Who else could possibly belong to those eyes on that tie, the eyes peering out from between the lapels of 93-year-old Rene Brunet’s suit coat, but Bogey himself. It gives new meaning to Bogey’s famous line: “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!”
“They don’t make guys like that anymore,” says Brunet from his wheelchair in the lobby of the Prytania Theater.
It is 10 a.m., and just like every Sunday and Wednesday at that hour, Brunet, the granddaddy of theaters in New Orleans can be found in the lobby of his one-screen theater welcoming fans of the “classic movies” that he runs at those special times on those special days. Special because they touch the core of what has made the Brunet family click for nearly a century.
Between welcoming old regulars to this week’s classic offering, he’s rattling off memories of “Bank Nights” at the many theaters he’s owned over the last nearly 100 years, about playing the organ at the Saenger Theatre and of being “Movietone News” before Movietone News made it to the big screen.
“I’ll never forget, we were giving away toys at Christmas time at the Imperial (Theater on North Hagen Street),” Brunet says.
“The manager called me over to the foot lights. At first I told him I was too busy. Then he called me again. He was frantic. Well, he had a message for me. I had to announce that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The reaction was shock throughout the audience. The thing is, most people didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”
He continues, “The Imperial had a big stage and I’d go up and announce things that I knew would be of great interest. I announced the end of the War (WWII) also and I’ll never forget, I interrupted the show one night and announced that Joe Louis had won the world’s heavyweight championship. That was huge news.”
Jimmy Hartenstein from Biloxi drives over every few weeks to catch one of the classics.
“I grew up in New Orleans and we used to go to the shows Uptown a lot,” Hartenstein says. “We’d go to the Napoleon, the Fine Arts, the National … and of course, the Prytania. I used to like Jimmy Stewart and that broad he used to star with a lot, June Allyson. She was always cryin’ about something. I think it was in her contract, when they needed a crier they’d call her.
But these were great movies, the old black and whites. We all loved ’em. Back then you had stars. Not like today.”
Hartenstein nods toward the walls in the lobby that are covered with framed black-and-white prints of the biggies of yesteryear, household names like Mickey Rooney, Greer Garson, Walter Pigeon, Alice Fay, Jimmy Cagney, Bing Crosby and on and on around the lobby.
“Today, you get some gal covered with tattoos and some guy with a three-day stubble of beard up there on the screen. Walkin’ clichés, know what I mean? You never heard of them before you walked in and you never hear of them again after you leave.”
“The classic movies made the industry,” Brunet says. “I don’t think so, I know so. They played in the big theaters in every city.
Look at New Orleans. The classics always opened at the Loews State, the Saenger, the Orpheum, the Joy. People long for that today.”
It is all about memories, the king of New Orleans theaters says. And he’s got a ton of them – enough to make a movie.
Like the time he went to Casablanca as a promotional gimmick for the famous Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains classic and discovered that Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were meeting right down the road. “Who would have ever thought that would happen?” he asks.
“And back then I used to pay Al Hirt $65 a night to play at the Imperial,” Brunet says. “A few years later I’da had to pay him $65,000 to play that same stage.”
On the Prytania’s screen, John Wayne is riding off into the black-and-white sunset and another showing of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is coming to and end.
Muriel, Rene Brunet’s wife of 54 years, will assist her husband out to the car and the two will return to their Lakeview home.
How will Rene Brunet fill in the hours before he returns to his beloved Prytania Theater?
“Watch movies,” he says without missing a beat. “I’ve got about 5,000 movies on disk at home and a big screen. Can you think of another way to spend a great afternoon?”