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Picture Fixture

Prytania Theatre Owner Rene Brunet on New Orleans' Lost Downtown Movie Theaters, Playing the Organ, and a Special Tie

Rene Brunet, owner of Uptown’s Prytania Theatre, is New Orleans’ most boyish 89-year-old. Since taking over the theater in 1992, Brunet has become a local institution, enthusiastically greeting moviegoers at the door with a smile, and one of his many movie-themed ties.


NoDef recently sat down with Brunet in his office for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on his lifelong love of movies, the era when New Orleans had nearly one hundred theaters, and the fate of movie theaters post-Katrina. His cramped office abutted the Prytania’s screening room, where a film was beginning as we sat down for the interview. Brunet, wearing a tan blazer and a tie featuring characters from Disney’s animated feature, “Hercules,” leaned back in his chair and spoke over the sound of the movie trailers.


NOLA Defender: How long have you been in the movie business?


Rene Brunet: Well, all I can tell you is, when I was born, in 1921, my father was running a motion picture theater. As a little kid, before I even had memory, I started going to the theater with my father and mother. I started doing things around the theater a little kid would do and grew up with the theater. And when I my father died in 1946, I took over the business.


NoDef: What theaters have you operated?


RB: I ran the theater my father built the year I was born - the Imperium in Mid-City. At that time, we also were taking over the Famous Theater [on the northern edge of the Marigny]. Shortly after that, the Circle, the Crown, the Claiborne, and the Joy downtown.


NoDef: When did you take over the Prytania?


RB: The Prytania is the (theater) that I have enjoyed the most because of what happened: a good friend, and my attorney at the time, he’d remarried and a friend of his wife needed someone to take over this neighborhood theater. So (his friend’s wife) said I know just the perfect man who knows how to run theaters in around 1992. I took over the running the theater and have been doing it ever since.


NoDef: You’re the last independently owned theater, right?


RB: Last of the independent single-screen theaters and the last single-screen theater in the city of New Orleans, and probably (the last of either) in the state of Louisiana. Things aren’t looking up for others, either. Yesterday, I received info that remodeling work on Saenger Theater has come to a halt. My sources tell me that financing fell through (Editor’s Note: Mayor Mitch approved financing this week so the project could move forward). The Saenger, when it opened in 1927, had 3,700 seats. Both a movie theater and a stage theater.  It remained a movie theater until single- screen theaters on Canal St. started closing. When Katrina struck, it suffered a devastating flood. Water was 15 feet deep, so for functional purposes, it was done.


NoDef: Was Katrina the final blow to the single-screen theaters?


RB: I’m amazed, a local artist sent this to me, just the other day. I guess when you’re in business long enough, your name gets out.


[Brunet picked up from his desk a framed picture of the Joy Theater’s deteriorating sign]


This makes me very sad because it was a beautiful sign. I operated that theater until 2003. The company I was operating was Delta Theatres, which leased the land and built the theater in 1948. We had a fifty year lease on the ground. The lease expired in 1998, and we couldn’t renew the lease. The people wouldn’t finance it, and sold the lease. It wasn’t prudent for me to remodel because the lease wasn’t renewed. That’s the story of the Joy Theater right now.


When Katrina hit simultaneously, the Lowe’s, the Joy, and the Orpheum were all flooded. Seriously flooded. All had big basements, and all had twelve to twenty feet of water.


NoDef: How did the storm affect you?


RB: We lived in Lakeview. We lost just about everything. My dearest possession: I played the organ. I used to play the pipe organ at the Saenger. Beautiful instrument.  I had a very nice electronic organ in my home. Playing the organ was my greatest source of relaxation after a stressful day.


But the organ I’d want to replace the one I lost, costs $25,000. I would love to have it. The organ is a versatile instrument. There are so many things you can do with it. As matter of fact, the one at the Sanger, it had just about everything on it: xylophone, bass drum. The organist had to accompany music in the appropriate moods. A western had horses galloping across the screen, and the organist tried to duplicate on the organ.


NoDef: Did you play the organ during films?


RB: Oh jeez, I started when I was about 14 years old. It was a hobby, not a job. I played the organ for a while – I hate to say professionally – but whenever a show came to town, I volunteered, because I liked it. Playing in the Sanger at night after the show, practicing in this great big theater, 4,000 seats, was like a scene out of a horror picture [laughs].


NoDef: How has the industry changed since you began?


RB: Something people don’t realize is that major studios were making a movie a week. 52 movies a year. All four theaters downtown were affiliated with a studio – MGM, Paramount, Columbia, Fox – and each theater would show a new picture from its studio every week. If you were a movie buff like me, you’d see all 52.


NoDef: Were more people going to the theater back then?


RB: Oh yes. The peak years for going to the movie theaters were the Depression years. Back then, after films were shown downtown for a week, the neighborhood theaters would pick them up. There were 75 to 80 theaters in New Orleans at one time. There was simply a greater supply of quality movies.


NoDef: Why has the business changed so drastically in the past 60 years?


RB: The government brought antitrust legislation against the major studios in the 40s. Originally, theater owners had invested in Hollywood, so the same companies owning theaters made the movies. You had a massive, efficient organization that could keep costs low across the board. It was easy to make 52 pictures a year financially. But when the production companies no longer owned the theaters, it was impossible to do that. Now a major studio might release 20 in a year.


NoDef: Do you see the Prytania as a throwback to that time?


RB: The wonderful thing about the neighborhood theater was that no matter where you lived, there was a theater within walking distance of home. At the Prytania, there’s no parking lot. People ask how can you not have a parking lot? The customers either walk, or they park on the street.


NoDef: So there’s an environmental reason?


RB: The problem with theaters now is that you have drive forever to get there. With our dependence on gas, it just makes things worse.


But also, at one time, the theater was a cultural center. You met your friends at the local neighborhood theaters growing up. That was the greatest punishment parents had: you did something to displease your parents, they wouldn’t let you go to the picture on the weekend.


NoDef: This happened to you, I take it?


RB: Maybe. A joke: a cheapskate tells his date he’ll meet her Saturday night -- at the concession stand. That way he doesn’t have to pay her way.


NoDef: Do you have any favorite movies?


RB: So many, so many. One is “Gone with the Wind.” “Casablanca,” a great movie. “Casablanca” dates back to the early 40s. “Sound of Music,” always a favorite, the music in it is so great. A Hitchcock I like is “North by Northwest.” When it comes to favorite movies, you almost have to branch off into what kind of movie.


NoDef: How many ties do you have?


RB: Oh, I don’t know, let’s say a hundred. My daughter had a custom tie made for me, that plays the [sings] “let’s all go the lobby” (jingle) when you touch it.


NoDef: Will the multiplexes crowd out the Prytania like they did the rest of the neighborhood theaters?


RB: No. Not as long as I have any say in it.


Rene Brunet introduces the films of the Prytania Theatre’s classic movie series. Films in the weekly series play Sunday and Wednesday at noon.

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