I hustled across Prytania Street toward the two-story brick theater on the corner of Prytania and Leontine. The historic Uptown gem was the only screen in the city playing the Oscar-nominated short films, and I was running a little later than I wanted — just three minutes ‘til showtime.
I jogged under the box office’s archway and snagged my ticket. When I walked through the glass doors into the lobby with the red velvet-looking carpet, it felt like I walked back into a previous decade. I managed to resist the lineup of classic candies — Raisinets, Reese’s Pieces, Sno-Caps — and the aroma of buttered popcorn triggered my salivary glands.
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The sound of an old-timey jingle rang from the Pryantia Theatre’s single screen as I pushed through another set of doors into the dimly-lit auditorium. “Let’s all go to the lobbbbbbbbyyyy to get ourselves a treat,” a cartoon popcorn sang. I pushed down my nostalgic red seat and regretted not getting said (sang?) popcorn.
Today, the Prytania Theatre is the oldest operating theater in the city. And it’s the only single-screen theater left in Louisiana. It’s a unique New Orleans experience, but turn back the clock deep into the 20th century, and you’ll find a city dotted with charming small movie theaters very similar to it.
But how did New Orleans develop such a strong network of theaters? And how did the Prytania become the last of its kind?
That’s what I wanted to figure out.
The World’s First Theater
Prytania may be the last of its kind, but it certainly wasn’t the first. In fact, the first movie theater in New Orleans is also considered the very first permanent, for-profit movie theater in the world!
In June 1896, a temporary exhibition in West End Park showed motion pictures — then an art form in its infant stages — on a large canvas screen. New Yorker William “Pop” Rock and his business partner, Walter Wainwright, used the technology to show films such as a scene of an elevated New York City train passing by, and *gasp* a controversial onscreen kiss.
One month later, because of the success of the temporary exhibition, the team converted an empty storefront at 623 Canal Street into a 400-seat theater, calling it “Vitascope Hall” after the Vitascope projector with which it showed its films.
Rock and Wainwright both profited from the endeavor, but shut the theater down a few months later — by October. They continued to schedule temporary exhibitions in town for another year before Rock sold the 600 films he had collected for “a lot of diamonds” and moved back to New York.
Still, New Orleans’ place in movie history was cemented. Its story, however, was just beginning.
NOLA Develops a Theater Culture
The Greenwall Theater (later the Palace Theater) opened its doors on the French Quarter corner of Iberville and Dauphine streets in 1903. The Arcade Theater catered to the Treme beginning in 1911. And The Coliseum opened for business in the Lower Garden District at 1233 Coliseum Street in 1914.
These are just a few of the more than 60 neighborhood theaters that served New Orleans beginning in the early 20th century and the decades that followed.
So, when Prytania Theatre was founded in 1914, it was part of a motion picture movement growing across the city and the world. The theater actually began as an outdoor venue, with customers receiving a literal rain check when it rained! But it wasn’t long before a roof was added.
The theater moved to its current location in 1927 — back when nearby Jefferson Avenue was still called Peters Avenue — and patrons recognized the space for its cozy elegance, calling it “The Little Saenger.”
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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.'”⠀ ⠀ This week, reporter Mike Scott looks back at the time The Prytania was saved from the wrecking ball for our 300 for 300 series. #300for300 @theprytania
In those early years, Prytania served as a venue for live theater, opera, and even as a space for the occasional fashion show. But, as motion pictures continue to gain popularity, most of the theaters transitioned to showing more and more movies.
Rene Brunet, who was a longtime owner/operator of the Prytania Theatre (as well as several other theaters around town), remembered another purpose theaters served. In an oral history interview, he told The Historic New Orleans Collection that “during World War II, people not only came for entertainment, they came to find out what was going on in the war because, of course, you didn’t have television then.”
At its heyday, nearly every neighborhood had a theater, similar to the purpose the Prytania served. But the premier movie houses — like the Orpheum, the Palace, the Loew’s State, and the Saenger — were downtown, near Canal Street.
The Prytania gained some notoriety when Ignatius J. Reilly nearly got himself kicked out of the theater in John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Confederacy of Dunces” — written in 1963, but not published until 1980. But, larger forces were at play, and after World War II, the decline of the neighborhood theater was in full effect. Suburban sprawl and the growing popularity of the automobile paved the way for drive-in movie theaters and, eventually, large suburban megaplexes.
Could the Prytania Be Saved?
One by one, theaters shuttered. Many of them can still be seen around town — long since repurposed.
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Over the decades, the Prytania survived fires, floods, and changed hands several times. At one point it was owned by United Artists, who sold it, in 1977, to Movies Inc, which merged with Landmark Theaters in 1982. Then, in 1996, Landmark decided the theater was no longer profitable and the building’s then-owner filed for a permit to have it torn down.
The date of demolition was set for Dec. 2, and equipment was brought on site to do the job. But, at the 11th hour, 29-year-old Chris Riley purchased the building, and 75-year-old Rene Brunet Jr. signed on to operate the theater. (A tragic series of personal events ended Riley’s role in the theater prematurely, but Brunet’s was just getting started.)
Brunet, who died in August 2017 at 95 years old, had been involved in the operation of movie theaters — the family business — since he was a young child. “For most of my life…” he wrote in his 2012 book, There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans, “I have found myself in a theater virtually every night.”
In 1921 — the year Brunet was born — his father built the Imperial Theatre at 814 Hagan Avenue in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. “The Imperial…was a family theater in every sense of the word,” he wrote, explaining that family members would be doing everything from greeting patrons to taking tickets, to selling concessions. When his father passed away, Brunet — just 25 years old — took over the business.
In the half-century between taking over the Imperial and saving the Prytania, Brunet and his family owned or operated nearly a dozen other neighborhood theaters, including the Carver, the Joy, and Loew’s State Palace Theater.
On April 18, 1997, he added the Prytania Theatre to the list when he reopened it with a 25th-anniversary edition of “The Godfather.” His role in its continued operation — welcoming patrons, providing context for the films in the classic movies series, and so much more — is something that made it so special to patrons.
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Today the building is owned by businessman John Gish, who purchased the building in 2003 and signed a 50-year lease with the Brunet family to keep the Prytania running deep into the 21st century and — according to Rene’s son Robert, who now leads the theater’s operation — well beyond that.
How did it happen that this one neighborhood theater has continued to survive when more than five dozen others in the city did not? Robert believes it has to do with knowing what movie-goers want to see.
And that makes sense. Prytania Theatre features a half-dozen shows each day. That includes blockbusters and popular independent films, as well as regular screenings of classic cinema and cult favorites.
Check out their schedule and catch a movie at this local gem — both a reminder of New Orleans’ cinematic past and a leader in her future.