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Commentary: Remembering the Santikos Bijou, a place for open eyes and open minds

Moviegoers at TPR's Cinema Tuesdays screening of "The Wizard of Oz" in 2014.
Sandra Trevino
Moviegoers at TPR's Cinema Tuesdays screening of "The Wizard of Oz" in 2014.

Before it closed on March 27, 2022, the last movie I saw at the Santikos Bijou was on March 20, when my wife and I went to see the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World.” The first time I saw a movie at the theater may have been in 1993, when I took a girl I liked to a free screening of Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth.” NOTE: Most viewers would not characterize Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth” as a very good date movie.

That is, unless your idea of a good date movie is something out of the ordinary, something that stimulates the mind and great conversation. In that case, the Bijou was the place in San Antonio to go for three and a half decades, under the ownership of Santikos, as well as Act III Theaters and Regal, which operated the Crossroads 6 for about a decade from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

The Crossroads theater was where I got my mind blown by a new film called “Pulp Fiction,” sitting in the second row with a craned neck as the picture’s massive logo floated upward onto the screen to Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” A few years later in 1998, I remember Warner Bros. celebrated its 75th anniversary by booking an entire week at the theater, devoting each day to a different decade. I saw “A Clockwork Orange,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Excorcist” all over the course of one Friday. Shockingly, the woman I brought along married me a few years later, and remains with me today (though she hasn't revisited any of those titles)!

Act III was bought by a New York-based investment company in 1998, and shortly thereafter rebranded its theaters under the Regal Cinemas banner. In 2001, Santikos acquired the Crossroads 6, and also launched an ambitious theater-building plan with the opening in 2003 of the Western-themed Silverado 16 at Bandera Road and 1604, and the Mayan Palace on I-35 South. That same year, Santikos announced the Crossroads 6 would be reopened as “The Bijou,” pioneering the in-theater dining concept in San Antonio. (Alamo Drafthouse had not yet expanded to the city of its namesake.)

Bijou Opening Story from 2003, by KABB

In 2004, Texas Public Radio moved its summer film series, Cinema Tuesdays, from the AMC Huebner Oaks to the Bijou. It made sense that this theater, adorned with classic movie posters like “King Kong” and “Casablanca,” and dedicated to art house fare, would be our new home. Over 16 summers, thousands of film fans were treated to the best in classic film, which in 2004 wasn’t otherwise showing anywhere else in town. TPR’s Cinema Tuesdays also showcased current films that hadn’t played in town, even at the Bijou, like the acclaimed Russian film “The Return,” the moving death row documentary “At the Death House Door,” or the Mexican thriller “Miss Bala.”

Some of my favorite memories of Cinema Tuesdays shows at the Bijou include:

  • Members of Houston’s famous Kashmere Stage Band surprising the audience with a Q&A following a screening of the documentary “Thunder Soul” in 2012.
  • The Playhouse cast of “The Wizard of Oz” and the Woodlawn Theater cast of “Mary Poppins” performing in-theater before screenings of those films.
  • Director Severo Pérez bringing his personal print of “…And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him” to a screening in 2006.
  • Actor Bob Hinkle visiting with us in 2011, explaining in person how he became friends with Paul Newman and James Dean, and choreographed the famous “hog scramble” scene in “Hud.”
  • Hosting a disco dance contest in 2016 with our screening of “Saturday Night Fever.”
    The "Godfather" cookie delighted scores of moviegoers at TPR's Cinema Tuesdays screening in 2010.
    Nathan Cone
    The "Godfather" cookie delighted scores of moviegoers at TPR's Cinema Tuesdays screening in 2010.
  • Moderating a thoughtful religious discussion with clergy after a 2016 screening of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a movie that sparked protests when it opened at the Crossroads 6 in 1988.
  • …and the all-time greatest, when Ted, head of food prep at the Bijou, made over 100 bloody horse-head shaped cookies to give out to attendees when we screened “The Godfather” in 2010.

So why did the Bijou close? Was it just the Netflixes and Amazon Primes of the world that killed the Bijou?
Streaming may have had an impact, but it wasn’t the only thing.

Consider that the Santikos Bijou was the last of the suburban mall-based theaters operating in San Antonio (*Rivercenter Mall's AMC is still operating). Even before the Bijou opened as Santikos’ art house, San Antonio’s older mall theaters, including those in North Star Mall, Ingram Park Mall, Windsor Park Mall, and Rolling Oaks Mall, had closed. Mall culture was already dying in the 1990s as shoppers flocked to outdoor shopping centers like Huebner Oaks. Its accompanying theater, then run by AMC, opened with 24 screens in 1997, and quickly became one of the hottest properties in the nation. As for the Wonderland/Crossroads/Wonderland of the Americas mall, longtime San Antonians will tell you it’s never been the same since Montgomery Ward closed in 2001.

Besides theater operations, John L. Santikos was heavily invested in the business of real estate. But Santikos didn’t own the Bijou; the company paid rent to the mall’s owners. Still, Mr. Santikos believed in the Bijou’s concept and kept the theater going despite what I can only imagine were meager box office receipts compared to larger locations like the Palladium. Even after John Santikos' death, his company continued investing in the theater, installing new seats, carpeting, and audio equipment in 2018. You can’t say Santikos didn’t believe in the Bijou.

When TPR screened its final film at the Bijou, a late 2019 one-shot of “The Thin Man” chosen by our CEO, Joyce Slocum, we had no idea what was lurking around the corner.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shuttering of all theaters in March, 2020, and while Santikos was able to safely open several of its newer locations that summer with enhanced safety protocols, the Bijou was one of the theaters that remained closed. When it did finally reopen in March 2021, the “art house” concept was gone in favor of just getting butts in seats with Marvel movies. But the same younger audience that flocked to see “Shang Chi,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and “F9” at larger theaters never quite took to the more intimate Bijou. And the traditionally older crowd that had patronized foreign and art house fare didn't return to theaters in the same numbers as their younger counterparts. A dead mall, a hesitant audience, and smaller films being readily available on streaming platforms all likely led to the theater’s closing, rather than a lack of available titles.

When John Santikos died in 2014, he willed his vast holdings to the San Antonio Area Foundation, and today Santikos Entertainment functions as a for-profit enterprise that exists to give back to the community through a non-profit distributor. It’s a lot like Newman’s Own—it says right there on the bottle, every time you buy that pasta sauce or salad dressing, “all profits to charity.” In order to fulfill their mission, Santikos has to sell tickets, popcorn and drinks. I don’t begrudge them for finding the best way to do so in a world still dealing with a pandemic, because it’s going to help our community in the long run.

Today, I’m glad that TPR’s Cinema Tuesdays series will still have a home at three Santikos locations this summer—the Northwest, Galaxy, and Palladium theaters. Santikos also plans to continue booking artsy fare at multiple theater locations, and even has plans to brand those shows as the “Bijou” series, which is a nice nod to a lovely jewel in the company’s history.

I look forward to seeing you at the movies.

Embedded video on this page from a 2003 report on the opening of the Bijou, provided courtesy KABB Fox 29.

CORRECTION: Essay amended 4/27/22 to reflect that AMC is still operating its theater in Rivercenter Mall.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.