Monday, June 29, 2020

Reel to Real Sequel with Mario Davila

by Javier R. Garcia

The last part of our discussion briefly introduced us to Brownsville’s main theater of its day, The Majestic built by Interstate Theaters in 1949 and Raul Davila who taught his son Mario how exhibit movies in the theater he grew up in.  What follows is a continuation of decades-old anecdotes through the wide eyes of a kid growing up in and around the theaters of yesteryear in Brownsville, Texas.  This part of the interview, which was split between our meeting at the Central library and later, a downtown restaurant, is not so much about the end of an era but rather, the start of a new after Mario reached adulthood and continued doing what he did best.
1949 August 17 opening of Majestic

When our conversation drifted to old westerns and James Stewart in How the West Was Won (1962) who, by the way, was also in the Stratton Story (1949) which was shown as the premiere movie for the Majestic Theater’s opening in August of 1949, Mario bought of this interesting tidbit:  When ABC Interstate Theaters was closing the downtown Majestic Theater in anticipation of its ‘new’ Northpark Cinema 1-2 which opened in May 1974 and had a much larger parking area, the manager proposed the idea of showing the Stratton Story as an homage to the long running downtown theater.  He made a call to the corporate office to ask if they could send the film for a showing at the closing of the Majestic but they couldn’t make it happen.  Instead, Gone With the Wind was shown when the Majestic reopened at the close of the year.
Brownsville Herald clippings courtesy of Rick Medina  last midnight show at Majestic

Mario also seems to recall that the Majestic was temporarily closed then reopened by a company based in Houston when it became a split theater with the balcony section being converted to a small theater.  It was soon after that the building was “gutted” out – never to be used as a theater again. 
 Majestic Mall gutted interior with remnants of beams 
Some of the thick steel beams were difficult to be cut and can still be seen today when you enter the building and look up toward the ceiling in the area that was the theater.  The steel beams appear to be embedded into the brick walls.  A theater such as Movies 10 was constructed with prefabricated walls.  The Majestic is such a decrepit looking thing of the past that it would be a shame to include a photo of what it appears as today. 
 Northpark Cinema
The Sting was the premiere movie for the Northpark which opened in May 1974 and in February, the Amigoland Theater had opened.  Cinema 1 & 2 manager Gus Gioldasis approached Mr Hawkins at Amigoland Cinema 1-2 to drop the “cinema” name in title since ABC Interstate Northpark Cinema 1-2 already carried that word but Mr Hawkins refused and that was that.  Assistant Manager Carmen Abete inherited the managerial position from Gus after he passed away in 1976.
Mario Davila with 3 platter system – the first to be used in any Brownsville, Texas theater 

Even with this advance in technology, if a film broke on this platter system, a long stringy tangled mess might end up on the floor if no one was in the booth to immediately stop the projector and remedy the situation and the time to rewind film back onto the platter(s) might consume hours.
There was another time when Raul Davila mentioned to Mario that Johnny Crawford of Rifleman fame made a visit to promote a film he starred in and made an appearance on the Majestic stage.  Mario didn’t believe it but it was true – his father Raul got to meet Crawford in person and shake his hand.
1965 0326
Rutledge Burger has been squeezed between the former Grande Theater and building next to it in a very narrow space since 1924.  Jack Rutledge’s Hamburger Stand was not so different back then.  A customer would approach the window at the entrance to place an order.  The grill, which is the original grill to be used since it opened and now at the rear of the establishment, was so close to the window that a person could singe their hand on it.  The same small tables and seats were there too.  As a boy, Mario recalled coming in to take a seat as Jack’s wife Hilda, would roll a ball of hamburger meat in her hands, slap it down on the grill and mash it into a flat patty with a “pallet.”  With one word she would ask, “cebolla?” to know if the customer wanted onions included, then take buns out of a large plastic can covered by a  lid, place the buns on a table and with a wooden stick dipped in mustard spread the condiment over the buns, add lettuce and tomato, flip the burger until it was cooked and then place it on the bun.  Salt and pepper were added before capping it off with the top bread.  To finish it off it was summarily wrapped in paper! 
If the Houston Astros were having a game, you could be assured that the hamburger stand would be tuned into KRGV 1290 AM.  It was common to place an order to go, carry the burgers in a small bag emitting the smell of grilled onions and enter the theater to eat them and enjoy a movie.  Jack and Hilda’s son Martin took over the famous burger stand until selling it in 1995 but the name and business still remain. 
1948 boys in bicycles in front of the Grande Theater – the blogger’s favorite burger order:  a double meat ‘n’ cheese with ham hamburger with jalapeno and downtown musician in front of the burger stand. 
Raul and Mario at Majestic and Mac’s Toys promotional display.  Photos courtesy of Mario Davila.

When these photos were taken Mario was too young to understand that he was only modeling for the photo and excitedly pointed out which trucks he wanted to take home that day.  Saturday matinees were sponsored by nearby Mac’s Toys to attract kids to the theater on weekends which were especially welcomed on during the summer where kids could enjoy a break from the heat.  Raul would invite Mario to watch Warner Brothers cartoons all day where he would watch from the booth where his father ran the projectors or the balcony which was opened when the theater had a high attendance for the day.
Mac’s Hobbie’s toy store.   There were other stores in the RGV.  Photos Don McFettridge.    
Lionel train sets and plastic model kits were as popular as Tonka Trucks etc etc.   Mario remembers his train engine had reverse function that could back up and “hook” train cars to it and let out a little steam when you poured a few drops of water into it.  Tracks also had switches to make train change tracks just like real ones do!  His father never got him the Tonka toys he had wished for that day as he had hoped.

Mario Davila at Movies 10 Brownsville, Texas

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bronsbil Estacion gets Reel to Real with Mario Davila

[unedited version]

By Javier Garcia

For many of us, movies were an escape from reality as a source of entertainment which, before they were invented, ook the form of plays performed by actors on a stage and to go even farther back in time, hand puppets or shadows cast on walls to tell a story.  What follows are stories told from the perspective of one who casts shadows on the walls; flickering images that alter scenes and set the tone for what follows from an interview which includes images from the Bronsbil Estacion digital archives.  Whether you were raised in historic Brownsville, Texas or not, the theater was a piece of Americana and we believe the reader will find a connection to the anecdotes to follow.
1946 March – Raul Davila in projector booth at Capitol Theater on E Levee St and 11th St. where he began working as a teenager when it first opened in 1928.

It was my privilege not only to have met with the source of these stories within stories but to have connected with others like him – some who are still with us and others who have long passed but who shared some of their memories from their personal photographs, some of which we’ll include here. 
1950s era postcard of E Elizabeth St and 10th in downtown Brownsville, Texas

I met Mario Davila about fifteen ago when I became interested in Brownsville’s earliest theaters in which his father Raul played a major role as a projectionist who became legend among his peers for his long experience and adaptive mechanic understanding of all the parts and components of film projectors which had to run smoothly to ensure the show went on.  That may be the topic for a prequel to this interview since Mario was able to share with us stories from an insider’s view of working the business of movie theaters at a local level. 

He was born in Brownsville, Texas in 1954 and raised in the theater business.  His father was Raul Davila who worked at Capitol Theater as a projectionist from an early age.  By 1949 Raul was present for the opening of the Majestic with Joe Trevino as treasurer and Carmen Abete as a cashier, the latter two being names well associated in the business. 
Cropped from 1949 August 17th special section of Brownsville Herald to announce opening of the Majestic Theater

By 1961, the age of 6 or 7, Mario would spend some weekend days with his mother and aunt seated in the balcony, while his father Raul worked behind them from the projection room.  As a side note, his aunt worked at the concession stand at the Wes-Mer Drive-in (on border of Weslaco and Mercedes, Texas) and was married to its manager, Lew Bray who was the district manager for Interstate’s Rio Grande Valley theaters.
1963 Photo courtesy of Joe Trevino.  Photo insets from 1949 August 17 Brownsville Herald special section.
On occasion, father would call to him to the “booth” and wrap three nickels and a few pennies in a paper napkin with instructions to get him a cup of coffee with cream and sugar across the street at Fisher’s Café.  He would make his way from the 2nd floor balcony down the stairway (past the rails he once got in trouble for sliding down), and wall murals of tropical settings, through the concession area and cross the street on E Elizabeth and 10th to enter Fisher’s Café and plant himself on a stool at the counter where a waitress would ask him, “What can I get you honey?”  Then she would pour the coffee to go, add cream and sugar, seal the cup and take the napkin with the money and hand him a receipt while the smell of lemon merengue pie filled his nostrils as he looked through the glass case they were displayed in.  If only his father had thought to add a little extra change he would have enjoyed some of that deliciousness.
A “Pat” Rogers photo from original negative film.  The restaurant was open 24-7 and later owned by the Del Kuebke family.
Cropped image from a 1952 A Rogers photo believed to include longtime employee Ninfa Cavasos.

He remembered being terrified while watching the famous Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho (YEAR).  Other movies he especially enjoyed as a child were Jumbo (YEAR) featuring the comedic actor Jimmy Durante along with many war movies and westerns.  By 1965, at the age of 10-11, his father trained him basic operations such as how to reel movies at the bottom of the projector (where the sound-head makes contact with the sound track embedded on the reel).  Once the movie was ready to begin his father let him pull the switch to activate the opening of the curtain to reveal the screen.  Later he learned to prepare the carbon lamps (installing a carbon rod which burned extremely hot and bright in mirrored chamber to light image on film and project it onto the screen). 
Collage of wall murals, terrazzo floor, stairway, neon sign and newsprint logos. 
The first time he ran a show on his own was at the Majestic.  The film was “Viva Max!” (1969), a comedy starring Peter Ustinov which was a midnight showing.  He can recall this because it was New Year ’s Eve 1968 and at 12 AM everyone in the theater began shouting “Happy New Year!”  The film ended at 1:45 AM.  At the time, Mario was living near the Cameron County courthouse on E Madison St.  Without a car or a bicycle for that matter, he had to walk home alone that night.  For any teen walking the streets of a poorly lit downtown at 2 in the morning, it would have been a harrowing experience.
From promotional brochure courtesy of Joe Trevino.
One midnight the Majestic screened FM (YEAR) and Mario was sitting in his chair too close to the projector.  He bumped into the film reel which misaligned it and caused the film to be split in half (incidents like these were common back then but in the digitized era it no longer occurs).  Mario had to quickly open the sprocket to correct the error but some film was damaged which caused him to panic and worry about what kind of penalties might be incurred against the theater by the film distributor which he also feared might cost him his job.  However, to his relief, no complaint ever reached the theater long after shipping the reels out.  Inspection of reels were done when they were received to check for any damage and to make any repairs that were needed before exhibiting them.  This reduced the risk of shows being interrupted.  For example, the reels would be put on projector and fed onto another.  A projectionist simply placed his fingers along the edges of the film to feel for “nicks” or very small tears in film that had to be visually inspected.  Film would be “spliced,” that is, a small section of film frames would be cut out of the real and glued back together.  A small section of dissected film was hardly noticeable on playback but if the same section of film was re-spliced then it would affect the continuity of the scene.
1969  Eddie Abete III inspecting film to feel for any nicks that might cause film to split so he can make any repairs before screening at El Charro Drive In on Boca Chica Blvd.  The Abete family also played a significant role in theater exhibition since the 1940s which lasted 30 years to include the Majestic Theater, Grande Theater, Fiesta Drive-in (renamed Ruenes Drive In) and Charro Drive In.  Photo courtesy Eddie Abete III.

When Pink Floyd’s The Wall (YEAR) was released Mario was there to screen that too!  Another famous rock film he screen was The Song Remains the Same (YEAR), Woodstock (1969), and horror flicks such as Friday the 13th.  The last midnight show he remembers playing was The Rocky Horror Picture Show (YEAR) and when the lights came on there was talcum powder, popcorn, coke and butter stains, all over the theater!  Some people might have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol which had been consumed in the parking lot before entering the theater.  One guy had the audacity to urinate out in the lobby as movie goers were exiting the show.  A burly Kevin Krieger [sp?] who was the manager at the time, grabbed the man by the shoulders, opened the door and tossed him out of the sidewalk. 
1963 Palmetto Brownsville High School yearbook photo
Another time, Ruben, a police officer Ruben who was working as a security guard that night when two guys got into a fight, got between them to break it up.  One of the guys connected a wound-up punch on  Ruben’s face who, unfazed and in control of his temperament, simply took him outside to deal with him.  

There was also one hot and breezy summer day Mario recalls when he and his father were in the parking lot (behind the Majestic) and noticed a foul odor in the area which was later discovered to be the dead body of the owner of a nearby bar.   A crowd of people had gathered as the body was being removed and caught a whiff the smell of death which was so strong they gagged in unison.  One of them was a taxi driver who ran into the Majestic to vomit in the restroom. 

Davila, or “Mr. D” as he would later be affectingly called by his underlings years later, was officially hired after he graduated from high school in 1973, a year before Amigoland and Northpark Cinemas opened.  When the Sunrise 1-3 opened (YEAR) he also worked there part-time but the total years he worked at Northpark totaled seventeen years until the Movies 10 opened in 1991 and was promoted as an assistant manager by the mid 1980s.  By 1990 he was transferred to Amigoland 1-2 as a manager until 1994 where he accepted the position as an assistant manager at Movies 10 where he stayed from then to the present (2019) before retiring.
2005 photo of Movies 10 Theater on 77/83 marquee covered in cloth material which had been changed from the original.  Photo by Javier Garcia

While the industry has modernized projection equipment (bright lamps are now used and prisms are used to refract light) the same principles still apply.  Also, as Davila explains, the lamp house is encased within another lamp housing.  Gloves are required to handle the glass bulbs not only to protect hands form heat but also to prevent contamination of glass which can explode if it becomes dirty from trace amounts of oily hands and can blind a person not wearing protective eye gear.  The bulbs cost about $600 each. 

In the early days, the biggest danger came from the mishandling of nitrate film which was highly combustible.  For a bit of irony, Mario said the skin on his father’s had been burned “white” and he asked him why.  His answer was that while he was working at the Capitol Theater, they screened “Dante’s Inferno” (YEAR) and the film broke.   A detached piece of film made contact with the heated lamp which ignited it like a fuse.  Raul tried to extinguish it with his hands but as the spinning reel unraveled more film it caught aflame in his hands, causing third-degree burns.  After he finally let go of it the rest of the reel lit aflame and was destroyed.  Such is the highly combustible nature of nitrate film which was the root cause of many theater fires and later replaced with “safety film.”  
Mario once tested the safety film in the 1970s.  He spliced a piece of nitrate film about four frames in length and held it over a bathroom sink and lit a match to it.  This was a young man satisfying his curiosity to see for himself how quickly the film caught fire, which it did, instantaneously!  He then tested a piece of “safety film” and noted that it did not ignite, therefore living up to its name.  Modernized projector rooms were designed to be enclosed areas to reduce amount of oxygen that could be consumed by a fire thus reducing ability of fire spreading throughout the theater.  For example, the porthole (opening for projector) was held open by a chain which could be pulled to cut off source of air in case a fire broke out in the projector room.  In Mario’s early experience, these were remnants of old industry standards as safety film had already been in use when he began operating projectors. 
c1950s – Sometimes the small stage at the Majestic was used for live presentations.  This appears to be a squad of junior high school cheerleaders.  Photo courtesy Joe Trevino.

Also old to the industry but still in use when he was an early teen and fortunate to have a single experience with, were carbon spotlights (which stood on a stand and were much heavier and brighter than what we are used to seeing today).  There was a band playing on the stage of the Majestic Theater and what was thrilling about the experience was that the spotlight had three lenses (red/blue/green) which could be placed over the lens to add colorful visual effects to the show.
During the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s the Majestic would present stage shows and midnight screenings of films.  Local rock bands could showcase their talent for a half-hour show as their peers filled the seats before a midnight matinee.  One show Mario recalled was Maddog and the Englishman [YEAR] featuring Joe Cocker and Monterrey Pop.
1975 - Hard Times was one of several local bands which made an appearance on the Majestic Theater stage.  Albert Abete 2nd from left.  Photo courtesy Albert Abete and Glenn Jackson.
The industry had utilized a magnetic format on film by this time to improve sound quality and the Majestic Theater was said to have had the best sound of any local theater of its time.  Other theaters such as The Charro Drive-in could play these films but the sound quality would not be as good since they might lack the latest technological modifications to their projectors or actually, the stereo magnetic sound system created in theaters could not be reproduced on mono-sound speakers which fit on car windows.  Drive-in theaters later converted to short-wave radio transmission so drivers could use their car radio to greatly improve the sound experience.  This also eliminated the need for speaker placement on car windows but they were still an option in case some older model vehicles lacked an FM radio.

Mario specifically remembered watching Woodstock, Dr Zhivago, Ice Station Zebra and Mary Poppins in which magnetic format was used.  Woodstock played for a whole week in 1969.  The sound quality was greatly enhanced as the technology continued to improve and theaters adapted to it or became bargain theaters.
From 1974 October 7 Box Office Magazine
By 1974 shopping centers and mall theaters across the United States began to replace the old downtown theaters which were smaller in size and required parking spaces without parking meters.  Interstate Theaters became ABC Interstate Inc and adapted to the growing changes by announcing that the Majestic would soon be closed but that another larger venue would replace it at the newly developed Northpark Plaza.  That is where we’ll continue in the next part which will include reminiscences by others about the 1980 production of Back Roads (1981) part of which was filmed in the Rio Grande Valley, downtown Brownsville, Texas and featured Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.  Mario will also relate his experiences with the famous Rutledge Burger and ever memorable Mac’s Toys with photos and more our local theaters! 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Del Mar Beach (Boca Chica Beach today) as pseudo 1930's advertisement

Aerial photo from the Les Mauldin Collection - courtesy of Junita Mauldin

 Miriam Wilde became a local media sensation 
READ about the Del Mar Beach Resort in this article by Allan Thomas!