The Prytania Theater at 5339 Prytania Street was built in 1914, opened in December of that year, and was operated by Jacobs and Landry. On November 25, 1917, M. H. Jacobs announced the completion of a total modernization of the theater including a larger
seating capacity, roomier and more comfortable seats, and various modern appliances throughout. Nine years later, on November 22, 1926, at 12:40 A.M., Prytania streetcar motorman C. J. Sekinger saw the theater in flames, turned
in the alarm, and roused sleeping neighbors. The theater, valued at $15,000 sustained $10,000 in damages. On January 1, 1927, M. H. Jacobs stated that he had secured a new lease and would “rebuild the structure on a more elaborate
scale.” Elaborate improvements included a fancy new lobby with red velvet and polished brass, a new front façade, and a new $15,000 Hilgren-Lane unit orchestral organ. Final details progressed “under the capable direction of
Emile Weil, architect.”
On April 16, with Mrs. Mike Kalar at the organ, the theater opened with Upstage starring Norma Shearer. Other fare included the Hal Roach Our Gang comedy Ten Years Old, Pathe News, and a travelogue in natural color. Total cost of the new Prytania was
$100,000. Because of its beauty, patrons began calling the Prytania, the “Little Saenger.” However, as with all movie theaters, when talking pictures finally totally replaced silents, organ use and any stage activity ceased, except
for special occasions and rentals. Jacobs obtained or built other theaters including the Napoleon and the Poplar, and he also acquired other partners, and eventually merged his company nto United Theaters on June 6, 1930. United then
became the new owner of the Prytania.
After almost four decades of continued success, on January 28, 1968, United Theaters president C. prytania-theatre-at-nightClare Woods announced that United had chosen three of its most successful theaters—the Beacon, the Carrollton, and the Prytania—
for a complete makeover including new façades, new lobbies, and a new policy of booking first-run films, with a reopening set for April 15. Shortly before the Prytania was set to reopen the theater was gutted by a general alarm fire
which was noticed by a next-door neighbor at 6:25 P.M. on April 11, 1968. The fire department estimated the damage at $10,000. The construction was resumed and the theater finally reopened on Christmas Day 1968, with Skidoo, a Paramount
picture directed by Otto Preminger. The score was by Harry Nilsson and the cast included Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meridith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx as
a mob kingpin named “God.”
A little over five years later, on February 24, 1974, Patrick McNamara, director of the Energy Theater and the new lessee, outlined his program of live theater for the Prytania. Three years afterward, on January 17, 1977, Paul S. Richardson, the young
operations manager of Movies, Incorporated, announced that he would operate the Prytania starting on January 28, with a policy of double-bill programs, including overlooked new films and popular films that still had appeal.
Almost 20 years later, on October 1, 1996, Landmark Theater Corporation (Movies, Incorporated, had merged with Landmark in 1982) announced that it would be ceasing operation at the end of McNamara’s lease, citing poor profitability. With the expiration
of McNamara’s lease of 23 years, the owner of the land, William Ellis, gained control of the building. At the time, McNamara offered $50,000 for the land, but Ellis wanted $130,000, and McNamara declined.
A rush of offers to buy the land, including the theater, resulted in many phone calls to Ellis, with the first coming from retired Navy seal Chris Riley and the third coming from Rene Brunet Jr. On January 11, 1997, Riley announced that he had purchased
the land/theater package earlier that week for $130,000. On February 22 Rene Brunet Jr. signed a five-year lease with Riley. The theater reopened April 18 with the 25th anniversary release of The Godfather. Everything went very well
until the tragic death of Chris Riley and the hardship situation it caused for his mother. However, this fortunately ended in the purchase of the theater from Mrs. Gracia Riley by businessman John Gish on September 9, 2003, for $375,000.
Rene-brunet-StreetcarAfter completing the technological renovations that started in 2006, including new digital equipment acquired in 2008, Rene and his son Robert Brunet renegotiated their agreement with John Gish in 2010. They currently are operating
under a 50-year lease that extends to members of the Brunet family who wish to continue in the theater business.
The Prytania in 2012 is the only single-screen theater in Louisiana and the oldest operating cinema in the New Orleans metro area. The recently renovated theater just added a coffee shop and ice cream parlor, and the lobby features scores of photos of
New Orleans’s lost movie houses. It includes the latest state-of-the art equipment, including Sony Digital 4K Projection, Dolby Digital Sound and “Real D 3-D” systems. The Prytania enjoys special relationships with the citizens of
New Orleans who recognize it as a treasure. In May 2012, BoxOffice declared it “one of New Orleans cultural landmarks, a key venue for moviegoers and distributors.”
Rene Brunet’s generosity after Hurricane Katrina will never be forgotten as he offered free admission to first responders for several months after the August 2005 storm. The first movie shown was the premiere of the locally made film, Waiting.
In November 2009 Brunet donated the use of his theater for a benefit for his alma mater, Warren Easton High School. The event was a red carpet gala premier of The Blind Side. Hundreds of local notables, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees, were drawn
to the prytania-theatre-sandra-bullockinvitation-only affair. Rene said, “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
Brees and his New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. Rene, who left high school early to run the Imperial Theater after his father fell ill, was recently inducted into the Warren Easton Charter High School Hall of Fame.
Other big events in 2010 included screening of the Harry Shearer film The Big Uneasy and a showing of Cairo Time with star Patricia Clarkson on stage answering questions.
Brunet knows the movie business and knows his customers. And as his weekly gross figures attest, he is a master at programming for them. The “Classic Movie Series” presented three times a week at 10 A.M. draws a very loyal crowd. Rene introduces the pictures
and shares coffee and cookies after the films. The Midnight Movies on Friday and Saturday nights attract a totally different audience. On most other nights, the Prytania features first-run films. Crossover, art and foreign films also
find a home at the theater. On some mornings, school kids by the busload visit the theater to see G-rated productions. It is also rented for private parties and corporate events.
The New Orleans Saints booked the Prytania to debut their Super Bowl film. At the request of local movie icon, Arthur Barnett, one of the most unusual uses of the theater occurred in 2011 when his memorial service was held there. Another special event
was a surprise 90th prytania-theatre-drew-breesbirthday party for Rene!
The Prytania also hosts annual events, such as the New Orleans Film Festival and the French Film Festival. Come Academy Awards time, the Prytania runs nominated films, including obscure ones, and presents an annual Oscar Party. On occasion, Rene offers
the theater for private screenings of new movies for reviewers and sometimes the stars themselves. On a late summer afternoon in 2012, Brad Pitt occupied a front row seat.
Rene continues to take tickets at the door and to visit with the crowd in the lobby, answering questions and soliciting opinions. In 2015 the Prytania Theater, the oldest operating theater in New Orleans, will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Rene Brunet
Jr., at 91-years-old, is already making plans for the centennial celebration. He plans to be there.