Texas’ Longest-Running Theater: A Throwback to Simpler Times

Last week, movie-goers in Clifton, Texas might have felt like they’d gone Back to the Future, jumping from the 21st century to a cotton farm in the 1930s, a lion hunt in the 1960s, or an East Texas funeral home in the early 1990s.

To be sure, no one actually traveled through time. But the historic Cliftex Theater took movie-goers on a trip nonetheless, showing movies that provided a glimpse of life in Texas through different eras as part of the theater’s centennial celebration.

Places in the Heart (set in the 1930s), Secondhand Lions (set in the 1960s), and Bernie (set in the 1990s) were each filmed in our state and tell a story unique to Texas, and all played on the big screen last week.

And there is no venue better to feature Texas-made films than the Cliftex Theater, which has just about seen it all since opening in 1916 playing black-and-white silent films. Once synchronized sound debuted in the late 1920s, the owners changed the theater’s name to ‘Cliftex Talkies’ to promote the new technology.

One hundred years later, the Cliftex Theater still operates in Clifton, Texas - population 3400 - four nights a week and claims the distinction of being the longest-running theater in the state.

Walking into the Cliftex Theater is a throwback to simpler times. The popcorn costs just $1.00 a bag, a relic that hungry, budget-conscious movie-goers can be thankful for. Many of the decorations still remain from the 1930s art deco period, including the individual wooden seats.

The seats may be a little less comfortable than modern theaters’ plush recliners, but patrons aren’t stuck in them for long. With another nod to the past, the Cliftex Theater still holds an intermission during each movie. And while the intermission is no longer needed to swap in the next 35mm reel of film, the sound system up until recently still played the classic “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” jingle to notify guests it was time to stretch and grab a snack.

Throughout its history, the Cliftex Theater has survived the ups and downs of a cyclical economy and waves of technological change. What keeps this local jewel going is its small town business model: the owners and employees know repeat-customers by name and movie preference, and they even announce customers’ biggest milestones – birthdays, anniversaries – to the audience so all can join in the celebration. The current co-owners, Phyllis Gamble and Mechelle Slaughter, even greets customers with a hug before they pass into the theater.

The Cliftex Theater’s centennial celebration began last week with the Texas throwback films, and also included a reunion of past Cliftex employees – many of whom got behind the counter to sell tickets once again. Cliftex has also designed souvenirs with a special centennial logo and commissioned a “100 Years” film chronicling the history of the storied theater.

Lucky for the Cliftex Theater, Texas has a long film history to celebrate. Happy birthday, Cliftex. Here’s to 100 more.


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