Phyllis Gamble can usually tell the out-of-towners when they’re buying tickets for a movie at the Cliftex Theatre.
They’re the ones who wait for a ticket. The home crowd walks by to take their seats, knowing that Gamble or whoever’s selling tickets will remember they’ve paid, even if they leave during the movie to get a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen down the street.
Actually, they don’t have to leave the movie while it’s playing to go get something to eat or drink. They can wait until intermission, a tradition at the Cliftex that continued into its digital era, once owner Gamble and business partner Mechelle Slaughter learned how to program a movie break with the theater’s new digital projector five years ago.
Then there’s the chalkboard sign out front on movie nights that has not only the title of the film that’s playing, but its run-time, so parents dropping their children off know when to come back.
In a multiplex world where small, single-screen movie theaters are an endangered species, Clifton’s Cliftex Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
It’s thought to be the longest continually operating movie house in the state, and a made-in-Texas movie lineup this week officially starts the celebration.
Any small-town business that operates for a century is remarkable, but given the locally inserted intermissions, the first-name relationships that owners have had with customers, multi-generational attendance, $3 popcorn and a marquee that announces life milestones like birthdays, anniversaries and wedding proposals, the Cliftex’s longevity may be as understandable as remarkable.
If it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes it takes a village to keep a theater going — and vice versa.
“Our days here are about our love for this little town and a cornerstone business that’s been a part of this community for 100 years,” said Gamble, a 1982 Baylor University graduate who retired to Clifton in 2003 and has developed a passionate regard for her community there.
She and Slaughter bought the Cliftex Theatre in 2008, renovated it and have kept it humming in the center of town. They are the ninth owners, if one counts the small wooden nameplates looking down over the theater’s small lobby, in a long line that stretches back to its founding in 1916 by D.C. Caraway. Caraway and his wife, Beulah, ran the theater for almost 30 years, a tenure matched by Joe and Blair Enochs, owners from 1949 to 1979.
One of three movie houses then in Clifton, the Cliftex built a following as the place for first-run titles and, back in the day of movie serials, the weekly exploits of the likes of space explorer Buck Rogers or cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.
1930s outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker reportedly stopped at a drugstore across the street from the theater during a Bosque County stay, but there’s no record that they stayed for a movie.
The limestone-walled theater weathered two world wars, the Great Depression and the economic pressures on small rural towns in an increasingly urbanized world.
“We’ve known people who’ve survived the Great Depression and a world war. This old place did the same,” Gamble said.
While nearby Waco boasted larger, better movie theaters, the Cliftex provided a fair share of movie moments for Bosque County residents, who make up the great majority of the theater’s clientele: first movie, first movie with a date, first movie with a child, first movie with the extended family.
Clifton Mayor Richard Spitzer, 69, recalls seeing his first movie as a kid at the Cliftex in 1952, though the film escapes his memory. He does remember that he “cried my little heart out” at 1957’s “Old Yeller,” the story of a Texas boy’s faithful dog, and it was at the Cliftex where Spitzer saw the epic “Gone With the Wind” during one of its revival appearances.
Schools and churches are often the main places where people meet in a Texas community the size of 3,400-resident Clifton, but the long-running movie theater has provided another meeting spot.
“The Cliftex has given us entertainment in Clifton,” Spitzer said.
The theater’s 2008 renovation restored the theater’s exterior to its earlier appearance and added art deco touches in the interior.
It also has led a small revitalization of Clifton’s downtown in recent years. Nearby restaurants have extended their hours into the evening.
Gamble and Slaughter bought a property across the street from the Cliftex and rebuilt it into the Screen Door Inn, a bed and breakfast.
A Tractor Supply store and a small department store have joined Clifton’s business community, and a large-scale renovation of a former mill into small retail shops a few blocks from the Cliftex is underway.
“Those two ladies have done a great job,” Spitzer said.
The theater seats slightly more than 150 filmgoers and screens a Hollywood feature Thursday through Saturday nights plus a Sunday matinee. Movies usually arrive shortly after finishing their initial runs in larger cities.
“Their Finest Hours” was the Cliftex’s film last week, and after nearly eight years of programming, Gamble said she has a sense of what works and what doesn’t in Clifton.
“Our biggest movies are ones that the whole family can come to. If three or four generations can come, it will always be big at the Cliftex,” she said. “It’s the Cliftex at its best.”
The Texas films the theater will screen beginning Thursday represent four decades. “Places in the Heart,” representing the 1980s, is Thursday’s feature, followed by 1997’s “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall on Friday.
“Secondhand Lions,” a 2003 film and a Gamble favorite, will play Saturday, and the pick for the 2010s, “Bernie,” will close the series Sunday.
There’s a commemorative logo created for the centennial year, one that is on T-shirts and coffee mugs on sale in the lobby.
There’s also a reunion planned for those who’ve worked at the theater in the years since 2008, and Gamble said many of the high school and college students who worked back then will be returning with kids of their own.
The theater owner also is thinking of a larger reunion of all those who have worked at the Cliftex for sometime in the fall, once she figures out how to accommodate all those people. A whiff of popcorn, it seems, brings back occupational memories for a healthy share of Clifton residents.
As it heads into its second century, the Cliftex continues to make, and reinforce, memories for its town’s residents, many of whom show up to socialize under the marquee’s blue-and-green neon when the box office opens a half-hour before showtime.
“You can see everybody in this town that you want to see in 30 minutes,” Gamble joked.