1996: The Prytania Theater is saved from the wrecking ball
It was 1996, and it looked very much like the end of an era in New Orleans. The Prytania Theatre, the last of the city’s old neighborhood moviehouses — and which originally opened in December 1914, when more than 60 neighborhood theaters dotted the city’s map — was slated for closure. Landmark Theaters, which had operated it, decided the theater was no longer profitable, and the building’s then-owner filed for a permit to have it torn down. It even had a date with the wrecking ball — Dec. 2 — and demolition equipment was rolled in to do the job. That’s when Chris Riley and Rene Brunet Jr. stepped in. Riley bought the building and Brunet, who had been operating movie theaters all his life, signed on to operate it. On April 18, 1997, it reopened with a 25th anniversary print of “The Godfather.” The show, it was clear, would go on.
Brunet died Aug. 17 at age 95, but his family — led by son Robert — is committed to keeping the Prytania running. Billed as the oldest operating movie theater in the New Orleans metro area, and the only conventional single-screen theater still operating on a full-time basis in Louisiana, the theater was bought in 2003 by businessman John Gish, who signed a 50-year lease with the Brunet family to keep it running well into the 21st century — and, as Robert Brunet insists, beyond.
- Riley, who was 29 at the time he bought the Prytania building, knew first-hand what it meant to the city. “I used to go to that theater when I was a kid,” he said in a 1996 interview with The Times-Picayune. “I wanted to keep it in the neighborhood.”
- The Brunets had to race to reopen the theater. If it remained closed for more than six months, it would have lost its commercial zoning. In that time, the gutted theater received a new roof, a new screen, new projector and sound equipment, a new concession stand and an auditorium filled with blue seats that had originally occupied the Kenilworth theater in New Orleans East. (Those seats have since been replaced.)
- The Prytania earned a measure of literary immortality, having been mentioned in John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
- The theater has burned at least twice: in November 1926 and again in April 1968. In both cases, it was renovated and reopened in short order.
- The Prytania has gone through a number of owners and operators over the years. It was opened in December 1914 by M.H. Jacobs, who merged his theaters into United Artists in 1930. Operations were taken over in 1977 by Movies Inc., which merged in 1982 with Landmark Theaters. Landmark ran the theater until Riley bought it in late 1996 and the Brunets took over as operators in 1997.
- Part of the Brunets’ vision for the theater was to give it a nostalgic, old-time feel. That being said, it was the first movie theater in the New Orleans area to convert entirely to digital projection, which it did in 2009. It still, however, maintains a 35mm film projector for special events.
- The theater was the first in New Orleans to reopen after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when Rene Brunet threw open its doors and offered free movies to first-responders for several months. The first movie to show after the storm: the locally shot Ryan Reynolds comedy “Waiting.”
- In 2009, the theater hosted a red-carpet local premiere of the Sandra Bullock drama “The Blind Side.” Bullock, who was in attendance, went on to earn an Oscar for her performance in the film.
- In addition to the Prytania, members of the Brunet family have run a number of New Orleans movie theaters over the years, including the Harlequin, Imperial, Famous, Circle, Carver, Clabon, Gallo, the Joy on Canal Street and the Loew’s State.
- In 2012, Rene Brunet Jr. co-authored a history book with Jack Stewart titled “There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans.”
When the Prytania first opened its doors, movies were still silent and still a novelty. As the decades passed, and as cinema became America’s top choice for escapist entertainment, the Prytania evolved with the times. Thanks to the Brunet family, the venerable theater is still a place of grand escape. It’s also a touchstone to the past, a nostalgic throwback that offers moviegoers something absent from most multiplexes: a personal touch. If nothing else, the Prytania’s 1996 flirtation with extinction reminded New Orleanians of the jewel in their midst, as evidenced by a story told in 1997 by theater operator Alba Houston, as she remembered the Prytania’s re-opening weekend. “This lady came to the window, pushed a five dollar bill in and said, ‘I don’t want a ticket; I don’t like ‘The Godfather,'” Houston remembered. “‘But I live in the neighborhood and I just want you to know we’re glad it’s back.'”