Texas History: Photographing 175 old Texas movie theaters during pandemic
In January, Mike Robertson was tooling through Bertram, a town northwest of Austin, when he spotted the Globe Theatre, an unusual rock-fronted auditorium that doubles as a movie theater. It sports a vertical sign of stacked neon circles and a streamlined marquee that looks new.
Robertson, pastor of the Sanctuary Church in Austin’s Tarrytown neighborhood, rolled down his window and snapped a picture with his iPhone.
That could have been the end of that.
Not long after, however, on another road trip, he spied the flamboyant Edna Theater in the town of Edna near Victoria. This looker is topped by a tall, singular tower sign over a fan-shaped entryway.
That did it. Old Texas movie theaters had grabbed Robertson’s attention. During the following months, he photographed 175 theaters, which he shares on his website, texaspictureshows.com.
Once he arrived in each Texas town, how did he find the local theaters?
“Many of them are located on the courthouse squares,” he says. “But thanks to the iPhone, I just punch in the address, and she says, ‘Take a right,’ then, ‘Your destination is on the left.’ Sure enough, there it is.”
Journey to the road
Robertson, 66, grew up in South Texas and attended Baylor University in Waco. His father served as a Baptist preacher and, since age 13, he played multiple roles on and off at churches, including the giant Riverbend Church in West Austin.
“I never intended to be a pastor of a church,” he says. “So me being here is part of an unusual series of events.”
Five years ago, after two decades at Riverbend, Robertson took up a career as a public speaker. He also moved in closer to Central Austin. Driving down Exposition Boulevard, he noticed a church that was once Tarrytown Baptist and now is called Sanctuary Church. He thought, "This might be a good place to join a religious community."
“When we came to service, there were 10 people,” he recalls. “What? The co-pastors were Cynthia Clawson, a world-class vocalist, and Ragan Courtney, a respected playwright and poet. But they were ready to move on.”
So the little community asked Robertson to step in.
“That’s not the way to find a pastor,” he told them. “Like, you’re pushing your cart down the aisle at H-E-B and someone comes up to you and says, ‘How’d you like to manage this store?’ Hey, I’m just shopping here. But 3 1/2 unforeseen years later, here I am. I’ve learned to respect things that come out of left field.”
The church has grown a little during the interim, and it benefits from some smart land deals that provided it with an endowment. Yet many in the community are older, and they have not met as a group during the coronavirus pandemic.
All this is important to know because it helps to explain how Robertson came to take Mondays off as part of his weekend from work. And his favorite weekend activity is hitting the highway.
“I drive and drive and listen to music or a podcast,” he says, to “somewhere I’ve never been before.”
At first, Robertson hunted blindly for old movie theaters, then he discovered cinematreasures.org, which attempts to document every American theater, present and past. His first trips took him within a 100-mile radius of Austin. Then he braved a few overnight trips. Later expeditions to the state’s farthest corners required more planning.
“We shot 31 theaters in three days in the Panhandle,” he says. The bounty was similar in East Texas. Far West Texas theaters were more widely spread out, but he found some magical ones in El Paso.
“One that made my jaw drop on another trip was the Plaza in Laredo,” he says. “It’s outrageously art deco in green and white. It’s also a little Space Age with what looks like a flying saucer landing pad on top. It was closed, but it looked good.”
Earlier this year, he found the Arcadia Theatre in Kerrville. It was boarded up, but renovations were going on. A local attorney friend invited Robertson to come back when the renovation was complete and, when he did, he was able to go inside.
“They did an amazing job,” he says. “It looks just like it did 100 years ago, except that now it’s an adaptable performance space. There’s an overhead door behind the stage that opens up to the river canyon below.”
As it happens, his theater safaris perfectly matched his pandemic protocols. He rarely interacted with strangers and mainly just drove into town, then stopped to take pictures.
“It seemed like the safe thing to do,” he says, “not to be around people but yet to satisfy my curiosity.”
Some of the most memorable samples were the Kessler in Dallas and the Plaza in Garland, which looks like it was borrowed from the futuristic cartoon series “The Jetsons.”
Many of these old movie theaters are in bad condition.
“They are empty and decaying,” he says. “But there’s something majestic about them. The one in Batesville, trees have grown up in the theater. One grew right through the marquee. Bet there’s not a person alive who saw a movie there.”
Oh, I’d wager there is. Think, Texas readers, help me out here. Both Robertson and I would love to find somebody who had.
Robertson has always been interested in movies and film history. He once wrote a historical novel, “This Is Where I Came In,” set in Austin. While researching it, he discovered that the city’s first movie was shown in October 1896, early for Texas.
Not surprisingly, this pastor gets philosophical about his finds.
“In many of these towns, the theater and the church are the grandest places people got to set a foot into,” he says. “Both are houses of worship, one considerably more entertaining than the other.”