Oldest running movie theater in Texas celebrates 100th anniversary

The Cliftex Talkies theater has been playing movies since 1916 and still plays first run features, in Clifton, Texas. Photo credit: MCT Tribune News Service

Just 45 minutes away from Waco in Clifton, history is being made. The longest continuously running movie theater in the state of Texas, the Cliftex Theatre celebrat 100 years with “Celebrate Texas Week” last week.

The theater first opened its doors in 1916 to the moviegoers of Clifton and has had several changes in ownership throughout the past century. The latest and most successful owners are Phyllis Gamble and Mechelle Slaughter, who have renovated the theater to its former glory and drawn more customers than ever.

Gamble, a former Baylor basketball player, has worked throughout the state as a youth minister, but decided to settle in the small town and refurbish the theater with business partner Slaughter.

“Our number one goal was to save the business, restore the building and rejuvenate the downtown area in Clifton,” Gamble said.

The theater’s renovation consisted of retaining many of the original features, like the beloved rainbow sconces and the quirky pharmacy clock next to the big screen. Even the first three rows of chairs are untouched, bearing the carved initials of moviegoers on first dates from decades past.

Other than minor floor plan rearrangements, renovation efforts on the Cliftex were made to keep the building as original as possible, right down to the theater’s intermission period. When movies were originally screened at the theater, an intermission and jingle played as projectionists changed one reel of film for another. Although the iconic intermission is no longer necessary with the move to digital projection, the intermission and the original jingle are still used to remain consistent with the Cliftex’s bright history.

Gamble and Slaughter were rejected when they attempted to register the Cliftex as a historical building because they expanded the lobby to allow indoor concessions and space for customers. Gamble said she does not, however, regret the decision to turn the theater into a functioning business.

Every aspect of the renovation was made possible through local carpet layers, plumbers and electricians. Gamble said they give back to the community in every way imaginable, including supporting commerce within the small city of Clifton.

“People in Clifton do community service in a lot of different ways,” Gamble said. “This is just the way we serve. And we have been honored and thrilled to be able to do it.”

The latest renovation consists of making the transformation from reel-to-reel to digital due to the declining production of old-fashioned movie reels. Had the Cliftex remained a reel-to-reel theater for much longer, access to movie reels would be next to impossible as they become obsolete. Now local movie fans, like longtime patron Luana Stone, can soak in the historic atmosphere of the theater while enjoying the crystal clear quality of a multiplex big screen.

“It was a little bit disappointing to me when they switched over to digital, just because of the history,” Stone said. “But I got over that really quick. The digital is so much better.”

The renovations and updates allow the Cliftex theater to continue its long and colorful history. The cinema started in 1916 as the Queen Theatre and later evolved into the Cliftex Talkies, which was eventually shortened to the Cliftex. In the days before the lobby was expanded, long lines wrapped around the outside of the building to see the theater’s talkies.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Phyllis Gamble

Decades ago, a drunken cowboy, anxious to see his movie, was waving his gun about until the local constable tried to get it away from him to prevent harm to other moviegoers. The loaded gun fired, and the bullet left a mark on a nearby building that can still be seen today.

The angry cowboy wasn’t the only violent visitor in Clifton. According to Clifton lore, Bonnie and Clyde stopped at the Corner Pharmacy across the street from the Cliftexduring their travels through Bosque County. The movie bearing their names would play decades later at the theater they had passed on their way through Clifton.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Phyllis Gamble

During the period of segregation before and during civil rights, the Cliftex featured a balcony above the theater where African-Americans were allowed to view films. The balcony, outside the reel room, is now empty, but stands as a testament to a turbulent era of American history.

The anniversary of the Cliftex celebrates 100 years of cinema and an age when movie theaters were built for grandeur and beauty. A small- town theater that has had its doors open for a century has seen first dates turn to marriages and moviegoers go from young to old. The continuous operation of this opulent building is cause for the town to celebrate.

“It’s a business that’s lived through world wars and the Great Depression. It’s lived through silent movies to sound, and now digital and 3-D movies,” Gamble said. “To think about what a business has gone through to make it 100 years, that’s pretty special.”