John Louis Santikos, founder and owner of the Santikos Theaters, the largest family-owned theater circuit in Texas, died Tuesday at Methodist Hospital after a short illness. He was 87.
“People who knew him and with whom he worked over the years will be deeply affected by his loss,” stated Janice Bunch, COO of Santikos Theaters, in a written notice. “He was a wonderful mentor to the (more than) 1,500 employees in his operations.”
“Mr. Santikos was well-known in San Antonio for his patronage of the arts and generous support of nonprofit and educational institutions,” stated Joe Kryszak, CFO of Santikos Theaters. “He will long be remembered for his innovative spirit, business success and community involvement.”
Santikos was born in Athens, Greece, to Toula and Louis Santikos. His father came to the U.S. in 1911, where he first worked in a grocery store in Waco. Seeing the long lines of people across the street at the Rex Theater, he saved his money and was able to buy the theater, beginning what would be more than a century of involvement in movie theaters with his son, John.
In 1918, Louis moved to the city and entered into the movie theater business at the invitation of San Antonio businessmen. He operated the Rialto Theater on Houston Street and then opened the Palace Theater on Alamo Plaza – San Antonio’s first “movie palace” and the forerunner of the Majestic, Aztec, and Texas theaters.
Louis returned to Greece in 1925, where he met and married Toula Gatos and brought her back to San Antonio. In 1927, Louis Santikos sold most of his business interests in San Antonio and moved back to Athens, where he became a successful film distributor and where John was born.
The upstairs of their house was occupied by Nazi officers when Germany occupied Greece during World War II– a time of great tension and fear for the family, Santikos recalled. When the German occupation ended in 1944, a civil war broke out between Communists and British/American-supported forces. At one point, Louis and John, his oldest son, fled the house just hours before Communist guerillas arrived looking for them. The civil war lasted until 1949.
Fearing for his family’s safety, Louis sent John and then his sister, Kiki, and brother, Dean (now deceased), back to San Antonio in 1946. John entered St. Mary’s University in 1947, taking academic courses and learning English at the same time. He earned his business degree in only two and a half years, during which time his father and mother also moved back to San Antonio.
In 1950, Louis built and opened the Olmos Theater on San Pedro Avenue, which became the basis of the “new” Santikos Theaters company. John joined his father at the Olmos, taking tickets, handling concessions, and managing the theater in all aspects, learning film booking and marketing – a practical education from his father through hands-on experience.
When his parents returned to Athens in 1958, he took over the company and began to grow Santikos Theaters rapidly. Santikos bought and built theaters through the Texas real estate downturn of 1987, when he sold all his theaters to Act III Theaters, owned by TV impresario Norman Lear. Act III later sold all of its theaters, including those in San Antonio, to Regal Cinema. When Regal filed for bankruptcy in 2001, Santikos was able to buy back all the San Antonio theaters he had originally sold to Act III.
In 2003, he built the Silverado 16 Theater on Bandera Road, followed by the Palladium 19 IMAX in the Rim in 2006, the Silverado 19 IMAX in Tomball (suburban Houston) in 2008, and the company’s largest entertainment complex, Palladium West Houston, in 2013.
There are seven Santikos Theaters in San Antonio today, including the Palladium IMAX, the Silverado 16, the Mayan 14, the Northwest 14, the Embassy 14, the Bijou Cinema Bistro, and the Rialto Brewhaus. The eighth theatre, Casa Blanca, will open next fall.
Houston-area theaters include the Silverado 19 IMAX and the Palladium West Houston.
Santikos Theatres celebrated its Centennial Year in 2011, which John marked by making major scholarship gifts to both St. Mary’s University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
An active arts supporter, Santikos believed in community service. The company he founded partners with many arts organizations, including the San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio, and the San Antonio Metropolitan Ballet.
Over the years, Santikos Theaters continually brought cutting-edge cinema technology to San Antonio and Houston. From the first drive-in theaters (the San Pedro Drive-In) and multi-plex indoor theaters, to premium large screen formats with 4k digital projection, THX, and Dolby Atmos sound systems, Santikos Theaters led the way in innovation which continues as Santikos Theatres plans to be among the first exhibitors in the country to install laser projection technology in early 2015.
In recognition of Santikos’ real estate achievements, the San Antonio Business Journal named the Legacy, his 100-acre lifestyle center project at Loop 1604 and Highway 281, the Best Real Estate Project in 2006. The project includes a power center component featuring anchor tenants Lifetime Fitness, Best Buy, and Sportsman’s Warehouse. Most recently, construction began in November on Dwell at Legacy, a 289-unit Class A apartment complex situated on 8.28 acres of the Legacy complex and scheduled to open in June.
Santikos Theaters employs more than 1,500 people, ranging from theater ushers to managers and corporate officials, and offers canned food drives for the local food bank, helping with Red Cross donation and the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner.
“Mr. Santikos’ contributions to the City of San Antonio will continue to be long-lasting,” said J. Bradley Jones, Santikos’ long-time attorney and estate executor. “It was his wish that the theater and real estate operations continue in their current form. He had created the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation in 2011, which will be operated by the San Antonio Area Foundation.”
Santikos is survived by his daughter, Violet Santikos, his sister, Kiki Pringle, a granddaughter, and a nephew. Funeral arrangements are pending.
*Featured/top image: John Louis Santikos (1927-2014). Courtesy image.