By. Joey Walner
After Hurricane Katrina, Rene Brunet Jr., his son, Robert, and his granddaughters, Paige, Peyton, and Perrin, returned to New Orleans to do a deep cleaning of their family theatre. Due to the storm and its aftermath, no new movies were coming into New Orleans. When they opened the doors to first responders and firemen the theatre only had Wedding Crashers and The Brothers Grimm. Paige remembers her grandfather shaking hands as emergency responders remarked that the screenings helped to usher in a sense of normalcy.
The Prytania Theatre is a New Orleans’ anachronism. In a world of multiplex theatres in shopping malls showing only the latest, biggest box office draws, The Prytania is the last single screen theatre left in Louisiana. Paige remarks when you come inside, “you feel like you’re going back in time.”
The lobby is covered in deep red carpeting. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The walls are covered with sketches of classic movie stars and pictures of now defunct New Orleans’ theatres. A few articles are framed marking The Prytania “Best in New Orleans.” Inside, an old organ sits next to the screen. Before each movie a 1957 animation plays in which different snacks sing, “Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat.”
This month’s showings include movies from their French film series such as Godard’s Breathless. You can watch Sullivan’s Travels, or a certified Rene pick, Inherit the Wind. They are showing the entire Oscar nominated short films including animated, live-action, and documentary as well as a late night series of Wes Anderson movies. They will be showing midnight screenings of cult classics The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, along with current features like Phantom Thread.
Rene Brunet Jr. was born into the movie theatre business, his father opened up his first theatre on Canal Street in 1905, just three years after the first projected movies were shown to a paying audience. In 1921, the year Rene was born, his father built The Imperial Theatre. Rene writes in his 2012 book on neighborhood theatres, “The Imperial…was a family theater in every sense of the word,” He goes on to explain that his sister would run the box office, his grandmother collected tickets and an aunt sold snacks. “The little kid asking someone to read the subtitles (during a silent movie) was me!”
Over Rene’s lifetime (1921-2017) he operated more than nine theatres including The Prytania which he bought in 1996. The neighborhood theatre on Prytania Street celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014 with showings of Gone with the Wind and Cinema Paradiso. Rene writes in his book, “For most of my…life, I have found myself in a theater virtually every night.”
Later in life Rene handed over the operation of the Prytania to his son Robert, while his granddaughter Paige acts as manager. Though Rene stayed involved, he continued to choose which classic movies were shown at 10:00 a.m. every Sunday and Wednesday. He would stand next to the box office and collect tickets, introduce the movie, and during the showing he would sit in the back because of his oxygen tank. After the movie, he would have complimentary food and would engage patrons in a movie discussion.
There is a painting of Rene in the lobby of The Prytania, a gift from the property owner for his 90th birthday. Paige says, “I love that painting, that’s the way he always stood with his hand on his cane when he’d introduce a movie or take tickets. He was there every Sunday and Wednesday all the way up until he was in the hospital, two weeks before he passed. I think it kept him living as long as he did.” Before Rene died he left his family with a long list of his favorite movies to continue showing on Sundays and Wednesdays, each marked as a Rene pick.