In my first semester as an English instructor at the University of New Orleans in the fall of 1979, I got an unexpected chance to teach our film-as-literature course. I'd been hired to teach writing, but our chair remembered my interest in film from our interview. When he needed to add another section of film, he was almost apologetic about burdening me with an extra preparation. Silly man.
Teaching that first film course provided me the credential in my second semester at UNO to land a spot on a WWNO radio talk show called On Film that followed All Things Considered on Friday evenings. Gary Esolen heard my commentary on WWNO and invited me to a meeting of writers in the fall of 1980. With Philip Carter's financial backing, Esolen was planning to start a weekly publication that ultimately was named Gambit, "a newspaper," the tagline went in those early days, "for a city that needs one."
I don't recall all the writers Esolen summoned that night, but I do remember his pitch. He was devoted to good writing, he said, and he wanted to build Gambit as an organ of good writers doing good work. Promoting that idea, the first issues featured an array of our names on the cover. Gambit struggled financially during most of the period it was led by Gary Esolen, who hasn't been associated with the paper in two decades, but I do think Gambit has delivered on Esolen's original commitment to good writing as its legion of journalism awards testifies. And central among my professional accomplishments, I am proud to have authored this column now for a quarter century.
Gambit published a "demonstration issue" in December of 1980. All the ads were given away, and all the writers worked for free. I wrote paragraph-long movie listings with 1-to-10 ratings. On Feb. 15, 1981, Gambit went into publication on a regular and continuing basis. My initial contribution as "Balcony Seats" critic was a review of Robert M. Young's One-Trick Pony, written by and starring Paul Simon. Nice little film. Following that first issue, I wrote a "Balcony Seats" column every week for 17 years, until I had an emergency appendectomy on the Tuesday after Labor Day in 1998. I tried to write a column that week, too, but my wife refused to bring my laptop to the hospital. I take considerable pride in having missed only that one deadline in 25 years.
At the beginning, we all wrote on typewriters, and Gambit employed full-time word processors to retype our copy into its one-machine computer system. I did listings on 5x8-inch notecards that I hand-edited every week. In 1984, Gambit outfitted its staff and regular columnists with dual floppy Kaypro computers that were then state-of-the-art and were completely obsolete and incompatible in only three years. At the beginning of the computer era and for a decade afterwards, we wrote our copy on 5-inch, then 3-inch disks and delivered the disks, along with required art, to our editors in person. By the late '90s, though, art was downloaded off the Web, and we filed copy via email attachment. In the last few years I have been able to file copy from all over the country and even from Europe. Such communication facility is entirely common now and hardly limited to the newspaper business. But for a guy who didn't even own an electric typewriter when I wrote my first "Balcony Seats" column, it still feels like a miracle.
Today we live in the age of stadium-seating megaplexes, the Palaces brought to New Orleans by Teddy Solomon and now run by AMC. I am able to see almost every movie I need to at either the Elmwood Palace or Canal Place. But when Gambit began publishing, the largest number of screens in one complex were housed in Kenner's Joy 8, and I sat in darkened movie theaters all over town. Several single-screen theaters were still in operation. The Aereon on Airline Drive and the Kenilworth in eastern New Orleans had already become second-run, discount houses, but the Sena Mall in Metairie continued to offer first-run pictures. With its giant screen, huge auditorium and ample parking, the Robert E. Lee in Lakeview was a particularly popular venue for such high-profile current releases as Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Right Stuff. Uptown, meanwhile, the Prytania had become the city's treasured repertory house, offering double features nightly of classic and foreign films and changing programs three days a week. Lots of Baby Boomer autodidacts availed themselves of a pretty good film education by devoting themselves to repeated evenings at the Prytania of the late 1970s and early '80s.
General Cinema was a major player in movie exhibition when Gambit first went into publication. GC operated the Robert E. Lee, five screens at two adjacent locations in the Lakeside Shopping Center, two screens at the Oakwood Mall and two more in the Gentilly Woods Shopping Center. All offered first-run programming, and I frequented all of them. I saw 48 Hours at the Gentilly Woods and Body Heat at Oakwood. In 1981, mall cinemas operated at Lake Forest Plaza and Aurora Village, and when several new malls, the Galleria, the Esplanade, the Belle Promenade, opened later in the '80s, they arrived with multiplex operations. Even the art-house chain Landmark, which then operated the Prytania, put its new four-screen complex into the high-rise mall at Canal Place. Eventually exhibitors decided that being near malls was perhaps even superior to being in them, affording movie patrons better access to parking and less-cramped traffic flow. The Eastlake opened up across the I-10 from Lake Forest Plaza and the United Artists built a multiplex across the street from the Esplanade.
But just as New Orleans sustained its own K&B drug stores and Time Saver convenience stores long after national chains predominated elsewhere, local exhibitors stood their ground well into Gambit's history. Joy Houck operated multiplexes in Kenner and on Airline Drive, giving ground slowly from first-run to discount "dollar" houses. The Lakeside Theater organization on Veterans Memorial Boulevard went toe-to-toe as a first-run house with GC in the mall across the street and AMC in the nearby Galleria until the Elmwood Palace put them all out of business in the late 1990s. Lakeside Theaters were a particular anomaly since they consisted of a duplex sandwiched between two single screens. This inconvenient setup required three concession stands and the additional staff to operate them. Meanwhile, New Orleans Original Daiquiris Company operated the twin cinemas in the Elmwood Mall for years. I was a particular fan of this duplex because its first showtimes were at 9:30 a.m. During the two decades that I was solely responsible for Gambit's movie listings and had to see an average of five movies a week, I loved being able to get started on a weekend morning well before noon.
As multi-channel television kept audiences at home and the historic economies of neighborhood movie houses made them difficult to sustain, some theaters tried alternative programming. The Pitt on Elysian Fields managed to survive the 1980s as first a repertory house and, after the rapid advent of the home video player made repertory obsolete, then as a discount operation. A duplex cinema operated for a decade at Uptown Square and brought the city some titles that otherwise wouldn't have played here. But management never settled on a consistent programming strategy, and the theaters' low ceiling and poor sight lines turned the beginning of every movie into a comedy of musical chairs as patrons switched seats in hopes of being able actually to see the screen.
A more lamented "failure" was mounted by Wennie Schultz, Ellis Fortinberry and others at Movie Pitchers on Bienville Street in Mid-City -- directly facing the paper's offices. Movie Pitchers parked its customers in tattered easy chairs and exhibited its films in four tiny, not always squeaky-clean, auditoria. But during the decade it survived, it brought the city an excellent lineup of films we wouldn't otherwise have had access to and gave additional life to titles that had opened at Canal Place. While it operated, my annual top-10 list always included Movie Pitchers titles, more than once in the top position.
A different kind of noble failure was staged by Rene Brunet, who now manages the Prytania. Brunet grew up in the movie-exhibition business and finally came to operate first the Downtown Joy and then the Loew's, two Canal Street landmarks that were among the dream palaces of his youth (mine too, actually). Both theaters were divided up and long past their prime by the time Brunet came to run them, but he fought valiantly to make them work. That they operated as movie theaters for as long as they did is a tribute to his tenacity and devotion.
In the '80s I saw several hundred films at the Joy and Loew's. I didn't teach classes on Fridays. But I did tape a week's worth of film reviews for the morning news show on WDSU, then located in the French Quarter on Royal Street. After I finished taping, I would stay downtown, catch back-to-back features at the Joy or the Loew's and then meet my wife, who practiced law in the CBD, for dinner at Galatoire's. Seemed a hectic way to spend my 30s. In these post-Katrina days of my 50s, it seems like the Golden Age.
- Over the years, the Prytania Theatre has assumed many identities including that of an arthouse cinema offering double features nightly of classic and foreign films and changing programs three days a week. Now, it remains the last of the neighborhood theaters in Orleans Parish still showing movies.