Gary Dunnam: Theater owner was thoughtful, generous

July 2, 2014 at 2:02 a.m.

Rubin Frels was born into a musical family. His mother, Marjorie, played piano and organ. Rubin's father, Rubin (no middle name or initial) played saxophone, flute, clarinet - you name it. They performed in the local schools at the drop of a hat. Rubin studied piano for years and was a fine pianist. In the 1930s and '40s, actors traveled around the country promoting movies they starred in. John Wayne, Smiley Burnett and countless others came through the Frels' house. When Eleanor Roosevelt came to Victoria, it was Rubin's mother and father who took a car to Wharton, picked her up and brought her on to Victoria. After her visit, they bundled her back in the car and, after a visit to the recently restored Mission Espiritu Santo in Goliad, delivered her safely to her next engagement in Laredo - not a single secret service agent in attendance. Can you imagine?

Rubin attended Principia College in Elsah, Ill., where he earned a degree in economics and Spanish. One term while there, Robert Duvall was his suitemate. Elsah was just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and Rubin attended musical concerts there regularly. Returning home to Victoria one Christmas, he told his mother about these concerts and asked why Victoria couldn't have a concert series of its own. Well, whatever Marjorie's baby wanted, he got. The Victoria Fine Arts Association made its debut. Marjorie Frels, Corrine Crain and Martha Puckett were honored in the late 1970s as the surviving founding members of VFAA.

Over the years, Rubin would build organs for the Christian Science Church (Opus 1), First Methodist Church, Trinity Lutheran Church, Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, First Presbyterian Church and First English Evangelical Lutheran Church - all in Victoria. There was the Christian Science Church in Kingsville (Opus 2), Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mark's Lutheran in Cuero, First Methodist in Edna and countless others. Among the larger, more impressive jobs were Ridglea Presbyterian and Holy Family Catholic in Fort Worth; the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico; and First Presbyterian in Austin.

In 1965, Frels Theatres purchased the old federal building at 210 E. Constitution St. Frels' general office was moved from the second floor of the Uptown Theatre to "the old Post Office building." Eventually, the courtroom on the second floor was refurbished to become a concert venue. Marjorie Frels' Emerson grand piano and Rubin's Sperrhake harpsichord were used there over the years. Bach Festival parties, Academy Awards parties and other events were held there, all before the sale of the theaters to Cinemark.

In the early 1980s, Rubin and Frels Theatres provided the first "permanent" homes for Victoria Community Theatre, first at 207 E. Constitution St. and then across the street in the former Victoria Theatre. Frels Theatres held about three years of foreign film festivals, which never turned a profit but were enjoyed by a returning crowd each year.

I would characterize Rubin as one of the most thoughtful, generous people I have ever known. My wife, Sharon, and I spent countless evenings with Rubin. We had dinner and then moved to the living room, where we would play the piano, sing and enjoy the fire. Sharon and I were married in Rubin's spacious, gracious home, as was Sharon's daughter and her husband. Rubin was totally free of affectation or artifice. He genuinely cared about others and about Airedale Terriers, not to mention anaqua trees.

The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Frels Theatres, which was started by his father. It is also the 25th anniversary of the sale of the theaters to Cinemark. Cinemark pushed to have the sale completed by the time the first "Batman" movie opened in June 1989. It would be hard to estimate how many teenagers' lives were influenced through their work at Frels Theatres.

Rubin's passing marks the end of an era in Victoria's history. Mr. and Mrs. Frels, Rubin and Dorothy, were certainly our first family of entertainment.

This is the second 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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