The New Orleans film community lost one of its brightest stars last week with the passing of Rene Brunet, Jr. He was one of the last, if not the very last, of the movie theatre owner-operators who could rightfully claim title to being a "showman," an appellation Brunet would have enthusiastically endorsed. In a world where movie exhibition, at least the mass audience variety, has become almost the exclusive preserve of corporate types (lawyers, accountants, fund managers, etc., etc.), at a time when "show business" is all about the "business," Mr. Brunet was still about the "show" (though he had a keen nose for the business as well, as any distributor who was on the other side of one of his harangues can attest to).
While his story doesn't quite begin with "born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho" like Judy Garland (a fave of his), Brunet had show business---well, the movie theatre division---in his DNA at birth. He could tell you (at length) about the days of silent film, about how he played the organ in those halcyon days, and how moving pictures killed vaudeville. He lit up like a marquee when recalling the glory days of the movie theatre in New Orleans; he could recite the names of all the "naborhood theatres," which were legion in the day, as if chanting the litany of the saints: the Abalon, the Cortez, the Escorial, the Fox, the Peacock...and, of course, the Prytania which he and his son Robert have operated in recent times. He gloried in telling stories about running movie theatres throughout the years, such as how in the early days of talking pictures when the sound was on a cylinder separate from the film, a streetcar rumbling by would make the stylus slip, causing an uproar among the patrons as the picture went out of sync---much like a similar sequence in "Singin' in the Rain," his favorite movie of all time.
His passing was something of a poignant moment for me, poignant moments not being something I'm known for. When I was still a snotty nose kid back in the fifties, Mr. Brunet ran my neighborhood theatre, the Imperial, on Hagan Street. (An empty lot still stands where the theatre once was.) I would go to "the show" almost as often as the pictures changed. Most times, there would be Mr. Brunet in the lobby, with a wide toothy smile, extending his hand to incoming patrons, chatting with everyone, talking up the picture they were about to see, or how excited he was about some coming attraction---much like what he had been doing in recent years, in a somewhat muted form, at the Sunday and Wednesday classic movie screenings at The Prytania. Mr. Brunet was there when I got hooked on movies--- my dealer, the purveyor who arguably changed the direction of my life (gulp).
When news of Rene Brunet's death spread last week, it was the first time I could ever remember such a public as well as private expression of sadness for the passing of someone who had spent their professional life in the movie theatre business. So long, Mr. Brunet. We enjoyed the show.
Artistic Director Emeritus, New Orleans Film Society