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Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Man built theater network in Crossroads communities

By BY GARY DUNNAM
July 1, 2014 at 2:01 a.m.

GARY DUNNAM

It was unusually hot the day Rubin S. Frels was laid to rest beside his wife underneath the largest oak tree in Evergreen Cemetery. The white marble tombstone he chose 36 years ago marks his final resting place. It only remains for the date of his death to be incised into the stone.

Rubin and Dorothy Frels walked into the Robert L. Sipe Organ Shop in Dallas and into my life in July 1965. I had recently graduated from North Texas State University and was working in the organ shop until I began my first year as a teacher. Rubin had bleach-blond hair. Dorothy had the largest eyes and the most engaging personality of any woman I ever met. Six of us had lunch together that day, and they went on their way. They returned in August to attend an organ recital by George Bozeman at St. Stephen's Methodist Church in Mesquite. Thus began a friendship with the Frels that lasted until Rubin's death recently.

In the spring of 1971, Rubin called and asked if I could come to Victoria and help finish an organ for Oak Hills Presbyterian Church in San Antonio. Since I was not teaching summer school that year, I loaded my belongings in a rented trailer and moved to Victoria, arriving May 31, 1971. I never left.

The theaters were, frankly, in bad shape financially when Rubin and Dorothy married in May 1959. Their marriage was a blend of their remarkable talents. Rubin's main interest was in building pipe organs; Dorothy effectively ran the theaters. At the time I arrived in Victoria, Frels Theatres consisted of 15 theatres scattered all around the area - each had only one screen. The year I came on the scene, Playhouse II and III were on the drawing board. They were finished in the fall of 1971, as was the organ for Oak Hills Presbyterian.

Rubin was indeed his father's son. He could make anything work. He knew everything about movie projectors and sound systems. He designed the novel floors in Playhouse II and III. Each row of seats was riser-mounted. Spilled drinks ran backward and then to the center of each aisle into a covered trough, which ran to the front of the auditorium into a recessed sump pump. It was incredibly expensive to build but really helped keep the theaters cleaner. Rubin also hated center aisles in theaters - those were the best seats. He built no theaters with center aisles.

Multiple theaters were the coming thing across the nation. Dorothy had me assist with the opening and early weeks of the Playhouse multiplex that November. Playhouse IV was tacked on the right side of Playhouse I about four years later. Sitting in that narrow, deep theater was like sitting in a Greyhound bus. It was awful, but it really made money for us. Oddly, the payroll figures of the Playhouse and the 1931 Uptown Theatre were almost identical. We could operate three auditoriums as cheaply as we could one. The handwriting was on the wall.

Salem Six came off the drawing board in 1976 and was officially opened in May of 1977. It was soon to become the flagship of the Frels Theatres' chain. In 1984, we completed Cinema IV at the mall.

One by one, the out-of-town theaters were closed or sold. The theaters in El Campo, Wharton, Columbus, Yorktown, Goliad, Nixon, Cuero, Refugio and Pharr left the flock, each being sold, leased or given away. At the time of the sale to Cinemark, there were only three theaters but a total of 14 screens.

Dorothy's death in May 1978 was a crushing blow to all who knew her. Rubin continued to build organs but entertained many offers to buy the theaters. Finally in 1989, Cinemark made an offer Rubin was comfortable with, and that was that.

This is the first of a two-part tribute to Rubin Frels written by Gary Dunnam, a Victoria resident, former general manager for Frels and former executive director of Victoria Preservation Inc. Frels died June 19.

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