Feature: Austin Music + Film
Two lifetimes in Austin theater-going
by Dorothy Guerrero and Stephen Harrigan
Illustrations by Joy Gallagher
Stephen Harrigan and his daughter Dorothy Guerrero are two film-obsessed Austin writers who have been going to movies together for more than 30 years. Now they’ve found their dream theater: Alamo Drafthouse Mueller. Tribeza recently sent them to see “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and asked them to have a conversation about what makes a great movie theater, the most memorable movie experiences of their pasts, and whether popcorn is best eaten from a bag, a box, or a silver bowl.
DOROTHY GUERRERO: So, Dad, we’ve come to the Alamo Drafthouse at 2:45 p.m. on a Saturday in January to see “Jumanji.” Why are we here?
STEPHEN HARRIGAN: Uh, you invited me? Something about me deliriously posting on Facebook a few months ago that the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller was the greatest movie theater in the history of the world? OK, I’ve calmed down now — maybe the history of the world is a bit too much. But of all the movie theaters I’ve known and loved in Austin for the past half-century, this one is my favorite. It just feels right. And don’t you think that “Jumanji” is somehow the perfect father-daughter movie outing?
DG: That’s right, I remember now. Shouldn’t we take a moment to warn our readers that there could be important “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” spoilers ahead?
SH: Yes, but let’s watch the movie before we spoil it for our readership.
[Pause for 1 hour and 59 minutes.]
SH: Well, looks like they all died. But since they each had three lives they’re OK. The movie’s over, but do you mind if we just sit here for a minute? This is a great place to hang out even when nothing is on the screen.
DG: It’s cozier than a womb in here. And we need time to reflect. “Jumanji” was — I’m just going to say it — a brilliant film?
SH: Don’t be ashamed. I feel it too. And this could be The Rock’s — sorry, I still call Dwayne Johnson that — best performance ever. I’m convinced he really should be our next president.
DG: I prefer the formal “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.” What a time to be alive! It’s more likely than not that he’ll at least be our next Secretary of the Interior. So, tell me, why do you like this particular Alamo? I agree with you, but you are older, so you can list your reasons first.
SH: Well, you have to be in tune with the basic Alamo experience: i.e., food service and a little dose of hipster snark. But if you’re down with that, for starters there’s a broad, gleaming staircase leading up to all the auditoriums that makes you feel you’re headed someplace special. And don’t you like these reclining seats we’re in? The aisles between rows are wide, which means we don’t feel like we’re stuck in an airplane middle seat in coach. When I first started going to the Alamo, I didn’t like the fact that they served popcorn in silver bowls instead of the traditional boxes or paper bags. But I’m woke about that now.
DG: And you complained about the hunched-over waiters darting back and forth. Have you surrendered to the theater-restaurant hybrid?
SH: I guess so, sure. Still not totally convinced that actually eating dinner while watching a movie is a natural human thing to do, but I love not having to stress about whether waiting in line at the concession stand is going to cause me to miss the opening credits.
DG: I was on board from day one and never looked back. Now the idea of going to a regular theater without the promise of chardonnay and fried pickles makes me deeply uncomfortable. We weren’t even here for an official mealtime, but the second we walked in and the smell of personal pizzas hit my nostrils, I was famished.
SH: It’s pure Pavlovian manipulation, but that’s OK. And I may be wrong, but I think this is the first Alamo Drafthouse to have cup holders in addition to the little school desk tray in front of you. I also like the communal sense of being in a theater that seems to have been built for you and your tribe, that is sleek and forward-looking but also determined in its way to bring back the movie-going grandeur of our collective memory.
DG: Yeah, they had me at the seats. So supple and supportive. Plus, getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the show is so much more dignified than it used to be. Remember the original Alamo downtown, where you basically had to reverse pole-vault yourself under the table and into the aisle in front of you? No more!
SH: Yes, there was some Pilates skill required at the original Alamo. By the way, when I just said “our collective memory,” I forgot that we’re from different generations. I’m remembering one-screen movie palaces, but that was my childhood, not yours. You and your sisters are children of the multiplex. Do you remember your first movie experience?
I’m remembering one-screen movie places, but that was my childhood, not yours. You and your sisters are children of the multiplex.”
DG: Not the first, but I have very fond memories of Austin theaters. Remember the thundering cotton clouds on the ceiling at the original Arbor? How funny that they went to all that trouble. Also, I remember being completely wowed when our city got its first cinema with stadium seating! The Barton Creek Cinema brought that into our lives. I can’t believe we went so long without them.
SH: The old Arbor is now a Cheesecake Factory. Austin is haunted by the ghosts of abandoned or repurposed movie theaters. The Yarborough Branch Library on Hancock Drive is where the old Americana Theatre used to be — where I saw “Doctor Zhivago” in 1966! Do you remember when we used to take you to the Southwood Theatre on Ben White—back when Ben White was a mighty thoroughfare and not a feeder route for 290 and 71? That theater is now a laser tag place. And back then there was also still a drive-in on Ben White, the Southside Twin. We took you to see a jungle princess-warrior movie called “Sheena” there when you were three. We thought it was important that you experience other lands and cultures.
DG: I don’t remember, but I’m sure it seeped into my veins, so I thank you very much.
SH: I knew you would thank us one day. The sacrifices we made!
DG: Do you remember your first theater experience?
SH: The most indelible was seeing “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier” in Abilene at the Paramount Theatre in 1955 when I was seven years old. I was in Abilene recently and walked into the Paramount — which is still there — and I could remember the very seat where I watched Davy Crockett die. Was there a one-two punch of movie and theater that knocked you out when you were a kid?
DG: Yeah, remember when we had my birthday party at the theater at Northcross Mall? You and Mom took an entire class of third-graders to see “Home Alone.” I remember being so proud as y’all were wrangling children and taking dozens of popcorn and candy orders. I thought to myself, “Us Harrigans — we really are movie people.”
SH: Say it loud, say it proud. There was also the time we took you to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” — I think that was at the Northcross too — and there was a breathless moment after Large Marge’s eyeballs popped out of her head when I thought you would be traumatized and blame me forever. But you just erupted in laughter instead. Whew.
And, you know, life wasn’t always that easy for a movie person. When I was in college, Austin had like five or six movie screens — not theaters, but screens — for the whole city, and if a movie was really popular, it could hog one of them for three or four months. I developed this strange recurring dream that there was an “undiscovered” movie theater in Austin — somewhere around East 51st Street, I think. In the dream, I would be driving down the street and see its marquee all lit up and showing some new release I desperately wanted to see, but when I turned around to find it again, it wouldn’t be there. It was the movie theater equivalent of the Flying Dutchman. OK, they’re sweeping up. I guess we should go.
DG: My Netflix-sponsored children will never understand any of this. You might as well be talking about walking five miles in the snow to school…each way…barefoot…carrying buckets of coal. But back to Mueller, this view from the deck on the second floor really makes you think about Austin, doesn’t it? It seems like none of this was here a week ago. Even though we are grumpy old townies most of the time, I have to say, this is one spot in our pumped-up, sprawling city that doesn’t make me want to shake my fist at the sky. It makes me feel like it all might work out for the best.
SH: I agree. Every generation — yours or mine — carries around a cherished idea of what Austin once was or should still be. But a place like the Alamo Mueller somehow defies the laws of time and space and sucks you right into an exact, perfect world. Hey, just like in “Jumanji”!
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2018