Some people enjoy just going to the movies, but not Rene Brunet. Owner of the Prytania Theater, Louisiana’s only single-screen movie theater and the oldest operating cinema in metro New Orleans, Brunet, 94, is more than simply a movie lover: he is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge.
The Prytania, located in the Uptown/Garden District, just west of New Orleans’ touristy French Quarter, sold its first ticket, according to Brunet, Christmas Day in 1914 by “a man who thought a neighborhood should have a picture show.” As Brunet said, the theater has weathered many obstacles and continues to operate a century later.
In the 1920s, a fire destroyed much of the building, which had to be rebuilt. A streetcar operator witnessed the building in flames, sounded an alarm, and roused neighbors. In the 30s, as Brunet explained, the Great Depression sparked the closing of numerous neighborhood movie theaters—but not the Prytania. In the 40s, the theater survived the unnamed 1947 hurricane, prior to the era in which such storms had designated names. In 1941, World War II commenced.“ It was a very tough time,” Brunet said,“ but this theater stayed open to entertain everyone. So many actors in Hollywood were drafted,” he added, “but movies kept being made and people kept being entertained.”
As much a local movie icon in the area as much as the theater itself, Brunet explained that his father started a theater called the Imperial in 1921. “My father was running theaters when I was born,” he said. “I started helping, and then when he died in 1946, I took over completely.” He has been affiliated with the Prytania, he said, for the past 50 years “on and off.” For the last 20 years, he has
been running the theater exclusively.
Brunet can recall the silent movie era. As a child, he would sit next to someone and request that person read the subtitles to him. The lobby of the Prytania, which he now leases and operates, attests to his love of movies. Along with a bookcase holding box sets and books of movie memorabilia, its walls are filled with historical photographs of movie theaters around New Orleans over the course of the 20th century, the subject of which, in collaboration with urbanologist Jack Stewart, helped Brunet produce a coffee table book called There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans.
Showcasing his love of film, Brunet presents his periodic movie series “Classics: A Nostalgic Kind of Theatre Experience.” Currently running is his Billy Wilder series, showcasing six classics from the award winning director, including ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ ‘The Apartment,’ ‘Double Indemnity,’ ‘Sabrina,’ ‘The Lost Weekend,’ and ‘Some Like It Hot.’ Brunet presides over his presentation of such classics with commentary preceding the commencement of the movie.
Prior to the showing of ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ Brunet elaborated to moviegoers from the aisle on some interesting facts regarding the film. Of Wilder, Brunet said, “he could direct anything.” He went on to describe how Wilder had to work around one famous scene in the movie, which features aging screenstar Norma Desmond—played by Gloria Swanson, and unsuccessful screenwriter Joe Gillis—played by William Holden, who becomes the unwanted object of her affection.
In the scene, a murder occurs, and a dead body is depicted face down in a swimming pool. However, at the time, there were no underwater cameras. Brunet explained that Wilder put “a giant mirror” on the bottom of the pool, and the camera focused on the mirror, so the image the audience sees comes via the camera focusing on the mirror.
The movie also features many real-life stars portraying themselves, including famed director Cecil B. DeMille and actor Buster Keaton. “You’ll notice,” Brunet said, “ that DeMille asks [Gloria] Swanson, ‘how are you, young fellow?’ That’s the way he referred to her in real life as well,” he added, “by calling her ‘young fellow.’”
Dressed in dapper fashion, Brunet greets patrons in suit and tie, a true showman of the theater. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the industry,” he said. “I have been to Hollywood at least a dozen times. I had an aunt and uncle who lived there, and I’d take the Sunset Limited train out there.”
Despite his love of classic film-making, he does show current-run movies as well and does not entirely discount what emerges from Hollywood today. However, he does believe, as he said, that some of the most “amazing” films, which remain unmatched, have already been made, including The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca. Overall, Brunet views the entire movie-going experience as a very democratic one. “The movies are the greatest form of entertainment for everyone,” he said. “Everyone goes to enjoy at a price that everyone can afford. I have always thought that the neighborhood movie theater is the greatest asset in entertainment. I still feel that way.”
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)