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Rubin Frels remembered for his love of movies, music

By Melissa Crowe
June 19, 2014 at 1:19 a.m.
Updated June 20, 2014 at 1:20 a.m.

From left, Rubin Frels in 1971,  Frels at the LongLeaf coffee shop in 2011 and Frels in January 1981.

Frels' Victoria theaters

• The Playhouse Theatre

• Salem Six

• Uptown Theatre

• Victoria Theatre

• Venus Theatre

• Cinema IV

• Tejas Drive-In

• Aztec Drive-In

• Lone Tree Drive-In

Rubin Frels, who introduced generations of South Texans to the magic of cinema and the wonders of music, died Thursday morning. He was 85.

Theater and music were his birthright, and he made successful careers in both.

As friends and former employees mourned the loss of Frels on Thursday, they reflected on the good times and inspiring moments shared with one of the biggest personalities in Victoria.

Frels never met a stranger, said Brad Richards.

The two met 15 years ago while Richards was working on his master's degree.

"You've never met a person like him before," Richards, his partner, said.

Next to Gary Moses, Frels may have been Victoria's biggest celebrity, he said.

But what many people may not know is selling the theater business was his biggest regret, Richards said.

While his passion was always focused on music and pipe organs, he had high expectations that only a family-owned theater could live up to.

Richards is vowing to keep a promise he made to Frels to reopen Victoria Theatre in the 200 block of East Constitution Street.

Anthony Pedone, executive director of the Victoria TX Indie Film Fest, has honored Frels' cinematic legacy with an award in his name.

"He's the godfather of movies," Pedone said.

Frels studied economics at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. He learned the theater business by direct association from his father, Rubin Frels Sr., who brought the movies to Victoria in the early 1900s.

As a teen in Victoria, Pedone got his start in the cinema world working for Frels.

Now 25 years later, he said Frels gave him the confidence to pursue his ideas - the best example of which he said happened when he was playing in a band in high school in 1981.

"We wanted to rent the Playhouse Theatre, play in the biggest theater and show 'Heavy Metal' the movie after," Pedone said. "We were 16 and had no business asking for those kinds of favors."

Gary Dunnam, who was the general manager, made it happen, but Frels gave the final word.

When Pedone began the film festival three years ago, he recalled the faith Frels had in him so many years before.

"He was rogue, and I dig that about the guy," Pedone said. "He was his own person."

Frels' passion for music struck a chord with the arts community in Victoria.

In 1950, he began building organs as a hobby, which led him to Amsterdam and across Europe, attending conferences and mastering the craft.

He purchased harpsichords in Germany and built custom organs for cathedrals in Mexico and churches across the U.S., including Victoria, under his business Frels Pipe Organs, dedicated to restoring the instruments.

Nina Di Leo, executive director of Victoria Bach Festival, said Frels' spirit and talents will live on through the instruments he built and the musicians he inspired across the country.

"His generosity to musicians for the Bach Festival and the symphony have made him an extraordinary member of the arts community in Victoria," Di Leo said.

She said she will fondly remember how Frels proudly wore his T-shirts from the Bach Festival, some that were close to 30 years old.

"It showed his love of the festival and will always make me remember him," Di Leo said.

Michelle Hall, executive director of Victoria Symphony, said Frels was a major advocate for symphonic and orchestral music.

"If we were putting on an event, you could always count on seeing him there, even when he wasn't in the best health and in a wheelchair," Hall said. "Rubin was a constant ... and his presence will be missed."

Dunnam, a Victoria resident and former general manager for Frels, became friends with the movie man in 1965.

"It's sad that Rubin's health was very poor the last years of his life," Dunnam said. "I think he will be remembered as a very generous person who was a lot of fun to be around."

Frels was a mechanical genius, he said.

"He could work on diesel engines, tear down movie projectors and rebuild them. He understood about all those types of things," Dunnam said. "He had the most wonderful sense of humor. It was just a scream being around him."

Frels was one of the most generous people Dunnam has ever known.

During the 1970s, the theaters were considered the largest employer in the area.

"Hundreds, literally, hundreds of kids in Victoria, their first job was working for one of the Frels theaters," Dunnam said. "It was important to Rubin and (his wife) Dorothy and those of us who kept on with the Frels theaters that those kids were taught how to work and deal with the public and make good employees out of them."

Ron Reyna, who is running on the Democratic ticket for Victoria County judge, got his first job for Frels when he was 12 years old.

His father, Eddie Reyna, was the film buyer, and worked for the theaters for 40 years, starting in 1937.

"Rubin was bubbly and happy and always in a good mood," Reyna said. "He loved his organs; that was his passion."

Frels quit the movie business in June 1989.

"He was a real good man, and he's going to be missed," Reyna said.

Frels met his wife, Dorothy, at a concert of the San Antonio Symphony where he appeared as a guest harpsichordist.

Dorothy died in 1978 at age 53, and Frels never remarried.

Richards is organizing a celebration of life for Frels on July 12 at First Church of Christ - Scientist.

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