A Requiem For The Dollar Theater

For many years I used to check the times for the North Oaks 6 in Houston, Texas. I’d see if the theater was still open every few months and I’d be happy it was. Then COVID-19 hit and every theater closed. Then the theaters reopened and it did not. It ceased operations in March 2020.

I think about this location as I’ve been in a deep dive into Houston’s movie listings. The dollar theaters of Houston were places I spent a lot of time as a kid. There was a period the Tomball one was one. There was the Jones Road theater where I saw All Dogs Go To Heaven and round 2 of DuckTales. North Oaks was my main one.

North Oaks was a place that was largely defined as the place my dad took us on our weekends. He was cheap so we saw a lot of movies there. Not often good ones. Sometimes movies I’d seen before. See even as a kid the dollar theater was defined by two tropes. Rewatches were the first. Movies that were less interesting to me but I wanted to see them were the second. That was how I saw The Mighty Ducks (very good) and White Fang 2 (not.) The last was the last film I saw there.

I remember the North Oaks vividly. Sure part of that is a click on Cinematour that showed me what it looked like in 2009, but it was the same 15 years later, just minus the AMC logo. I remember the way it was soaked in orange ;ight. The way the corridors were warm as I walked to my films. The position of the posters. I remember the films that went in those cases.

It wasn’t my last one though. There were two other very important ones in my life. This is more about them than the North Oaks 6 but that one? It’s still so important.

Before I get to them, what am I discussing? Dollar theaters were like many things, a bit misnamed. The cost was usually more than that but not much more. $4 might be the peak. The real money, like everywhere, was in popcorn which definitely wasn’t cheaper. Movies that played these theaters were normally on their second run. There were exceptions but any exception you find generally wasn’t a good film. Often these were films desperately scoring a release for contractual reason. The theaters were usually themselves seconds, having once been first runs.

The Market Street Cinema loomed large in my memory from 1995-1997. It was the theater by my dad’s apartment and I saw a lot of films there as a result. Most were actually second runs. If I wanted to go, I went because my dad wanted me to get out so he dropped me at the bigger theaters. But I did see a few first timers and honestly, they were almost all good. Jungle 2 Jungle? No. But The Associate is underrated and The Fifth Element is the classic it’s treated as.

The Market Street wouldn’t last very long as a dollar theater at least in my visits. It had an unexpected third life as an art house. So while I say The Fifth Element was the last film of that theater I saw, it was Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing in reality. They moved operations downtown a year later.

So we come to the dollar theater that’s the true, full subject of this. The Tandy 10. It was an outlier. It started and ended its life as a bargain house. It was first rate to the end. Nice seats. Nice projection. It never stopped being a beautiful miracle until the economics of it no longer made sense. Still it had 23 years. Not a bad run.

At least that’s my memory of it. In truth it was probably falling apart at the end. I’m sure the projectors weren’t in great shape. The cost of going fully digital, a necessity as film was moving digital, was probably impossible. The seats likely weren’t that great. The clientele wasn’t ideal. I know there was at least one lewd act while I was there.

But I can’t extricate the Tandy 10 from my memories of the time I was there. See, the theater was close to my apartment between 2008-2013. Maybe 5 minutes away on a bad night. It was cheap. So there were very few times I didn’t go when I felt like it. So when you factor in that I went a lot in college and a few times as a kid as well, I spent a good portion of my life inside those walls.

This theater of course maintained the two tropes. If it was something I liked, I went again hoping to recapture the fun, though no it didn’t often happen I admit. Shock of the new is a one time thing. The second trope though? It exploded. If I was vaguely interested and had time, I was there. I saw everything from Sunshine Cleaners to The Brothers Bloom there. Magic Mike played here for me. Sex Drive and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist were one glorious weekend. A documentary about LeBron James in high school? Why not! It was good too. Oh and Dredd! I finally had time for the incredible Dredd!

But those aren’t the fun ones to discuss. See, the dollar theater opened a new arena: Movies I knew would be bad so I could write reviews on them. The reviews are basically lost now but I firmly think I became a better writer because I forced myself to sit through films I dreaded. All About Steve was the first, dared by a friend, but I could just as easily point to choosing to endure Frank Miller’s insult to Will Eisner The Spirit. The Last Airbender. New Moon. The Clone Wars. The Box. Jonah Hex. I sat through a litany of duds.

And every so often one wasn’t a dud. I got that occasionally. I sat down for MacGruber with low expectations and got a darkly genius satire of toxic 80s action movies. I Am Number Four wasn’t conventionally good but it wasn’t boring. Punisher: War Zone kicked ass. Those were great times.

But here’s the thing. It didn’t matter why I was at the theater. Not the film. I was at the theater for another reason every time. To escape my mind. I wrestled with loneliness despite a decent social life and depression. On a weekend I could spend the night in my studio apartment or I could sit in a theater. You make the call.

Going to the dollar theater was almost always the safe space I had where I could get out and escape for a few hours and it was cheap. Oh if I wanted to see a new movie, I threw cash down. It didn’t hurt the bargain nights were on my night off. But I went to the dollar theater as much to insulate my mental illness as to watch a movie. Limitless isn’t on the list of films I’ve seen theatrically because it’s good. It’s because I needed out.

I left living near it in 2013. I moved in with my fiancee. I started going less and less. And in 2014, it closed. There was a new owner of the center. It made more sense to close it and bulldoze it. A Dick’s Sporting Goods sits there now.

But that’s not my last story. I went the week it closed. There are photos from the theater the last week it was open. Cinematour lacked interior photos. They got them. Even though the Tandy 10 is long gone, it is immortal thanks to these photos. And I get some credit. I took the only interior set here. I only have one credit on this site I love so much but it’s what it needed. Last thing I saw was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014. A not bad movie I had low hopes for. Perfect.

The dollar theater is gone. There may be a very few stragglers but it’s gone. The second run isn’t a thing when the theatrical window is 45 days at the most. Godzilla vs Kong was on simultaneous with streaming for a month after all, though I went IMAX. There’s no space for it when even the biggest hit in May is on video in August. That’s just the truth.

And it’s a loss. There used to be the time for these films to get second runs. There used to be a middle ground between streaming and first run. The dollar theater was the place movies felt a bit more ordinary but also wonderful. They were the place the experience wasn’t as obscenely expensive. I don’t think we’re better for losing this in favor of home access.

The North Oaks 6 is gone. It’s never forgotten.

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