Last Picture Show Theater To Reopen

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ARCHER CITY, Texas (AP) — In this one-stoplight town immortalized in a 1971 Academy Award-winning film, a national icon is returning to the limelight.

Thirty-five years after the Royal Theater burned down, the front of the stone building — complete with a blue and white marquee, orange awnings and illuminated ``Royal'' sign — has been rebuilt to appear as it did in ``The Last Picture Show,'' based on a novel by Archer City native Larry McMurtry.

The site of the original 100-seat theater won't show movies but will be an open-air amphitheater with a larger room next door for bands, plays, dinner theater and art classes.

``This,'' said project coordinator Abby Abernathy, ``would have been simple to rebuild as a movie theater, but for what? To get 100 people in here?''

The renovated theater will be unveiled Thursday night, the 35th anniversary of the fire.

A fifth-generation resident, Abernathy, 38, bought the property in 1986. When his idea for a restaurant failed to get support, he convinced community leaders to restore the theater as a tourist attraction.

``The city was beginning to dry up, and we had to re-engineer,'' he said. ``Tourism is what we had to offer, because the pilgrimage to the theater was everlasting. People kept coming here for that.''

Filmed in black-and-white and hailed as a masterpiece, ``The Last Picture Show'' portrayed the breakdown of an unhappy fictional one-horse Texas town in the 1950s.

Abernathy initially received little support from locals, many of whom objected to the R-rated movie's sexual material and felt it denigrated their town.

But after working on the restoration for several years, Abernathy has apparently convinced many that their link to the past is key to the town's future.

``Now, even the biggest skeptics think it's a good idea,'' Abernathy said.

The theater actually burned before the movie was made. Still, hundreds of people each year have made the trek to find the Royal and snap pictures of the rubble.

McMurtry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for ``Lonesome Dove,'' and others in town are not surprised by lingering interest in the landmark thanks to the film, which was nominated for eight Oscars.

''`The Last Picture Show' had a lasting impression because it's representative of small-town America,'' he said. ``People with small-town backgrounds can relate to it.''

The Archer City of today is much like it was portrayed in the film, which was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starred Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman both won supporting actor Oscars.

Nearly 1,800 people live in this oil and ranching town in north-central Texas, about 25 miles south of Wichita Falls. The only traffic signal is a flashing light. The town has a few stores, banks, gas stations and one fast-food chain restaurant, Dairy Queen.

``I guess you could say not much has changed here since the 1950s,'' said Mazie Berend, who owns The General Store in the downtown square.

Berend remembers going to the theater as a child in the 1950s, when a movie cost 20 cents and popcorn cost a dime. She and her friends watched John Wayne and Elvis Presley films, often turning around to see who was necking in the balcony.

``Everybody went to the Royal because that's all there was to do,'' Berend said.

But that stopped when the theater caught fire one night in August 1965. What was left was a charred facade and pile of stones and rubble.

``People were upset because it was their childhood memories going up in smoke,'' Berend said.

The owners could not afford to rebuild, so the structure remained in ruins for decades.

Abernathy decided to donate the theater to the nonprofit Archer City Community Foundation, so grant money could be obtained. The foundation then bought the space next door to expand the theater.

For the past four years Abernathy has done most of the physical rebuilding himself. The final cost will be about $400,000 and profits from the renovated theater will go back into operating it.

``It's just a dream come true for this town,'' said Karla Powell, who owns a jewelry store and floral shop downtown. ``Small towns, if they don't have something to bring people in, then we're all in trouble.''


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