Covid won this battle, but our memories live on
With the announcement this week of the shuttering of the only downtown location of the Alamo Drafthouse (along with bankruptcy and debt restructuring), lots of us are reeling from the news. The one thing it has done is created a tsunami of memories, flooding our minds from past experiences at this iconic venue.
We’ve asked several members of the Cinapse crew to reflect and remember, creating a document celebrating one of cinema’s crown jewels. Enjoy.
We’ve lost a lot during this COVID-19 era, some undoubtedly more than others. Here in Austin, the lockdown seems to have accelerated the gentrification that is sweeping through our fair city. The latest local treasure to close (permanently) is the Alamo Ritz. The only theater here that offers 70mm projection, allowing me to take in the spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, Inherent Vice, The Thing, Dunkirk, Poltergeist, The Hateful Eight, Phantom Thread, Aliens, The Master, Vertigo, and more, in the twelve years since moving here. The theater also marks where I found a true happy place with Terror Tuesday (formerly Thursday), a weekly rep screening of genre fare, drawn from a variety of eras and places, programmed by Joe Ziemba of AGFA (the American Genre Film Archive), and supported by a fine community of horror aficionados. I look forward to getting back together with them at our new home of Alamo South Lamar when normalcy returns.
Personal highlights that spring to mind start with January 2013, when the Ritz graciously helped me (as a local organizer) setup a special screening of Planet of the Apes to benefit the Austin Gorilla Run/Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund. That theater, full of raucous people in gorilla suits, many had been subjected to several rounds of 5K runs and subsequent afterparty adventures… well, ripe would be an understatement.
The Ritz perhaps peaked in 2012 with their celebrity event, the “Summer of ‘82”, which (rightly) proclaimed that year as having the best release of summer movies in history. Conan the Barbarian, The Road Warrior (granted at a local race track), Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., The Thing, and perhaps the standout, Rocky III. You may disagree, but if you did, you did not experience the tangible joy expressed and shared by 220 people in that theater as Rocky and Apollo ran along that beach together.
Parking to get there was a pain. The lines for the men’s room were always awful. The draft beer was usually under-carbonated. But some of my fondest film memories are tied to the Ritz. Some of the best friendships I have in town today were forged at the Ritz.
So long old friend.
My first experience at a Drafthouse proper was in Austin at the Ritz back in 2013. It was my first time flying down for Fantastic Fest–I’m from Philly–and I picked my flight based solely on the fact that it would land just in time to make a press screening of Machete Kills at the Ritz — a theater I had read about numerous times thanks to Aint-it-Cool back in the day. It was like walking on hallowed ground, that first time stepping in those doors and catching my first Alamo pre show, followed by a film by one of my favorite filmmakers from Austin. That experience was only made more magical by the fact that Robert Rodriguez picked up our food tab after the screening.
Reading about the closing of the Alamo Ritz devastated me just as it did every Austin cinephile. I immediately began thinking of all the cinematic experiences I had there, from hearing Paul Schrader talk about directing Lindsay Lohan in the bizarre drama The Canyons, to covering the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival every year. The one which sticks out the most is a special Sunday brunch screening of Grease 2 I attended back in 2019. As a lifelong stan of the film (I actually prefer it to the first one), I had endured years of ribbing from people when I told them of my love for the sequel. How liberating it was then to walk into the Ritz and see a packed house which sang in unison to every musical number as howls, cheers, laughs, applause, and sounds of glasses breaking never stopped. It was enough to rival a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film looked great on the big screen. Seeing Michelle Pfeiffer’s Stephanie sing about her “cool rider” as Maxwell Caulfield’s Michael pines over her from afar while that great 60s meets early-80’s soundtrack played on, was just as magical as it ever was. Beyond that, however, it was the feeling of belonging and community, of coming home, which the Ritz managed to give me every time I entered that made it so special. I shall truly miss it.
My strongest memories of the Drafthouse Ritz are going to see truly terrible films and drinking heavily. Their long-standing Weird Wednesdays and Terror Thursday segments, where they initially screened lesser-known exploitation films either for free or one dollar, were regular moviegoing staples for me just out of college. It is where I first saw HG Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, a Canadian Star Wars cash-in that starred Jack Palance and had virtually nothing to do with the HG Wells novel of the same name. I saw the Blaxploitation fever dream Abar, the First Black Superman, with an ending so ludicrous it caused the entire theater to erupt in laughter. I saw the gleefully gross Toys Are Not For Children, so tense that anything seemed like it could unfold next. All of these screenings and many more were among the more riotous film going experiences I have ever had, filled with people excited to enjoy schlock late into the night. It was the perfect environment for film nerds who were savvy enough to know they were enjoying garbage, but not too self-serious to allow themselves that pleasure.
I’m gonna be old guy at the show for a minute and say I remember a Ritz BEFORE the Alamo. Back around the turn of the millennium, it was a bar that would occasionally host screening. I saw a surfing doc, and some really bad experimental shorts. I moved away from Austin in 2002, and by the time I got back, the Alamo Ritz was in full effect, a fantastic use of a wonderful space.
Without a doubt, the Ritz was the best SXSW venue. It didn’t have the size of the Paramount, but it had prestige! That small theater was tiny, but if you got in, it was gold. I had my first Bob Byington experience with a showing of RSO: Registered Sex Offender, a comedy (I promise) with a more-than-slightly altered Kevin Corrigan in attendance.
In the big room, I both enjoyed and subjected myself to a Tom Cruise-a-thon, wherein I met one Ed Travis, Esq. for the very first time before writing for him on this site years later. (He even wrote about it here.) Having to sit through Far and Away was pretty brutal, but when tom broke out into that run of all runs, the audience went berserk. We may have been a little cooky by that time, but it was amazing.
I didn’t get down to the Ritz as often in recent years. Parking and the attendant chaos of 6th Street often made it a tough proposition especially compared to the easy of rolling into Mueller or South Lamar, but every time I went, it was great, and I’ll never forget that place.