Houston’s Puttin’ On the Ritz!

The Majestic Metro Theater Is the Bee’s Knees!

By Ria Nicholas

Just a few days ago I went with Jim Zura to help video a musical performance (without audience) at Houston’s Majestic Metro Theater at 911 Preston Street. I’d never heard of the place before, let alone been there. What an unexpected surprise! It was vintage, so needless to say, I fell completely in love with the venue.

The Majestic Metro is Houston’s only theater, built before 1930, to survive to the present day. It opened as a movie theater under the name “the Ritz” on April 15, 1926 – the year my mother was born.

The Ritz / Majestic Metro: view from foyer toward the auditorium; photo by Ria Nicholas

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Curio cabinet with projector in foyer; photo by Ria Nicholas

By then people were beginning to relegate the horrors of WWI and the deadly Spanish flu pandemic to history, and no one had reason to anticipate the coming deprivations of the Great Depression. The Roaring Twenties was a decade of post-war euphoria, economic prosperity and general optimism. Consumers indulged in purchasing automobiles, electricity and radios.

On August 18, 1920, Congress had ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. ‘Flaming youth’ began testing sexual mores as they set out to live life to the fullest while they could.

“Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

– Lois Long (a/k/a “Lipstick”), columnist for The New Yorker

Movie stars Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino were the heartthrobs of the day.

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The first Academy Awards were still three years away, but the top grossing movie in 1926 was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ.” Perhaps it played at the Ritz.

(The movie title’s reference to Christ, so antithetical to the sensual graphics of the movie poster, aptly represents the moral tensions of the decade.)

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the number one best selling book was The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine. The number one song that year was Gene Austin’s “Bye Bye, Blackbird.”

Louise Brooks, American film actress and dancer

Meanwhile, women were saying “bye bye corsets and crinoline.” Flappers raised eyebrows by raising hemlines, dropping waistlines and bobbing their hair. Coco Chanel infused a touch of masculinity into her feminine fashion designs; think Marlene Dietrich. For the modern woman, cloche hats and simple dresses with ornate jewelry were the style of the day.

Men wore three-piece suits – often pinstriped or plaid – with wide lapels and cuffed trousers. Oxford shoes were common and hats were a must.

This was also the era of prohibition and bootlegging, of speakeasies and all that jazz! And, speaking of jazz, this was the decade when the young Louis Armstrong hit his stride, introducing a free form musical genre known as “scat.” The era was sensuous and raucous and socially experimental. It was an exciting time in America.

Unlike many other theaters of the time, the Ritz was a relatively intimate venue, with a seating capacity of only 1,260. You can see its affordable admission price (5 – 15¢) displayed above the entrance on the black and white photo near the top of this post.

View into auditorium; photo by Ria Nicholas

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Photo by Ria Nicholas

In 1930, the Ritz changed ownership from Stella and Lillian Scanlan to local theater man, Will Horwitz and was entered into an alliance with the Interstate Theatre chain.

In the 1940s, the theater began running Spanish language films. Its name changed to Teatro Ritz and then Cine Ritz.

In the 70s, the Ritz, then owned by Alvin Guggenheim, switched to exploitation – low budget films that exploit current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Guggenheim changed the name again, this time to Majestic Metro. The Ritz / Majestic Metro eventually closed its doors in 1984.

In 1985, businessman Gary Warwick purchased the building and put into motion its restoration. Today, this intimately elegant building in Houston’s downtown historic district serves as a special events venue. Its dance floor, banquet-style seating and state-of-the-art sound and light system make it ducky for receptions, parties and galas . . . or just hanging out to help with a video.

Bar stools in the back of the auditorium look out onto banquet-style tables. Photo by Ria Nicholas

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