Where there would normally be mid-morning traffic, more than 100 people milled around in the 3300 block of Lyons Avenue on Dec. 14 admiring the gleaming facade of the old theater.
This area once was a heartbeat of Houston’s Fifth Ward. After years of seeming stagnation and transition, it pulses with activity once again. Businesses are opening. Traffic is picking up. And at the center of it all is a fresh monument to the possibility of civic renewal: the DeLuxe Theater.
The DeLuxe opened in 1941 and for decades was more than just a movie house; it was an essential and popular neighborhood gathering place, an entertainment venue, a social hub where friends and neighbors collected, where a kid stole his first kiss. The theater then went into decline and nearly collapsed in on itself from neglect and disuse.
The Dec. 14 ribbon-cutting made it official: the DeLuxe is back in a big way. Instead of allowing the decaying building to be demolished, neighborhood supporters who saw the old building with historical perspective and understood its importance and place within the fabric of the community would not stand for its demolition.
A coalition of partners formed and a mix of grant and public funds gave rise to a reconstruction/resurrection project. More than $5.5 million went into it; what came out was a 5th Ward jewel, a LEED-certified facility that retained historical features of the old structure but resulted in a new space for a re-energized neighborhood.
Instead of focusing on movies, the DeLuxe now features a state-of-the art performance auditorium. The adjoining 3,000-square-foot community hall for special events and programs will host educational programming and performances, arts programs, events and workshops sponsored by two of the major partners in the redevelopment project, Texas Southern University and the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation.
Alvin Colquitt said he understands the significance the project. He is Fifth Ward through and through, and remembers growing up in the area when Lyons Avenue popped with energy.
“Growing up here in the Fifth Ward, we had the opportunity to see all the stars: Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Little Richard (across the street at the old Club Matinee, no longer there),” he said.
The DeLuxe’s importance was magnified in the era of segregation.
“We had the DeLuxe when we didn’t have anything else,” Colquitt said. “We used to get in for a quarter. Yeah, this was the spot.
“This is the third time the DeLuxe has had a renaissance. It’s great to see community involvement. We wouldn’t miss (the new opening) for anything,” he said.
With the TSU Jazz Combo swinging before and after the ceremony, residents and civic leaders crowded the space in front of the theater to celebrate. Then-Mayor Annise Parker praised the accomplishment as a major step in renewing the neighborhood just a stone’s throw from downtown. U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, HCDD Director Neal Rackleff, and Dist. B City Councilman Jerry Davis also spoke of the enormous impact.
But the Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr., of Pleasant Hill Ministries and chairman of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 18, has a long personal history with the DeLuxe. In a way, Clemons has come full circle with it: as a youth he saw it in its vibrant heyday, admitting to getting his first kiss there, then witnessed its decline, and finally as founder of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Center and chairman of TIRZ 18 witnessed its resurrection.
Clemons said he hopes the theater will draw diverse crowds to its multi-faceted programming.
It’s off to a good start.