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The Last Picture Show? 

Development has hung the sign of its approach on the red-brick frontage of the Prytania Theater, only a yard away from the coming-soon poster for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The development sign reads: For Sale. Tommy Crane Inc. 483-0977. Listed by Rick Tusson 891-2116.

There's no movie scheduled for tonight, though there's popcorn bubbling up from its shiny cauldron while bars of Ghirardelli chocolate stand sweetly nearby. But the teenaged concessionaire just waits and waits.

Taped to the front of the concession stand is a sheet whose headline pleads, "Please help!" It asks that anyone interested in preserving the Prytania as a movie theater please come to tonight's meeting and make that interest known.

Inside, the movie screen hangs red and blank. On the stage apron, a little podium had been set up in half-shadow. Behind it stands Rene Brunet. Rene is 81 years old, but has none of the shabbiness that often attends old age. He is as clean and crisp as a Mormon elder on the day of his granddaughter's wedding.

For most of his 81 years, Brunet has been involved in the running of movie houses in New Orleans. Six years ago, he took over managership of the Prytania, then on its final reel. He's done some good things with it since then, but development has come knocking again. This time it has a half-million price tag.

"Most of you already know that this is the last single-screen theater in the New Orleans area," he says from behind the little podium. "Not only that, but more importantly, the last neighborhood theater. Neighborhood theaters are important to the history of New Orleans."

Once there were many. Mostly ragamuffin temples of pop-cultural visions, but we groundlings were drawn to the idea of them. They were not art, but there were ours. What we were buying for a buck may have been a world view honed down to crude simplicities by the sensibilities of California and Eastern Europe, but it was a world view we could share or reject with our neighbors, our colleagues, our classmates. And in the darkness of a building on a street where we lived, in the glow of lurid Technicolor, we could pull a two-hour trade-in of our ordinary lives for the extraordinary lives of pirates and chorines and frontiersmen and seducers.

Gradually, as neighborhoods went, so did their theaters. We traded cinematic intimacy for the anonymity of the herd, for sound systems and skyscraper screens. One by one, they went: The Escorial, Cortez, Happy Hour, Beacon, Bell, Fox, Clabon, Dreamland, Rivoli, Tivoli. They all flopped exhausted in their graves with the sound of approaching progress in their ears.

A cameraman from a local TV station shows up, but he's got to do some creative camera work because only eight of the Prytania's 287 seats are filled. "We didn't do a very good job getting out the word about this meeting," Rene's son Robert says apologetically.

Comments are invited. A preservationist steps up. He says he can't stay because he's got an invite to a dinner party, but he offers three ways to buy and save the Prytania: (a) forming a nonprofit corporation, (b) a stock sale or (c) a combination. "We saved the Saenger and the Orpheum; we can save the Prytania," he exclaims before hurrying off.

One lady suggests tapping a private foundation. A slender young man with a red Wilson satchel in hand asks about involving City Hall. Robert Brunet says hopefully that sometimes politicians can be swayed by community opinion and he believes Renee Gill Pratt is the area's representative. Whoever comes up with a plan for salvation, Robert adds, "My dad wants to be the guy who stands at the door and tears your ticket and welcomes you to the Prytania."

Rene Brunet comes back to the podium. He starts to talk of the history of the movie house at the corner of Prytania and Leontine, which began in 1915. There was a Prytania streetcar then, and its passing would jar the needle out of the phonograph sound system when talkies came in. There was blue velvet curtain with rhinestones and crystal chandeliers. A fire in 1927 and another in the '70s.

Then he talks of metroplex theaters and complaints he's heard from customers that they're treated like cattle. He speaks with vague optimism about angels of generosity who might help buy the place. Finally, he holds up a brick and says maybe we'll sell bricks to raise money.

A woman in the front row asks why the Prytania hasn't been advertising in the daily paper. Robert Brunet says sales have been poor, but Harry Potter is nearby.

Rene Brunet tries to smile as he says good night. "Be careful rushing out the door in such a large crowd," he says.

The movie screen hangs red and blank.

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