It was sad when the lights went down on the Brunson Theater for the last time; the end of an era, really. Its lifetime spanned over 30 years. And oh, what years they were!
That time is represented well in the film, “When the Lights Went Down.”
Thanks to Samantha Johnson, with the Lee College Library, I had the good fortune to view this film recently at Tucker Hall when they showed it once again for those who missed it at the grand re-opening in August.
The Brunson has now been partially restored and given new life, housing Baytown’s tourism offices and a small business start-up site. The exterior shines in all the splendor of its glory days. The lights have come back on to light up Texas Avenue.
One of those people featured in the film was Chris Warford, whose TSO store is on the corner near the theater, where his father operated the original TSO back in the day. Another was Russell Hamman, well known Baytown historian. He was instrumental in the moving and shaking for the Brunson to be restored.
Native son Bill Broyles was also in the film, recalling what the Brunson meant to him as a kid; how movies he saw there awakened a yearning for faraway places and the world beyond Baytown. He now stands tall in that world as a successful writer, responsible for creating “The Castaway,” “Apollo 13” and many others, securing his place as an A-list Hollywood screenwriter.
Afterward, there was a panel discussion with Richard King, writer and producer of the film; Kenneth Benitez, director; Scott Carpenter, fan and champion of old movie theaters; Russell Hamman, Baytown historian; and Anna Yowell, tourism coordinator for the city of Baytown. They all discussed the making of the film; how the idea came about, the difficulties they encountered and then fielded questions from the audience.
It was a huge hit of nostalgia for me, since the Brunson was part of my life growing up in Baytown. I loved the Saturday morning kiddie shows as a child.
Then in junior high, when we couldn’t drive on dates yet, we could meet our special sweethearts there. It marked the beginning of the boy/girl rituals when the guy would yawn and stretch and then somehow his arm would end up on the girl’s seatback and then onto her shoulder. Or that moment when he summoned enough courage to cross the chasm and hold the girl’s hand while her breath caught in her throat at that first tender touch.
In high school, the Brunson was THE place to go on a date, and the touching was not as tentative anymore, but done with the surety of experience now. We never came in at the beginning of the movie, but rather watched from the point we got there and then stayed and saw the beginning until it got to the part where we came in.
After the movie, a cruise down Texas Avenue was the order of things, ending at Trainers Drive Inn on Alexander Drive.
All these memories came flooding back as I watched the film.
You see, the Brunson Theater holds a part of our childhood. Those carefree golden days when life was still simple and uncomplicated. It represents a place of fun and good times, where sitting by your friends, you cried, screamed, or laughed together as one. When you left, life seemed a little lighter, not quite as boring, and a bigger, wider place than before. That is the gift that the Brunson Theater gave to us all.
A former longtime Baytown resident, Ginger Stripling now lives in Mont Belvieu. Contact her at email@example.com,
Attention: Ginger Stripling.