Mike Miller, archivist and manager of the Austin History Center, has teamed with colleague Susan B. Rittereiser and the center’s staff to produce a lovely and useful small book, “Historic Movie Houses of Austin.”
Chapters cover the earliest informal theaters, including nickelodeons; the era of movie palaces; the Dallas-based Interstate Theater Circuit, which for decades controlled many of Austin’s movie spots; its local rival, Trans-Texas Theaters Inc.; the independents and the drive-ins; segregation and civil rights; and the inevitable “where are they now?” survey.
At a book signing, Miller confessed that his favorite image was taken at the Austin Theater, located at South Congress Avenue and Live Oak Street. It was one of three art deco movie theaters built by the Interstate chain during the 1930s. The other two are the Varsity and the State.
The Austin and the Varsity still stand with marquees, but have been repurposed as offices and shops, while the State was transformed with a stage into a live theater managed in tandem with the Paramount Theatre, which last year celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Back to the Austin Theater picture: Likely taken in the 1950s, it shows an audience of children, mostly Anglo, although those in the balcony could have been otherwise, since that was where minorities were often seated. They are wearing winter clothes, some with hats. A few overalls peek out from jackets. It is clearly one of those children’s matinees staged by many theaters, including the Paramount, especially on Saturdays.
But why are they there? Those Saturday bills included animation, live-action shorts, thrillers and adventure movies. Sometimes they came with a magician or comic. Could it be a birthday party?
If you are at or near retirement age — and you grew up in South Austin — you might be in this picture.
You can’t understand New Austin without delving into Old Austin. One digital avenue for that quest is Austin Found, a series of historical images of Austin and Texas published at statesman.com/austinfound. We’ll share samples here regularly.