Imperial Theater

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Imperial theater, year unknown

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Imperial Theater was opened in 1922 at 814 Hagan Avenue and Dumaine, by Rene Brunet Sr. The Imperial played an important role not only in the history of New Orleans theaters, but also in the history of one of the city’s most prominent theater families, the Brunets. Brunet Sr. Brunet Sr. opened a nickle theater on Baronne in 1907, and the Harlequin Theater five years later. The Imperial was his third endeavor, and Brunet Jr., who today operates the Prytania Theatre, grew up in the Imperial and took over its operations in 1946 after the death of his father. The history of the theater also tells an interesting story about the role of small theaters not only in local economy, but also in neighborhood operations that have little to do with the film industry including community organizing and philanthropy.

The story of the Imperial Theater, like other neighborhood theaters in New Orleans, contrasts with the image of the movie “palaces” and first-run houses owned primarily by major production corporations. At this time, the film business was “vertically integrated,” and included production, distribution and exhibition. Theaters played a huge part in the success of film corporations, and it has been suggested that pictures would rarely earn a profit without a first-showing. [1]


Rene Brunet Sr. opened The Imperial in 1922. An exact date is difficult to pin down because Brunet Sr. relied primarily on hand delivering opening flyers to the neighborhood, rather than taking out newspaper advertisements. A book published in 2012, written in part by Rene Brunet Jr., includes a copy of the letter circulated by Brunet Sr. to create interest in the soon-to-be-opened Imperial. The letter stressed the desire of Brunet Sr. to make the Imperial a “household name,” and for its patrons to feel that the theater was partly theirs. Included in the letter were two tickets to the opening day. [2] Another selling point mentioned in the letter was the Imperial’s “typhoon” cooling system.

The exterior of the Imperial was in the Art Deco style popular throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Imperial Opens with A Year of Charity Events

The first mention of the Imperial in local papers is March 18, 1922 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as part of a major push for a motion-picture charity show to benefit Hope Haven Farm Club. [3] According to several newspaper reports, Mrs. R. J. Brunet was in charge of organizing the acts for the charity event, which included vaudeville acts and motion pictures. [4] An anonymous citizen purchased 1000 tickets to be distributed among orphans at various asylums around the city so that they could attend a children’s matinee performance of “Cinderella” in conjunction with the benefit. [5] This number of tickets is curious, as other reports show that the theater’s seating capacity was only 500. The Brunets provided the use of the theater, as well as the fees for the entertainers free of charge. [6]

Later that year, on May 1, another movie and vaudeville act was presented as a charity fundraiser for the Charity Organization Society. All receipts from morning and afternoon screenings were donated to the cause. [7] On June 6, a third charity fundraiser was hosted to benefit the expansion fund of Loyola University [8] On August 28, the Brunets again donated the use of the theater for a fundraiser benefiting the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. [9] Another article from that year reports that the Brunets committed proceeds from December 18, 1922 to the Children’s Doll and Toy Fund that had fallen short of its goal to raise $6000 for local children. [10]

The Brunets continued to support fundraising and community benefit campaigns throughout the 1920s and 30s for a variety of causes, though they seemed especially committed to causes benefiting the well-being of children and orphans.

A Family Affair

Mr. and Mrs. Brunet were not the only members of their family involved in the daily operations of the Imperial. In “There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans,” Rene Brunet Jr. recalls that his sister ran the box office, and his grandmother took tickets from the time of the theater’s opening until it was destroyed by fire. Brunet Jr. was educated on the operations of the theater, which allowed him to take over as manager after his father died of a heart attack.

Throughout the operating life of the Imperial, the theater operated not only as an entertainment venue, but also as a gathering place for local families. The Brunets offered a variety of specialty nights that Rene Brunet Jr. details in his book, including yo-yo nights for children and “ladies gift nights,” where door prizes could include 52-piece dinnerware sets. Other events and contests used to attract people to the theater were amateur night, and even giving away live turkeys during Thanksgiving and Christmas! [11]

Rene Brunet Sr. died in October 1946 from a heart attack in his home. Shortly afterwards, Rene Brunet Jr. took over operations of the Imperial.

Fire Ends the Life of the Imperial Theater

The Imperial was destroyed by an early morning fire in March 1957. Two firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze, including one who fell part way through the collapsed balcony, and a second who was thrown when flames exploded through the entrance. The fire caused approximately $80,000 in damage [12] The Imperial was never reconstructed.

  • Balio, Tino. The American Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
  • Brunet, Rene and Jack Stewart.There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans. Mandeville, LA: Arthur Hardy Enterprises, 2012.
  • “Movie to be Given for Hope Haven,” Time Picayune, March 18, 1922, 9.
  • “Many Contribute to Hope Haven,” New Orleans States, March 22, 1922, 8.
  • “Vaudeville Show to Aid Boy Farm,”Times Picayune, March 22, 1922, 7.
  • “Auto Race to Aid Hope Haven Drive,” Times Picayune, March 23, 1922, 11.
  • “Movie for Charity,” New Orleans States, April 30, 1922, 8.
  • “Benefit for Loyola Fund is Arranged,” TImes Picayune, June 6, 1922,15.
  • “Child Saving Society to Give Special Show,” New Orleans States, August 13, 1922, 9.
  • “Doll and Toy Fund Reaches $3772 Yet is Short of $6000,” TImes Picayune, December 14, 1922, 1.
  • Brunet, Rene and Jack Stewart.There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans. Mandeville, LA: Arthur Hardy Enterprises, 2012.
  • “Theater Burns, Damages $80,000; firemen injured,” Times Picayune, March 2, 1957, 9.

This page was last modified on 25 February 2013, at 03:15


Imperial Theater

814 Hagan Ave

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