Return of the Queen: Theatre reigns as iconic symbol of downtown Bryan

Bright, flashing lights. Throngs of people. Conversation occasionally punctuated by laughter. The scent of food diffusing through the air. This was once the normal scene in the early to mid 1900s in downtown Bryan. However, as the city began to expand and businesses began moving closer to where people lived, downtown Bryan slowly fell into disrepair as malls and big-box retailers took over. What was once the cultural hub of town became a run-down, deserted reminder of times passed.

In recent years, the city of Bryan has worked on restoring its historic downtown area by encouraging the growth of locally-owned businesses that once dominated the area. Despite all of the renovation and restoration, there was one place that had not been restored: the Queen Theatre. In 1913, the theatre opened on the ground floor of a hotel before being remodeled in 1939 to be the structure that remains today. However, in the 1970s, like in many other cities, the Queen had to close as businesses were drawn away from the center of town. It slowly deteriorated until, in 2010, the Downtown Bryan Association (DBA) purchased the Queen to renovate it.

“The building had to be gutted,” executive director of the DBA Sandy Farris said. “A hole in the roof developed over the years, it was vacant, and most of the interior had collapsed and rotted.”

Despite the major challenges renovation posed, on May 4, 2018, the Queen opened for business for the first time in decades. Instead of trying to turn it into a modern theatre, renovators and employees tried to keep it as true to the original as possible.

“Restoration is about restoring history, not restoring the building,” Queen employee and BHS senior Benjamin Capps said. “I feel like with the Queen, we restored its history. We’re going back and paying close attention to what the Queen was and making it as close to that as possible.”

The Queen’s restoration is a part of a national movement to revive downtowns.

“Historic downtowns are worth saving, not only for the land and building values, but for quality of life,” Farris said. “The landscape around most cities looks the same. You see the same stores everywhere you go. Most of those stores are corporate-owned. In Downtown Bryan, the restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues are unique and locally-owned. There’s a friendliness and atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else.”

To Bryan residents, the Queen is a part of their town’s history, and the DBA received widespread support in renovating the theatre.

“The easiest part of the restoration has been the community support,” Farris said. “There are many people here who remember going to see movies at the Queen as children and teenagers. Most of the funds for the exterior restoration were donated, either in cash or in-kind work, and about $300,000 of the interior construction was also donated.”

The Queen has screened some modern movies such as RBG, but for the most part, it focuses on older, classic movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Birds, and Psycho. The showing of these classics is one of the things about the Queen that sets it apart from other theatres.

“I wanted to work somewhere where not only conventional, commercial movies are shown but more the stuff that you don’t see a whole lot at the movie theatre,” Queen employee and BHS senior Grace Hendrix said. “It’s really cool to see movies in black and white that you’ve never even seen on the screen before.”

Part of the modern attraction of old movies comes from the overall filming style. Even though old filmmakers did not have the sophisticated technology they do today, they were still more creative and resourceful in their special effects, creating masterpieces in their own right.

“Old-fashioned movies have a different feel to them than modern movies do because they have a different way of tricking you into believing certain special effects,” Benjamin said. “Nowadays, you’re just given what you want to see, but in the old movies, you have to imagine it.”

Another thing that makes the Queen stand out is its effort to stay community-centered instead of focusing on large profits.

“We’re not a corporate institution at all,” Benjamin said. “It’s about the community of downtown Bryan and being connected with people there. I think a big part of the culture at the Queen is to be accepting of everyone and have something for everyone to go see.”

Workers at the Queen use the Queen’s small size, cheaper ticket prices, and variety of movies shown to help make their customers’ visits enjoyable.

“I really think Queen employees value customer service, plus prices are lower for tickets,” Grace said. “Because of the different movies we show that are not so conventional, we try to bring people together, create stories, and share memories.”

Even for Queen employees who spend many shifts there, the experience of watching a movie is special.

“I saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” Benjamin said. “What I really liked about it was that everyone in the Queen was so kind and considerate to everyone. I didn’t have any special treatment because I was an employee; I was just another customer. I got to walk through what the customer sees and experiences when they go see a movie.”

The employees at the Queen try to foster a connection between them and their customers. It is not uncommon for a guest to request a particular movie or strike up a conversation about a film.

“It’s unique that the customers interact with the employees and our boss,” Benjamin said. “Patrons don’t get that in any other business setting. In Cinemark and Premiere, they go and get their popcorn and never talk to the employees again, but at the Queen, they’re friends with the employees and the employees are friends with the them.”

Additionally, the Queen takes its customers into account by showing movies in Spanish, something no other theatre in the area does.

“We play a lot of cartoons where the animation on the mouths has been fit to match Spanish words instead of English,” Grace said. “We also have a lot of traditional Mexican movies from the 40s and 50s. For people in our area who speak Spanish, that’s something they’ve never been able to experience: going to a movie and watching it in Spanish with their family. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before as part of a business.”

Movies are not the sole focus of the Queen as it can also be rented out for movie parties, business seminars, meetings, or the like with the DBA office being based on the third and fourth floors. As downtown Bryan grows continues the restoration process, the rotating crown above the Queen serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving the past.