1914. World War I began. The Panama Canal officially opened. Charlie Chaplin starred in his second film. And the Prytania Theater opened in Uptown New Orleans.
Robert Brunet, owner of the Prytania, shared those historical tidbits with local moviegoers gathered to celebrate the venerable neighborhood moviehouse's 100th birthday on Thursday, January 15th.
The theater began as an outdoor venue, where patrons literally received a "rain check" if it rained. Not long after opening, a roof was added. The Prytania survived a devastating fire in 1926 to become an exceedingly popular neighborhood theatre. Its small-scale elegance earned it the nickname "The Little Saenger."
Through the years, it morphed into a repertory theatre, then an art house, then its current incarnation. It survived another fire, a brief period where the building's ownership was in flux (it was saved by Chris Riley, then again by John & Gail Gish after Riley's death), and minor damage from Hurricane Katrina. The Brunet family currently has a 50-year lease with the Gishes.
"The theatre will go on as the Prytania long after we're gone," said Gail Gish.
At the 100th anniversary party, owner Rene Brunet, Jr., who will turn 94 this year, spoke about the history of the Prytania and thanked New Orleanians for their loyalty. "Tonight, I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said, paraphrasing Lou Gehrig's famous quote.
Attendees were treated to food, beverages, a documentary on the history of the Prytania (another film by local director Henry Griffin about the personal stories of the cinema's customers will premiere later this year), and an advance screening of Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated American Sniper.
A passage in Rene Brunet and Jack Stewart's 2012 book There's One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans reads: "In 2015, the Prytania Theater, the oldest operating theater in New Orleans, will celebrate it's 100th anniversary. Rene Brunet, Jr…is already making plans for the centennial celebration. He plans to be there."
He made it.