Slab Cinema launched this year’s outdoor movie season the night before Valentine’s Day (thanks, winter in South Texas) with a showing of "Sleepless in Seattle" in Travis Park, part of the city of San Antonio’s free Movies by Moonlight series.
“Someone proposed during the movie,” said Angela Martinez, who with her husband Rick make up the tireless duo behind Slab Cinema. “It was a beautiful night, everything went smoothly, and I was super happy that showing movies was my job.”
It was also a far cry from the couple’s early movie showing days, when they would borrow equipment to project B movies onto a plywood “screen” on top of a crumbling commercial building slab for patrons who would wander across Cevallos Street from La Tuna Icehouse.
Eleven years and more than a thousand screenings later, Slab Cinema will show dozens of movies this spring and summer on six portable screens that will be inflated in parks, museum grounds, private backyards and other outdoor venues throughout San Antonio and beyond
Saturday, Feb. 28, they’re screening the 1960 production of "The Alamo" at the Alamo, part of a series celebrating the battle’s 179th anniversary, hosted by Allies of the Alamo and featuring Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo curator and historian, discussing history versus Hollywood before the free, indoor showing. Seating in the Alamo Gardens is limited to the first 80 attendees for the discussion at 4 p.m. and 200 for the movie at 6 p.m.
“It’s a real business now,” Rick says, a bit of marvel evident in his voice. “When we started out, we just wanted to bring people together and have some fun.”
Slab Cinema grew organically out of the Martinez’s never-profitable independent video store, Planet of the Tapes, located in half of a decrepit little building with peeling orange paint on South St. Mary’s Street across from the pink pig sculpture at the former Pig Stand. The couple lived in the back of the building with their young son, Wiley.
Rick would work all day at architecture and design firm 3D/I (now Parsons). Then he’d come home and the family would hang out together in the store, renting movies and visiting with an ever-widening circle of friends.
“The video store was our living room, basically,” said Rick. “The corner was so dark and dreary then, so we decided to make a little spectacle. We’d invite people over to watch movies projected on a sheet out front. We just treated it like our front yard.”
“It was the worst time ever to open a video store,” Angela recalled. “Everyone was already switching to DVDs. We’d buy used videos from Hollywood Video or pawnshops. But we didn’t care. We weren’t doing it to make money; we were just doing it for the entertainment value, and to build community.”
In 2004, they asked Michael Berrier, who owns La Tuna with partner Mike Looney, if they could show movies on the slab he owned across from the icehouse.
They screened "Bucket of Blood," and Slab Cinema was born.
“La Tuna has always been a place where people have made things happen in odd ways,” Berrier said. “We had tried to use the slab before – we had a market there briefly. But Angela and Rick had – have – a lot of energy and diligence. They really made it happen.”
The event was the definition of freewheeling in those days. Without equipment of their own, they had to borrow. Without speakers, viewers had to crowd around the projector to hear the film. They played B movies thinking they were “public domain,” free from licensing requirements (and costs). La Tuna patrons would carry over cold beverages and later food, when the grill opened. By then, the couple’s daughter Felice had arrived, and they would tote both kids along.
“It was just a sheet on a board, but it was really fun,” said Blanche Mendoza, who works for the City of San Antonio and would later play a key role in Slab Cinema’s growth.
Angela said they learned later that there really isn’t any such thing as public domain movies. “There’s a long list of supposedly license-free cheesy movies, and that’s what we screened,” she said. “But after we got better known, the studios started calling.”
Around the same time, they got word that the slab property was to be sold, and they’d need another outdoor space. That search proved both frustrating and fruitless, but then another opportunity presented itself.
Mendoza had just been placed in charge of programming for Hemisfair Park. At the same time, Paula Stallcup, heading up the city’s newly created Downtown Operations department, signaled her interest in showing movies downtown, perhaps at the Arneson River Theater.
“My manager got a few of us together to create a plan, and I stood up and said, ‘I know who can do that.’ But I really wanted to show movies at Hemisfair, on the wall of the Magik Theatre.”
The Martinez’s had friends with a sewing business who stitched together several fabric panels to create a large enough screen. They purchased their first projector. About a hundred people showed up to see the screening, of "Grease."
By the end of its Hemisfair run, Slab was screening to as many as 2,000 people a night, Mendoza said. In 2009 Slab teamed up with the Main Plaza Conservancy to offer CineMundo at Main Plaza, showcasing foreign and classic films. They later partnered with the city again on a “Romance on the River” series at the Arneson.
Naomi Neuburger remembers sitting at the Arneson next to Angel, Felice snuggled between them, watching "Moonstruck."
“We were mouthing lines from the movie, and it was just so lovely,” she said. “The space is big and open, but there were all these little intimate moments.”
The declining cost of inflatable screens changed everything for Slab Cinema. They now own six, and rent them all out pretty constantly. They’re finally making money, able to hire help to set up those screens at events around the county.
Neuburger and her husband Lewis Sussman rented one to show "Laurence of Arabia" last summer in their side yard after she learned it was an emotional favorite of Jesse Peña, the much beloved head of maintenance at Bonham Academy in King William, where her twins go to school.
She invited Mr. Peña, as he’s known, to be the guest of honor, and sent notes to her neighbors, not all of whom she knew well. Several came, knitting the block just a little bit closer together.
“It was a magical night,” Neuburger said. “Even the kids were into it.”
The movie business isn’t always so magical. For years, the venture cost Rick and Angela money, as they worked to keep up with technology and absorb mishaps. At an early Hemisfair screening, their brand new speakers were stolen – while they were setting up. Another time, someone totaled their car – then drove off – while it was parked nearby.
For their tenth anniversary, they screened "Bucket of Blood" again, back at the old slab space. It was a disaster, with electrical issues, a brewing storm, failing equipment and a competing Spurs game.
“But it all worked out in the end,” said Rick. “People still came together and had fun, and that’s what we’re all about.”
Check out Slab Cinema’s spring and summer screening schedule here.
*Featured/top image: The 1940's era Mission Drive-in screen was recently restored and is a walk-in venue. Courtesy photo.