The Original Alamo Drafthouse

almo2I have three favorite theaters in the world, which I refuse to rank in order of favorites. In no particular order, then, are the Tivoli, which is my home theater, and where I've had nearly every great experience with film in my entire life (especially in my formative years). Next is the National Film Theater in London, which is a government-funded reparatory house (!) that has incredibly comfortable seats, pristine picture and sound quality, and a great clientele and staff.

 

 

 

alamo

A topic that gets overlooked far too often in conversations among film nerds about their favorite films/directors/actors/whatever is what their favorite movie theaters are. Maybe this is because most people are relegated to seeing movies in their home city almost all of the time, and the choices for best theaters in any given city are generally agreed upon by that city's residents (my choices for St. Louis: Best Theater Overall – The Tivoli; Best Mainstream Theater – West Olive; Honorable Mention – Chase Park Plaza). For those of us who are ridiculously spoiled in the ways of the cinema, attending film festivals all over the world and whatnot, or for those who, like me, are sure to visit a theater or two anytime they are out of town (or some combination therein, where people travel to film festivals and can't keep away from seeing movies when out of town on nonmovie-related business), the question of the best movie theater or personal favorite movie theater is a much broader and more interesting question.

I have three favorite theaters in the world, which I refuse to rank in order of favorites. In no particular order, then, are the Tivoli, which is my home theater, and where I've had nearly every great experience with film in my entire life (especially in my formative years). Next is the National Film Theater in London, which is a government-funded reparatory house (!) that has incredibly comfortable seats, pristine picture and sound quality, and a great clientele and staff. Plus, they have a lot of neat little touches (for example, whenever possible, they get the original onesheet for whatever film(s) they are showing to display in the lobby, even if it means the poster is beat to hell and/or worth a ton of money), and have the worldwide cinematic power to get new prints of old, obscure movies, and things like that. The final of my three favorite theaters in the world is the original (downtown) Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately for moviegoers everywhere (especially me), the original Alamo is closing down for good in June.

I first went to the Alamo in March 2003, where it was one of the official venues for the South By Southwest Film Festival, which was the first non-St. Louis film festival that I covered for this publication. The first film I saw there was Bubba Ho-tep at midnight on the first night of the festival, and, while I didn't and don't particularly care for Bubba Ho-tep, that is the ideal situation to see a film at the Alamo in for the first time: full house, weird movie, midnight, filmmakers present. Austin's a great town with a real vein of artistically stimulating people living in it, and so when they are making noise during a movie, it can safely be assumed that it is noise that you want to hear. (I bet you didn't even realize that noise like that existed…)

Before each film starts, the projectionist shows old film trailers, or maybe an obscure kung fu movie or some weird music videos; pretty much whatever makes the most sense to show before whatever movie they are about to show. Also, before and throughout each movie, the Alamo has a full menu and wait staff with seat service, which seems like it would be the most annoying thing in the world to someone like me, who will never see a movie with someone who likes to eat popcorn, but in fact they have the logistics worked out to where the whole thing is not even remotely distracting, and is often very comforting to have around in my borderline-anorexic film festival regimen. Additionally, outside of film festival time, the Alamo often offers cuisine tailored to whatever films they are showing that night (for example, on April 4 they are showing Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and everyone in attendance gets all-you-can-eat White Castles).

While the crusty old theater ambience (it's actually only 10 years old), best clientele in the world, great food, and everything else helps, the thing that really makes the Alamo great is its programming. On the day I found out that they were closing, I went over to their website (originalalamo.com) to see what they were showing in their final months, and at that very moment they were showing two of the greatest midnight movies of all time, Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I almost cried at not being able to see those films there. The only time I've been to the Alamo outside of SXSW (which I attended in 2005 as well) was in June of 2005 for their Freaks & Geeks marathon, where they showed all 18 45-minute episodes of Freaks & Geeks back-to-back, and they even brought in Martin Starr (Bill), Dave Gruber Allen (Mr. Rosso), and Stephen Lea Sheppard (Harris), among others, for a Q&A. This 16 +/- session at the Alamo remains one of the favorite moviegoing experiences of my life, which is odd, as it didn't even involve seeing a movie. Plus, on the way out I grabbed their program for upcoming months, and couldn't help but notice that they were running Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, a film I tried to get into the St. Louis International Film Festival (unsuccessfully), and for which the programmers at the Toronto Film Festival (where it had its world premiere) received death threats. (To clear the record, it is a documentary about some teenagers who tortured a cat on film and called it "art" (they went to jail for it); the film does not take their side or show the footage of them killing the cat.) It's nice that some programmers still have the balls to show films like this.

While the original Alamo is closing for good, it isn't as bad as it sounds, as the owners, Tim and Karrie League, are working on rehabbing another old theater in Austin to take its place (the rent just got too high at the old location), and in the ten years since the opening of the original, they opened seven more around Texas (including three others in Austin alone). I've been to one of the other Alamos, the Alamo South, and can attest that they keep the feel intact; regardless, the original will be sorely missed. Although it is kind of hard to justify dropping a couple hundred dollars on a two- or three-day trip to see a movie or two, that is exactly what I hope to do before they shut their doors for good in June. | Pete Timmermann

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply