When I heard the owner of the Prytania Theater Rene Brunet passed this summer, I felt the ebbing of an era. The movie theater: the place that anchored neighborhoods and brought us together in our spare time.
In this memory, Brunet, then in his 80s, tells us about some of the motion pictures made and exhibited in New Orleans, beginning with the national headliner Intolerance (1916) and ending with the TV series Morgus the Magnificent in the 1950s. Along the way, Brunet touches on silent cinema production at Bayou St. John, the economic importance of cinemas in new neighborhoods, the transition from local to corporate cinema franchises in the city, and dangers of flammable celluloid.
This is a snippet of a longer interview I did in 2007 to learn about New Orleans film history. I am even struck today by Brunet’s eloquence, his sharp and vivid memories, and his sly humor. He also had my favorite New Orleans accent. Rest in Peace Rene.
RB: Intolerance was a very big picture. They wrote a score, a musical score, and they sent it with the film, depending on the film, for either the pianist or the organist, or, if the theater had an orchestra pit. So there’s some music from those way-back pictures, when the pictures were silent. Because that was the score that the organist or orchestra was playing. I know one, and I can’t think of it right now. But all of that came… Didn’t you mention the name Fitchenberg? Fitchenberg built several theaters on Canal street, downtown Canal street, you know, the area of St. Charles, around them, there were several people who built and were building theaters before the major circuits came in. The major was when Loews’ came in, Paramount came in, and Warner Brothers never did build theaters here. It was Paramount, Saenger, Loews, and Loews stayed. Paramount had other theaters…
VM: But before that, Fitchenberg was in competition with Josiah Pearce, was he not?
RB: Oh yes, yes he was. Fitchenberg…another name, Perez, Vic Perez. Perez called his theater the NoName Theater. Fitchenberg had several theaters, I think he had the Trianon and the Globe. However, this is way much later than the first production in New Orleans. Obviously I’m not real knowledgeable about the first production in New Orleans. Now the only place you haven’t mentioned, and I don’t know whether any pictures were made there, along Bayou St John, Moss Street is on the river side of the Bayou, but on the other side of the Bayou, there was a big park by the name of the Big Southern Park, which, evidently, when they stopped making movies, it was turned into res dev. The only distinctive thing…all of the streets that are where Great Southern Park was are named after presidents. There’s Taft, Wilson, Harding, anyhow.
VM: When was this? When was production happening there?
RB: The production was prior to the 20s. Production would have been in the aught years, or the teens.
VM: That’s interesting. I also found records that there was another group that was making educational films, called Harcol.
RB: Also, now wait, Educational made a great many subjects. I don’t know how many of them were made here. I think, well, I’m practically sure that they moved off to Hollywood, but…as late as my time, I started helping my father as a little kid. We did run where he would say this is an Educational picture, but Educational in the term of a noun, you know, that was the name of the company, not an adjective. If my father was living, he’d be rattling all this off, because it was in the infancy of the industry, and both parts of it, the theaters being built and the production, and production was needed, because back then, theaters was opening like weeds out of the ground. What was happening, the theaters were not big, nice, air-conditioned, anything. People would find a house they could buy cheap, and open a theater in the house.
VM: It sounds like a lot of speculation, then.
RB: Oh, it was! It was!
VM: If you open a theater in a brand new neighborhood, you could kind of develop the neighborhood, then.
RB: Oh, absolutely! And the theaters were always…the customers who came to the theater were always within one or two or three blocks of the theater. And that was the development of them. So, as soon as someone, including my father, realized “hey, we can open a theater here,” and they had a good number of people living within two or three blocks, it was successfully. The Harlequin, which was on Claiborne and Urseline, but the Imperial, which was on Hagen and almost Dumaine, had all of the people then living in the Bayou St John area. And that would get into the development of NO, how NO developed in the FQ and then of course uptown NO.
VM: But it makes sense, right, that some of the people involved in these old studios seems to have been involved in other kinds of real estate speculation. That would make sense, then, that you could actually draw people to a neighborhood by building a theater there.
RB: That’s right!
VM: And, of course, your home values go up.
RB: You see, this is twofold. What was happening in the neighborhood, in my time, the Imperial, which was on Hagan and Dumaine, the development around there, there was a grocery store at the corner on the far corner, there was a hardware store across the street. There was a clothes cleaning places across. I even remember, there was a bar room on the other corner. I’ll never forget that, it was called the Knows In. And a block away, a drug store on this corner, a notions store, another grocery…in other words, within 3 blocks of the theater, there were 3 or 4 grocery stores, a couple hardware stores, a couple of bar rooms, and a notions store, and a little ice cream store. Everything to draw people right there. Oh, I forgot: on the corner of Dumaine and Moss, next door to the house I was describing, there was another grocery store! I remember that! I would go around and see…in those days, I guess it’s gone. Dumaine street ramped up to the bridge across Bayou St John. The reason why it did that, there was a double streetcar line that came out dumaine and went as far as citypark ave. IT crossed the bridge across Bayou St John, which now I can remember that bridge. Naturally it had to have the rails and the electric wire for the streetcar to cross. That bridge is long gone ; it was a concrete bridge, not movable. Oh yeah, and that bridge was movable, it would turn! So the boats on Bayou St John could pass there and then go all the way to the end of the Bayou, which was almost at Canal st. When we talk about it, it makes me think about these things. If I remember correctly, it didn’t go up: it would pivot and would leave enough room on each side for a boat to pass!
RB: Now remember, that’s almost in front of that existing house that’s still there.
VM: There is a slope.
RB: A slope, that’s right. Because the bridge, evidently, was high enough to go over the water level in Bayou St John. It’s all coming back to me now. So, on the sidewalk, if the sidewalk didn’t slope up when it got ot the point and Moss Street, there were about 5 steps. You’d walk up the steps, and then you’d c ross. I remember something else. I don’t think they made any pictures of that. In Bayou St John, on the side away from Moss, there were a lot of House Boats. People lived in the boats! You know, the problem is, unless all of the film that was made then has been preserved, it’s all gone. And let me tell you the other problem, of which I’m knowledgable. All of the film then was on acetate film, which was highly inflammable.
VM: Very flammable?
RB: Ah, oh, oh yes. If the film caught fire, there was only one thing to do: run like hell. The theaters then were built, the projection room was solid concrete, concrete walls, floor and ceiling, and a fireproof door. And if something happened, everyone had to get out of the room, close the door, and the film would burn out. I didn’t mean to digress…so that film that film was very perishable. I’ve opened a can – not recently, because I wouldn’t have acetate film around…it would start a fire with spontaneous combustion.
VM: Oh? I thought that was a myth!
RB: Oh, oh, absolutely not. I remember one particular company, well, we used to ship all of the film, eventually, back to Hollywood. Because some of that early film they used actual silver, black and white film. And they would reclaim the silver. Anyhow, they had stored a lot of film in a 55 gallon drum. And one weekend that drum exploded. Ha! The fire dept got there and extinguished the fire, but absolutely. But the part you’re interested in: these cans of film, unless they were recopied or something done to save them…
VM: Yeah, none of them exist.
RB: I doubt that any of them still exist
VM: No, no they don’t.
RB: But, oh, there would be so many scenes of New Orleans! You see, for someone as old as me, to see these scenes of New Orleans, you know, way way way later, it’s now been preserved and being shown: Morgus the Magnificent. There’s a lot of good scenes of New Orleans in there. That was made in the 1950s. But that was made on the streets of New Orleans, and a lot of it in City Park at the old McFadden Home. When I was growing up, it was always called the McFadden home. It turns out I’m not in the picture, but I was almost in the picture, because a couple of friends of mine made the picture Jean-Marie Cabidoulin and Jules Verne [?]. And, you know…but anyhow. You see, I’m digressing.
VM: No, I’m fascinated!
RB: It had some great scenes of New Orleans. But what interested me , some of the ramps going up to the expressway, now they were using traffic going up and down, and all kinds of things that wouldn’t happen today. If you ever look at that old film, as a historian, it’s pretty bad. But if you look at it with curiosity to see all of the things that they did, and if we could only..