Austin Vintage Theater Tour: The Americana

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When the Paul Scharader/Bret Easton Ellis collaboration The Canyons was released last month, many were no doubt focusing on some of the more salacious elements from the film. Yet one of the more telling aspects, which went almost unnoticed, was the opening credit sequence comprising shots of old abandoned Los Angeles movie theaters. The sequence not only shows how the art of cinemagoing is in decline, but also how these elaborately built movie houses that once offered escape and wonder to audiences are now left in ruins.

In this series, I'll focus on similar cases here in Austin -- cinemas that thrived in their heyday until, for various reasons, they were forced to switch off their projectors and close their doors before being given a second life.

The first theater in the series is The Americana Theatre, which opened in 1965 in what was then a small neighborhood located just off of Burnet Road. The theater was built by Earl Podolnick, President of Trans-Texas Theaters Inc., in an effort to raise the community's local profile.

Along with his wife Lena, Earl went to great lengths to ensure The Americana was a theater rooted in luxury. Although commonplace today, the Americana offered state of the art sound and projection, selected rows with tables with which to set down refreshments and seats with built-in rockers; all features considered unique of movie theaters of the time. Additionally, The Americana offered what was known an "exotic ladies lounge" and a color TV waiting area.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," said longtime Austin resident Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer. "As a kid coming here back then, I remember it being a very central part of the community." Indeed, residents greatly responded to The Americana with lines forming around the block every weekend, regardless of what was playing at the one-screen theater.

For nearly two decades, The Americana presented the best that cinema of the time had to offer in terms of the movie-going experience and in terms of the films themselves, running the gamut from westerns to Star Wars, occasionally even holding special premiere screenings for such films as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

By the early 1980s, however, the writing was on the wall for The Americana, as attendance had begun to decline. At first, the change was noticeable but not worrisome. Many chalked it up to the launch of cable television. But when a conflict between AMC and Disney locked The Americana into a 18-week obligation to screen Annie, the cinema's days became numbered and the lights permanently shut down three years later.

The Americana's closing was in many ways a representation of the changing state of movies themselves during that time. When The Americana had first opened, Brando, Beatty and Fonda were in their prime and films that defined some of the most exciting times in American cinema such as Bonnie and Clyde, Network and Five Easy Pieces were thriving. By the 1980s, the films of the day had gotten by all accounts safer, a change which had its effects on audiences.

"Looking into the history, there were some really good movies in the 1970s," Rich-Wulfmeyer noted. "The quality definitely started to decline in the 80s. It was hard to get excited about something like Back to the Future."

After The Americana shut down in 1985, the building was turned over to Podolnick's son, who in the early 90s used the space for his rock band's rehearsal sessions. In 1993, however, a petition was started to re-open the Americana as the permanent home for the then-North Loop branch of the Austin Public Library. Following six years of petitioning and renovating, the changes were complete and the Americana officially began its new life as the Yarborough branch. Rich-Wulfmeyer is its current manager.

While the community has certainly embraced the building in its new form, the change has come with some compromise. Specifically, according to Rich-Wulfmeyer, it's the building's acoustics that have taken the most getting used to. "This building was constructed as a theater and the acoustics show it. Sometimes I can be shelving books at one end of the library and am able to hear what the librarians at the front desk are saying."

The Americana's Lobby circa 1992

But continuous patronage from the community and accolades from the city show that the Yarborough Branch has been a welcome addition to the area. And while the Americana may now be showcasing authors instead of movie stars, Rich-Wulfmeyer and her team are working to ensure that the original Americana's roots are far from forgotten by spearheading a project based on the building's legacy.

"The Austin History Center has materials there that are available publically for researchers and Yarborough will use these and other materials as the basis for a small exhibit on the history of the theater," said Rich-Wulfmeyer. "We also have plans to display about six reproduction posters of movies shown at the Americana."

The exhibit is roughly a year away from completion, but it will surely be a fitting tribute to a theater so beloved and ahead of its time.

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Frank Calvillo is an Austin Film Society apprentice.

[Photo credit: Vintage photos via bruin69 from cinematreasures.org; "APL" by Staci Meyers, found via Flickr and used under Creative Commons.]