Thirty years ago, I was working to finish my journalism degree during the day while working nights as the city editor of the Texas City Sun. At the time, I’d been working in newspapers since high school, but knew I had to get my bachelor’s degree to have a shot at advancement (and a salary that paid a living wage).
The schedule was onerous: Classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then work (if I was lucky) from 4 p.m. to midnight at a newspaper 40 miles from campus. It was 18 months of hell, and I looked for any shortcuts I could find.
Segue to my first (and only) photography class. The professor was an adjunct at University of Houston, a photographer who worked for the Houston Chronicle and picked up coursework for extra money. He surveyed the class and told us all that we had two assignments to get an “A.” The first was to get a single photograph published in a newspaper or magazine. The second was to develop a package of photos with a narrative and make it available to one of the local papers in the area.
Realizing I could finish the 18-week course in only a few days, I was quick to turn in a photo I had taken for a feature story. But the photo package with narrative presented a small, though not unsurmountable problem.
At the time, I was working on a series of stories about struggling downtown Texas City, which was fading into oblivion as development moved toward Interstate 45. The Sixth Street economy first was hit during the Arab oil embargo in the late 1970s and the opening of Mall of the Mainland that year did the downtown businesses no favors.
We had a staff photographer working on the Sixth Street package, so I wasn’t able to piggyback off that. But I did focus on one piece of the downtown downturn — the closed and decaying Showboat Theater — and combined it with a separate project: La Marque’s Bayou Drive-In that had been destroyed by Hurricane Alicia some seven years before.
I’ve always been fascinated by movies and the theaters that show them. The love of film comes from my dad’s side of the family. My interest in the architecture of movie houses and the different pieces of how the film business works was a natural outgrowth of that love.
As a child, I’d only seen a couple of movies at the Showboat, which closed at some point in the mid 1970s and tried to briefly — and unsuccessfully — open as an adult film house. As a teen, I spent most of my available nights at the Tradewinds Theatre, a two-screen “modern” building on 21st Street near the high school. I never worked there; instead, I watched movies constantly and begged for used posters from the theater’s manager.
I remember going to a couple of movies at the three-screen Bayou Drive-In, which at its height in the early 1970s could hold 1,500 cars on a huge plot of land off Interstate 45. Drive-ins started falling out of favor with the arrival of home video in the late 1970s and early 80s, so it made sense when the owners did not rebuild after the 1983 hurricane.
The Showboat was just around the corner from the Sun’s offices on 4th Avenue. At its peak, it was surrounded by local shops and department stores such as JC Penney, which for a long time had the only escalator in town. By the late 1980s, Penney’s had closed and moved out to the mall, and plans were underway to move the Sun’s offices out toward I-45 as well.
In many ways, The Showboat’s fate mirrors that of many single-screen theaters in towns across the U.S. Closed for more than two decades, the building was demolished in 2000.
Unlike many towns, however, the theater’s identity is still present. As part of a rejuvenation project for Sixth Street, it was replaced with a smaller replica of the original theater. The Showboat Pavilion, as it is known, hosts indoor and outdoor events.
When I went to visit my hometown briefly last fall, I took a couple of photos of the pavilion before leaving. That's the only color picture you’ll see here. Thirty years ago, we were just starting to experiment with color photos in newspapers; today it’s commonplace. What’s not common is for people to read on newsprint anymore.
I remember vividly trying to get permission to take photos inside The Showboat in 1989. A representative for the owners said I could go no further than the lobby due to liability concerns. Two doors had no glass and the lobby was trashed. A half torn poster of “Chinatown” from 15 years earlier was seen with film reels and discarded press kits on the tile floor.
Walking around the drive-in property was easier, but none of the screens remained and the main concession area had been gutted. The photos you see here — for larger versions, go to my Facebook page — are the best of what I got.
I wish I could tell you the obstacles from the owners prevented the photos from being better, but that would be an excuse I also thought about noting how I had one camera with one lens and one day to shoot, hoping against hope that I could convince my bosses to let me put the photos on the Lifestyle page.
They did, and I was able to leave the class soon after with my A. While that was a relief, in terms of my health/quality of life/miserably needy GPA, I left knowing I had given the class the short shrift. I rationalized that photography was not for me, given my lacking skills and general distaste for working with film in a darkroom.
But as anyone who reads this knows, photography has become my favorite creative outlet thanks to digital, even if my skills sometimes seem rudimentary.
So, skipping forward too many years and chapters, here we are, looking at negatives that were scanned that provide us with a glimpse of hometown history and a mea culpa from a one-time student who didn’t try hard enough.
A or no A, I wish I could get a do over so I could do this project justice. But that’s impossible, so I guess I’ll never know.