a lot of shouting and confusion as the baby continued to cry, the manager loudly voiced his opinion on what was going on, and the kids scrambled to get out of the room and run into the theater in order to hide in the audience. I observed that the next week, the lock had been removed from the cry room. A new sign adorned the door. “This room only for mothers and babies.”
This site would not exist without COVID-19 and the iPhone X.
Lemme ‘splain. For years, I’ve taken Mondays as my day off. My favorite thing to do on Mondays is to drive on a road I haven’t driven before, while listening to podcasts or music. I’ve had some of my best ideas while I was supposedly “off” work.
Early this year, I had driven into a small Texas town and spotted an old movie theater. I’ve always loved movies and the classic theaters where they were shown. I rolled down the window of my car and used my iPhone to snap a picture of the theater. A couple of weeks later, I came upon another theater and took a picture of it, too.
I began to wonder how many old theaters there might be in the big state of Texas. On my days off, I began driving to towns that I thought might have a large enough population to have supported a theater at some point. Sometimes I got lucky; more times I didn’t find anything.
While seeking to improve my search success, I found the website CinemaTreasures.org. It has been invaluable, listing virtually every theater that has ever existed in the USA and several other countries. It even listed theaters that had been torn down.
Cinema Treasures enabled me to map out routes in advance, hitting towns that I was almost certain contained a theater, whether open or closed. I learned to check the addresses found on that site by entering them into Google Maps and looking at street views to verify that the theater buildings were still standing.
My Monday trips began to get longer and longer as I ventured further from my home base in Austin. During the COVID pandemic, this was a great way to get out of the house and pursue what now seemed like a mission: to document every old theater in Texas. I did a couple of overnighters to venture further away, and finally began taking three or four-day trips to explore the whole Panhandle or all of East Texas.
As I posted the results on my Facebook page each week, people began asking if I was going to publish a book on this subject. I still don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that I now have a place to share all the photos I’ve taken this year.
I hope you’ll enjoy the beauty and variety of these movie houses. Even more, I hope you’ll help to preserve the old picture shows in your own town. They are treasures!