Rene Brunet Jr., the lifelong movie buff and New Orleans theater historian whose passion for film led him to purchase, restore and operate several of the city’s historic motion picture houses, including the Prytania, the city’s oldest theater, died Thursday. He was 95.
Arthur Hardy, who published Mr. Brunet's 2012 book, “There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans,” said Mr. Brunet would have turned 96 next week.
"He was a true pioneer, innovator and gentleman from another era," Hardy said. "I was honored that he considered me his friend."
In 1996, at the age of 75, Mr. Brunet purchased The Prytania, the only surviving single-screen movie theatre in Louisiana, which at the time was threatened with demolition. Under his ownership, the theater, which opened in 1914, flourished.
His son, granddaughters and other relatives help manage the theater, where the elder Brunet was a fixture well into his 90s, even taking tickets at the door. Always wearing a movie-themed tie, he also played a starring role in classic movie screenings, which he would introduce at the front of the theater, with trivia and history about that week’s motion picture.
Mr. Brunet worked in the local theater business for more than 70 years and became an expert on the history of the neighborhood “shows,” as New Orleanians are fond of calling their movie theaters. As Mr. Brunet would often point out, the city was home to the nation’s first movie house, VitaScope Hall, which opened in 1896 on Canal Street.
That was one of the historical tidbits Mr. Brunet included in the book he released in 2012 with co-author Jack Stewart and Hardy. The book, nearly two decades in the making, documents more than 100 neighborhood movie theaters from the golden age of picture shows in New Orleans, featuring pages of personal reminisces of the theaters drawing on the encyclopedic memory of Mr. Brunet himself.
Movie theaters were literally the family business for Mr. Brunet, whose father entered the theater business near the turn of the century. He opened his first theater in 1905 on Canal Street. Young Rene Jr. was just five years old when the era of “talking pictures” was born.
“For most of my...life, I have found myself in a theater virtually every night,” he wrote in the 2012 book. He recalled stacking popcorn boxes and soft drink containers as a young boy, before graduating to more important tasks at the Imperial, the Hagan Avenue theater that his father built in 1921 – the year Rene Jr. was born. “The Imperial…was a family theater in every sense of the word,” he wrote. He explained that his sister greeted patrons at the box office, his grandmother took tickets and an aunt sold concessions. “The little kid asking someone to read the subtitles (during a silent movie) was me!” Mr. Brunet wrote.
When his father died in 1946, Rene Jr., at age 25, became the owner and operating manager of the Imperial. Rene Jr., a Warren Easton High School graduate, dropped out of college to run the theater, which was destroyed by fire in 1957.
Other theaters Brunet managed over the years included the Carver, Clabon, Circle, Crown, Famous and Gallo. His Famous Theater, on Marigny Street at North Claiborne Avenue, is where he met his wife, Muriel, who worked the concession stand.
Mr. Brunet’s love for movies and movie theaters led him to save some of the theaters he frequented as a young boy and moviegoer. He and his family operated the Joy Theater (recently restored and reopened under different ownership) and Loew’s State Palace Theater on Canal Street in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
In recent years, under the Brunets’ ownership, the Prytania became a center of the local movie community, which blossomed in recent years as the movie production industry boomed. It became a headquarters for local film festivals and a haven for movie buffs with its classic movie and midnight movie series, as well as current feature films.
In 2009, The Prytania hosted a red carpet premiere of The Blind Side, benefiting Warren Easton High School, Mr. Brunet’s alma mater and the school which became a favorite cause of the film’s star, Sandra Bullock.
“Little did we know that in our presence that evening were two stars headed for the record books. Just months later, Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award and (Drew) Brees and his New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl,” Mr. Brunet wrote in his book.
Recognized throughout the industry as a lifelong movie buff and film historian, he was inducted into the motion picture industry group ShowEast's Hall of Fame and the Warren Easton Charter School Hall of Fame.
Though somewhat frail, Mr. Brunet was present at the reopening in 2013 of the Saenger on Canal Street, the landmark theater whose grand opening he attended as a six-year-old boy 86 years earlier.
Survivors include his wife, Muriel; five children and six grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending but his family said there are plans for a memorial service at the Prytania Theatre.