The longest continuously running theater in Texas balances modern technology with a healthy respect for tradition.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and a light snow whistles down the sidewalk in front of the Cliftex Theatre as families hustle inside the warm, popcorn-infused confines of the lobby. Rich Douglas, who owns the theater with his wife Leah, works both the box office and the projection room as visitors fill the 140 seats to watch Disney’s “Coco.” The gentle slope of the floor, wood paneling and antique light fixtures complement the ancient clock at the front, which reads “Vykykal Drug Prescription,” a bygone local pharmacy.
The Cliftex shows one movie a day from Thursday through Sunday in Clifton, which sits on the edge of the Hill Country about thirty minutes northwest of Waco. Norwegians settled the area in the mid 1800s, and many of their descendants still live and work in the area. The Cliftex stage, which opened in 1916, reveals a semi-circle of candleholders that once lit live shows and traveling cowboy entertainers. Hollywood legends Buck Jones and Tom Mix entertained onstage in western-themed variety shows that found their way to Clifton.
The theater partially burned in 1935, and had to be completely remodeled. During the 1940s, the owners paid neighborhood kids to stick flyers in the mailboxes of everyone in town advertising the next film. A popcorn machine originally operated on the street while customers bought tickets from the box office, negating the need for a lobby. Today the original machine serves as a table for popcorn fixings. During Clifton’s Jim Crow past, if African American visitors wanted to watch a movie, they climbed the narrow stairs into the projection room and shimmied through a window onto a small balcony at the back of the theater.
“Living in a small town allows more time for genuine conversation.”
The theater fell into disrepair at the end of the 20th century, but prior owners restored the space to its 1930s era decor. The balcony and the old 35 mm projector remain, but today the theater boasts a digital projection system as good as any multiplex. The Douglases run the theater while maintaining full time jobs and raising a young daughter. Rich composes video games and Leah works for a skin care company. They moved to Clifton from Memphis as a way to slow life down and spend more time with family. “Living in a small town allows more time for genuine conversation,” Leah says. “It’s a different element in your life.”
Still mostly a rural community, Clifton’s quaint downtown attracts plenty of urbane tourists. Sinclair, a New American restaurant in a remodeled 1922 service station down the street from the Cliftex, brings elevated cuisine to small town Texas. A boutique hotel called The Cell Block on a vibrantly painted alley allows guests to stay in a pair of Clifton’s 1930s era cells, where they can listen to jail-themed records and sleep behind the steel doors. Both add to Clifton’s unique mix of rural and urban attractions.
The Cliftex recently hosted Chip and Joanna Gaines for a photo shoot, and ticket sales benefit from the Gaines’ Magnolia Market in Waco, now one of Texas’s top tourist attractions. Visitors who want to see a movie and avoid the crowds frequently make the drive from Waco to the theater.
Despite the increased business, the Douglas family resists raising ticket prices past $5 in order to continue over a century of tradition of entertaining with the community in mind. “It’s not about how much money we can make,” Rich says. “We look at it as being the caretakers and preserving it for the next generation.”
Will Maddox is a writer from Dallas. He likes taking the long way, getting off the interstate and exploring Texas. He can be found hiking, playing soccer and eating gas station tacos.