During a great part of the 20th century, the City of Brownsville enjoyed the presence of ten movie theaters with six of them showing American movies, and four of them showing Mexican films.

The Brownsville area was first settled by Spanish Grantee families on land grants during the mid-18th Century and originally incorporated as a legal municipality in 1850 through the efforts of Don Carlitos Stillman, a prominent eastern entrepreneur of early times.

Thus, from the very beginning the city has maintained a large Spanish-speaking presence; so it was inevitable that the Mexican movie theaters would thrive in such an environment during those early times.

Rogelio Agrasánchez, whose father was an eminent producer/director in the Mexican movie industry, has provided a well-documented account of these early Mexican movie theaters in the Río Grande Valley.

The showing of Mexican films in Brownsville can be traced to the early 1900s, with two of its main downtown movie houses on occasions showing Mexican films. In 1934, the Dittman Theater, later called the Grande/Río Theater, showed “La Mujer del Puerto,” a movie that elevated Andrea Palma to fame. Also shown at this theater was the popular patriotic Mexican film “Escuadrón 201,” relating the gallantry of the Mexican Air Force during WW II.

In 1936, the Queen Theater showed the Mexican film “Juan Pistolas,”starring the popular western Mexican actor Raúl de Anda, as well as the Mexican film “El Primo Basilio.” In 1952, this same theater showed a movie combination that included a Mexican movie and an American movie during the same day; with one such combination being “Vuelven los García,” starring Pedro Infante, and an American film, “Treasure of Lost Canyon.” This, however, did not last long as the emerging Brownsville Mexican movie theaters completely took over the showing of Mexican films to a faithful audience lasting many decades into the future.

One such institution for many years was the old “El Tiro,” a theater owned by David J. Young , Sr., a member of a well-known and pioneer family of Old Brownsville. It was located on 11th and East Washington, in front of the Valentín Department Store, and sharing the same street with the Grande Theater, Zepeda Hardware, and across the street north was the Hanshaw Store. It accommodated 590 patrons; and later on in the 1940s it changed its name to the “Teatro México,” and became the center of entertainment for its many loyal cinema addicts in the community. Admission ranged from five cents to as high as 25 cents per ticket.

One cannot forget such popular actors and actresses of the time as: Jorge Negrete in “!Ay Jalisco no te Rajes!,” Gloria Marín in “Siempre Tuya,” María Elena Márquez in “Así se Quiere en Jalisco,” Dolores del Río in “María Candelaria,” Pedro Armendáriz in “Soy Puro Mexicano,” María Félix in “Doña Bárbara,” Pedro Infante in “Nosotros los Pobres,” Sara García in “Cuando los Hijos se Van,” Chachita en “La Pequeña Madrecita,” Tito Guízar and Ester Fernández in “Allá en el Rancho Grande” filmed in 1936, and the movie that started the “ranchero” Mexican movie genre, the Soler family actors family dynasty that comprised of Julián, Domingo, Andrés, and Fernando Soler, and the rumberas, Meche Barba, Ninón Sevilla, Ma. Antonieta Pons; and such comics as El Chicote, el Chaflán, Mantequilla, Agustín Insunza; along such singing sensations as Fernando Fernández, Antonio Badú, Emilio Tuero, Luis Aguilar, and Tito Guízar; thus, combining drama, music, and comic relief in most movies shown.

One can never forget the international famous comic Cantinflas in “El Gendarme Desconocido” entertaining the audience with his “cantinflear” or the art of speaking without expressing any logical meaning or conclusion. An example of his humor was: Cantinflas, while on the phone: “no me diga, no me diga” (you don’t say, you don’t say): the Commandant: “Diablos, ¿qué dijo?” (Doggone it, what did he say?): Cantinflas: “no me dijo” (he did not say anything). I once took my son Linus during his teens to see a Cantinflas movie and to this day he has not forgotten the experience.

In some of these films of earlier times, one could enjoy the performances of certain villains such as Miguel Inclán and Carlos López Moctezuma, this last one cast in roles that had him generally chasing after the poor peasant female, and at the end she would be rescued by the leading man, and all over certain Brownsville neighborhoods an announcer would drive around advertising this last named villain as, “el público lo quiere, porque lo odia” (the public loves him because they hate him), thus endearing him more with his loyal followers.

During the mid-1940s, a fire destroyed much of the inside of the “Teatro México,” and it was completely renovated, reopening its doors in 1945 with the top of the art amusement center. The Brownsville Herald advertised it as, “Brownsville will have the finest of Mexican moving pictures in the United States Southwest when “Teatro México” opens its doors again. The México theater is a family operated partnership and is wholly owned by David J. Young, Sr., dean of Valley moving pictures operations….”. At times the owners would attract popular Mexican movie stars of the period, and I happen to have seen on stage such actors as David Silva, María Lusia Zea, and Kathy Jurado, later on an American movie actress also.

In 1946, the Young family opened a new Mexican theater a few feet away on the same 11th and East Washington street, sharing the same sidewalk with the Zárate Pharmacy, and Colunga Bus Main Station, and thus, the “Teatro Iris” arrived into Old Brownsville, referred by its loyal Brownsville Mexican movie loyalists as simply “El Iris.” It could only accommodate 454 customers, and soon the city enjoyed two main Mexican movie theaters on the same block, each one offering the public the best movies México could produce. “El Iris” was housed in a long building with barely enough space for its patrons to walk and seat but its popularity existed due to its many popular Mexican movies shown to its patrons and many a Saturday afternoon one could see a long line of people waiting for its doors to open.

In its equipped atmosphere, the “Teatro Iris” could not compete with the “Teatro México,” but for whatever reason, this smaller movie house held a special attraction for many lovers of the Mexican cinema, including this writer. It was also a favorite place where young lovers would, and perhaps start a long amorous relationship. One such movie I remember was “Sol o Aguila” with famous international Mexican comic Cantinflas in one of his starring roles; another popular movie was “Ave Sin Nido – La Apasionante Historia de Anita de Montemar,” and many western Mexican movies starring Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Armendáriz, Luis Aguilar, René Cardona, and others of that period.

That same year another Mexican movie theater opened its doors in the city. This was the “Teatro Victoria,” located on 14th and East Harrison streets, and owned by the Ruenes family, who had established similar Mexican movie theaters in other parts of the Rio Grande Valley. It soon attracted its own loyal following, with such attractions as the “noche de los aficionados” or amateur night held once a week, and where local talent would thrill the audience with songs, and comical antics. Heavily invested by its owners to provide the best in entertainment to the Old Brownsville cinema lovers, it could accommodate 1,000 seats all heavily cushioned, with a large concession for its patrons, and during its opening night the Mayor of Brownsville and the Mexican Consul were invited. Many times variety shows were also offered to the public, anxious to see on stage their favorite Mexican actors or singers.

By 1956 Old Brownsville enjoyed ten major movie theaters; with American movies shown at the: Majestic, Queen, Capitol, Grande and two Drive Inns, the Charro, and the Fiesta; while Mexican films were shown at the México, Iris, Victoria and the Fiesta Drive-Inn theaters. The Fiesta Drive Inn was also owned by the Young family, but closed its doors in 1965. One cannot imagine Old Brownsville without its eminent Mexican movie theaters, where one could congregate, see friends, take a lady out to see a good movie, or simply partake of the atmosphere provided by such elegant surroundings that the movie houses of that time provided, all at the same time and collectively enjoying the magic of movies during the best of times in Old Brownsville.