The Last Night at the Media Center

by Robert Boyd July 2, 2021

All photos by Robert Boyd

The Media Center at Rice University has shown thousands of movies to generations of undergraduates and the general public. On Friday, June 4, it screened its last movie ever. I was there.

The crowd in the theater was not huge, and tended toward an older demographic. Some, like me, had once been students there. The first thing we were shown was a clip from 1971’s The Last Picture Show, in which Sonny and Duane watch the last movie ever to be shown in the sole movie theater in their small Texas town. In the movie, they watch Red River by Howard Hawks, and we see John Wayne issue his famous line, “Take ’em to Missouri, Matt!” I’m pretty sure I saw that movie for the first time at the Media Center in the ’80s, in Brian Huberman’s Film Form class. In The Last Picture Show, after the movie, the two young men say goodbye to the Miss Mosey, who owns the town’s theater. She says, “Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time. If Sam had lived, I believe we could have kept it going. I just didn’t have the know-how.” 

The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, was based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, who was a student at Rice and also taught there. It seemed an appropriate connection. In so many ways, this was the ideal way to start off the last night in this theater. 

The Media Center was founded 50 years ago. I won’t try to recite its history (which has been done very well by Peter Lucas in a pair of Glasstire articles). But I think it’s important to remind ourselves how weird the Media Center was. When the Menils had their falling out with St. Thomas and moved their educational operations temporarily over to Rice, they bequeathed two architecturally atypical sheds to the university. One was to be a small museum; the other was dedicated to photography and film. The buildings were at the edge of the campus — for a time they were a long way from any other Rice building (except the campus police station). Perhaps it was this distance that made the architectural otherness acceptable to the powers that be at Rice. They had the appearance of industrial buildings, as though filled with light manufacturing, or functioning as distribution centers.

They weren’t built to last, and they haven’t. In this way, it’s not a tragedy that the Media Center is being torn down on its 50th anniversary. It has lived a long and productive existence. (Its sister building, which housed the Rice Museum for many years and was affectionately called “the Art Barn,” was converted to housing the continuing education department in 1987, and finally torn down in 2014.)

On the Media Center’s last public evening, after The Last Picture Show clip was shown, film professor Brian Huberman got up to say a few  words. He has been working at Rice almost as long as the Media Center has existed — 46 years. He admitted that the Media Center building was “worn out.” He didn’t seem terribly bothered by its demise. Anyone who knows Huberman knows that he is obsessed with the Alamo. (Not so much the actual Alamo, but The Alamo, the 1960 film that stars John Wayne as Davy Crockett.) Perhaps he was thinking of the Alamo when he said, “Last stands are dangerous because there are rarely any survivors.” No one was making a last stand for the Media Center. People in the audience tended to be on the old side. I assume they were, like me, people who had spent some portion of their youth (and beyond) there.

The movie closing out the Media Center’s long history of film exhibition was Last Night At the Alamo (1983, directed by Eagle Pennell). It was filmed here in Houston, and Huberman was its cinematographer. The subject was a bunch of oil-field workers closing out the last night of a neighborhood bar called the Alamo. A last hurrah, not a last stand. But one of them, Cowboy, drunkenly dreams of holding off the bulldozers with a rifle. Fortunately, his alcohol-soaked fantasy of a heroic last stand fails to excite any of his fellow barflies. Mostly, it’s a bunch of old compadres and a few slumming yuppies spending an evening in a run-down bar, getting drunk there for the last time ever. 

The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring Huberman, Kim Henkel (who wrote the script), Sonny Karl Davis (who played Cowboy), and Tina Brawner (the movie’s associate producer). They told stories about how the movie got made, especially the location shooting. It was a real bar located on Harrisburg, across the street from a coffee roasting plant. It was a functioning bar when they shot Last Night at the Alamo, which meant they had to set up in the mornings, and have the bar ready to open for business by three in the afternoon every day. Appropriately enough, the bar was torn down years ago.

Sonny Karl Davis was the most amusing panelist. He told a story of how he had been in the Willie Nelson vehicle, Red Headed Stranger, in 1986, and heard at the cast party that they were looking for someone to play an Irish cowboy for the upcoming miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989). So he spent the entire party drunkenly speaking in a fake Irish brogue. (In the end, he did get a recurring role in Lonesome Dove, but not as one of the Irish brothers.) 

Huberman and his dog

The Media Center final programming extended to the next day with a closing party. As at the screening, there were a lot of us olds in attendance, as well as some faculty, including Huberman and his dog, photography professor Geoff Winningham, photography coordinator Shannon Duncan, and art professor Christopher Sperandio. I mentioned to Sperandio that it was astonishing that Huberman and Winningham, who had both been teachers of mine in the 1980s,  were still teaching. He pointed out that they were both already of retirement age when he was hired years ago. 

Christopher Sperandio and Shannon Duncan in front of drawings of the future art building

On the wall were plans of the new art building that would take the space that had been the location of the Media Center and the Art Barn. I was astonished that Rice was planning on replacing these two art buildings (as well as the art classrooms in Sewell Hall) with a new, purpose-built building. Rice has always seemed to treat the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts as the red-headed stepchild of academic disciplines. There were five drawings of the new building; at first glance, it looked fantastic — a giant shed-like building. It felt like a scaled-up version of the Media Center and the Art Barn. It reminded me of hearing James Surls talking about the original Lawndale at U.H., which he described as an indestructible building where the students could do anything. 

But on closer examination, I realized that the future art shed is, in fact, two triangle-shaped buildings with a corridor separating them. The shed-like structure would cover the top of the two buildings, and the corridor would be a driveway extending through the whole. This would be a completely unnecessary roadway, with the cutesy name “ArtStreet.” This plan permits Rice to build one of the two buildings while raising money for the second.

The new structure will sit right next to the (still-newish) Moody Center for the Arts, so I wondered if it was necessary. I asked Sperandio, and he pointed out that the art department didn’t control the Moody Center. I asked what department ran it (or if it was interdisciplinary), and he said the Moody Center ran itself. He told me the plan for the new art building includes a black box theater, which will be about 20 yards away from the black box theater inside the Moody Center. In my view, this is the kind of pointless duplication you can engage in when you have a $6.2 billion endowment. 

We discussed was what was happening to all the stuff in Media Center. Some of it was being moved to other locations on campus where the art department would temporarily reside. Some was being given away (Sperandio was bummed that some nice, large tables had been claimed before he got a crack at them). 

Taking down the Media Center’s screen

The movie screen was being given to the Orange Show. I came back to the Media Center a week later to help newly appointed Orange Show curator of programs, historian Pete Gershon, take down the old movie screen. The black walls of the movie theater had been tagged by staff and visitors: a portrait of a possum (the Media Center was said to be possum-infested); “SWAMP” (after the Southwest Alternate Media Project, which had a long-time relationship with the Media Center); “’Print the legend’ RIP Rice love Harry J.”; “BUILT AND DESTROYED BY PROJECTIONISTS”; and more. Many old Media Center habitués were present to take the screen down without damaging it — harder than it sounds. This portends exciting things for the Orange Show. For years it has had a tangential relationship with the Houston art community, but I suspect that, with Gershon and its new director, it will become a more central player in the years to come.

As for Rice’s department of Visual and Dramatic Arts? It has never been a major player compared to the University of Houston’s art department. Without the Menils around to finance it, I wonder if it ever will. But it should — university and community college art programs have been the lifeblood of local art scenes in Texas for generations, and there is no reason why Rice University shouldn’t be more prominent.

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