We Will Remember The Alamo

By  · Published on January 8th, 2013

A fledgling movie geek, still wet behind the ears and eyes, arrives in a town called Austin and heads to a movie theater he read about online. The first Alamo Drafthouse he ever visited was the location on South Lamar near downtown, a matinee screening of Hot Fuzz no less. The entire direction of his life was forever altered by the time the credits rolled and he paid his first check.

It’s true that my subsequent move to Austin was entirely motivated by a desire to be nearer the Alamo and to reap the benefits of the immersive and eclectic film education it offered. It was a bizarre gamble, one hard to explain to family and friends. “You want to move away from everything you know to be closer to a movie theater?” Their consternation was understandable because it sounds crazy, but to me the Alamo was never just a movie theater and could not be defined by brick and mortar. It was a haven for incurable cinephilia; a place where every real world distraction was stripped away to allow for full transportation by the images flickering on the screen. It was the gateway to an entirely different, and much needed, appreciation of film.

I was languishing in southern town with no film culture whatsoever and faced with the option of either returning home to a city that could do little more to nurture my passion, or strike out to this new place where I barely knew anyone and make a commitment to something I loved. Luckily, my incredible wife was instantly supportive and the most reckless thing I’ve ever done evolved into a new career, the strongest circle of friends I’ve ever known, and frankly a more enriched life. None of this would have been possible without that movie theater on South Lamar. But now it’s the bricks and mortar that are on my mind.

Right now, the whole shopping center where the Lamar Drafthouse was entrenched is being completely overhauled, and the quirky six-screen multiplex has shut its doors to prepare for massive renovations. It may seem strange to get sentimental over the temporary closing of a building that, upon completion of renovations six months later, will immediately reopen. However, there lingers an inescapable feeling that an important era is coming to a close. So as a last hurrah, as the last reel of celluloid rolls out in the South Lamar Drafthouse as we know it, it seemed fitting to pay homage to the history, the memories, and the impact of this outstanding cinematic temple.

The South Lamar location was opened in 2003 (with Dazed and Confused on the marquee). The fourth Alamo Drafthouse location began life as a supermarket; the terrazzo floor in the Alamo lobby remaining as a calling card of its mercantile roots. Little known fact, this humble little market was featured in a scene from Richard Linklater’s Slacker. This incorporation of Austin film history into its very foundation would prove fantastically apropos as the Alamo expanded. Alamo founder and CEO Tim League, a man who has become a hero to many a cinephile the world over, noted that the South Lamar location marked the first time he hadn’t been completely hands-on in the construction process.

“It was the very first one that we did not [renovate] by hand. Karrie and I did 409 Colorado together, and then we did The Village together, just the two of us. And then we had some other folks that were helping us. For South Lamar, we finally broke down and hired a general contractor. With my schedule and other priorities, I don’t build too much anymore. I do miss it. I did get back into it when we built The Ritz.”

In another life, the Drafthouse sold Cry-o-vac brisket as the grocery store in Slacker.

It was also the opening of the South Lamar location that ushered in a new legacy not only for The Alamo Drafthouse, but also for the Austin film community at large. South Lamar became the origin, the glorious spawning pit, of a weeklong celebration of genre film from all over the world that we have come to know as Fantastic Fest. This manic cinema scheme has, in its short lifespan, become one of the premiere genre film festivals in the world; a place where major studios are eager to premiere their latest wares. Mel Gibson, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, and The Wachowskis are just some of the many A-list filmmakers who have designated Fantastic Fest as the place to unveil their movies.

More than that, Fantastic Fest has become one of the most anticipated weeks of the year for the Drafthouse’s many loyal patrons as well as diehard movie geeks from around the planet. The motto for this hallowed annual event has become, “a film festival with all the boring parts cut out,” and nothing could be more apt. It is a place where there is as much enjoyment to be gleaned from the post-movie conversations with like-minded film fanatics as from the movies themselves.

“My favorite event was the first Fantastic Fest at the South Lamar,” said longtime Drafthouse fan Aaron Morgan, “at the time, I was depressed about the fact that the original Colorado Street Drafthouse was closing, and I wasn’t sure if another Alamo could ever hold those kinds of memories and feelings for me. By the time that Fantastic Fest was over, I realized the magic I felt and respect I had for the original Alamo was not so much about a building, it was about the soul of that theater which was in the form of Tim and Karrie League. It made me realize that no matter what happened to a building, as long as a League was there, it will always have Frosty’s magic hat to bring it to life.”

But how was this fantastical festival conceived? Where did it come from? Given that, “it was gifted to unworthy man by the film gods,” is an explanation that tends to draw dubious glances, it seemed more prudent to ask Tim.

“The genesis for the idea of Fantastic Fest came in 2001,” he remembers, “but I didn’t act on it until 2005 when I felt I had enough personal time to dedicate to it. I was inspired by what they were doing with the Sitges Film Festival in Spain; I went there on vacation and then got the idea to do something of that vein. It wasn’t until a couple of folks came to me and Harry [Knowles], and talk to us about it. One of those was Tim McCanlies, the writer of Iron Giant and director of Dancer, Texas. He was a regular at the theater. He proposed that we stop talking about and do it, and said that if it lost money in the first year that he would cover the losses. That’s how much he wanted it to happen. He didn’t end up having to cover any losses, but he was the one who gave us the kick in the pants to get it moving.”

Fantastic Fest has become such a major part of South Lamar’s identity that the renovation crew is working hard to meet its goal of having the new facility completed by the opening night of 2013’s festival. “That is the plan,” Tim revealed, “worst case scenario is that we move it to another venue, but it is really part of South Lamar and it would feel strange moving it elsewhere.”

Director Joe Swanberg raises his gloves in a Fantastic debate victory.

In 2005, just when we deluded ourselves into thinking the film-going experience at South Lamar could not get any better, a Salvation Army went out of business. As non sequitur as that thought couplet may seem, Tim League purchased that empty storefront and in its place wrought forth on this town something truly magnificent. A 60s themed bar/nightclub/restaurant called The Highball Lounge appeared like a frenzied mirage. Outfitted with the kind of decorum that would tickle Don Draper’s tenderest parts, The Highball became a centerpiece of Fantastic Fest, then an integral part of the Drafthouse’s extra special screenings, and finally one of Austin’s hottest nightspots.

“I think when we first designed South Lamar, we built a lobby to be far too small for our needs. It was always overflowing on Friday and Saturday nights,” Tim admitted, “we were looking for a remote lounge for the theater. When the Salvation Army left, we ended up renting it a few times for big parties. We did a casino night party, I think for one of the Bond movies. We did a vampire prom, I’m not sure what movie it was for, but it really worked. That shopping center just by its nature, the space was relatively cheap. We decided to lease it so we’d have access to a space like that to throw tangential parties for the theater. And certainly those parties became part of the identity of Fantastic Fest”

The number of fine specialty cocktails consumed, moves broken on the dance floor, and songs belted triumphantly in the private karaoke rooms has become too numerous to count since the lounge’s inception; partially due to the aforementioned cocktails. This was the place where we saw once-in-a-lifetime phenomena like Tim League, Elijah Wood, and The Rza karaoke singing The Blackeyed Peas. It was the place where I met personal idols like Roger Corman and Rick Baker. So if the shopping center is being torn down, what fate will befall this bastion of intoxicated geekery? Fear not, Highballers, our beloved lounge isn’t going anywhere. Well, actually it is going somewhere; moving closer in fact.

“It’ll be adjoining the theater,” League reminds us, “the space was designed with the fixtures we have. The look and feel will be the same. We’re carefully dismantling and storing all the stuff so that we can reassemble it once the space is back.”

The one casualty in this movie will be The Highball’s gorgeous antique bowling lanes. Pour out a little White Russian in honor of this fallen fixture. So what can we expect from the new Alamo South Lamar? Aside from the swanky new architecture, Tim gave us the inside scoop on some other new features.

“I kind of like the old, funky South Lamar shopping center, and I’m sure I’ll like the new one. But since the center is going to be shutting down, it is giving us the opportunity to make some changes. We’re adding a couple of screens, we’re making a bigger lobby, and we’re putting The Highball next to the Alamo, which will be more convenient. I think ultimately this will be a good thing, but I’m also happy with the way it is right now.”

Talking to a few of the Drafthouse’s erudite regular customers about their favorite South Lamar memories, it was clear my experience was anything but isolated:

“I saw Hamburger: The Motion Picture there. Their dorm beds were burgers. I said ‘I’m going to do that,’ and then I did. And the Internet liked it. I thanked the Drafthouse by wearing their shirt in my InTouch magazine photoshoot,” said Kayla Kromer, Craft Geek Extraordinaire and the creator of famed Hamburger Bed.

“In early 2012, I realized that I was coming up on my 1,000th Drafthouse screening since I’d started keeping track of them at the beginning of 2010,” mused uber faithful Drafthouse patron Neil Wilson, “there were a ton of great experiences in those 1,000 movies, but I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to see my all-time favorite movie on the big screen: Oldboy. When I inquired about renting the theater and getting some help tracking down a 35mm print, Tim quickly responded that they would make it happen for me, and on March 1st I got to see a near-pristine print of Oldboy in a theater full of friends and fellow film enthusiasts. It was even more magical than I could have hoped. I’ve spent countless hours at the South Lamar Drafthouse over the last several years and am very sad to see it go, but I’m already excited for the re-opening with even more screens and hopefully thousands movies to be seen and memories to be made.”

Carolee Mitchell relayed the story of one of South Lamar’s greatest film stunts: “We went to Drafthouse South Lamar to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on 35mm. I was thrilled, as that movie made a huge impact on me as a kid when I saw it with my family. The film began. The film broke. Tim went to “fix it.” Leonard Nimoy came on stage. I lost my mind. We were told that we are actually seeing the world premiere of the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Mind was further lost as we experienced a great film. This was just a glimpse into the constant surprises that we encountered at that theater.”

“A lot of [my favorite Lamar memories] are tied to Fantastic Fest, it’s the biggest party we throw each year,” offered Tim League himself, “just [a few weeks ago] Nacho Vigalondo, who premiered Timecrimes in 2007 and who has become a real part of the fest, just finished shooting his first English language feature. He wrote the script, and the script starts off at Fantastic Fest. So we recreated Fantastic Fest. The movie stars Elijah Wood, who is someone Nacho met at Fantastic Fest. It was just bizarre to see the festival captured in film from the perspective of a guy like Nacho who has been such a part of the festival. A strange tribute to South Lamar and Fantastic Fest.”

Recalling the time I witnessed a drunken Nacho powerbomb Elijah Wood onto a concrete floor covered in broken glass, I realized many of my favorite South Lamar memories also revolve around this wild Spanish Fantastic Fest mainstay.

It wasn’t until the closing night of the Alamo South Lamar that the full impact of its loss, in its current form that is, affected me. This was the building in which the decision was solidified in my mind to move to Austin. This is where I saw the first movie I ever reviewed online for any outlet. This is where I met nearly all of my friends, both in-town and visiting from afar. Sure, there will continue to be a location on that namesake boulevard, but there will never be another Alamo South Lamar like the one we know and love.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.