After nearly 20 years outdoors, Slab Cinema is coming in from the rain. Given an unexpected opportunity, the popular mobile movie venue will open a new brick-and-mortar space in the Blue Star Arts Complex called the Slab Cinema Arthouse, with events beginning next week.

After a gala celebration for San Antonio bon vivant Mike Casey’s 80th birthday held at The Espee in June, co-organizer Angela Martinez moved art made for the event to an unoccupied space in the Blue Star complex for an informal show.

The 1,700-square-foot space had once been the RC Gallery, run by Martinez’s friend Rhonda Kuhlman, who died in 2009. Those old memories made the space feel welcoming, and that it was available for rent sparked the momentum Martinez and husband Rick Martinez, Slab Cinema co-proprietors, needed to realize a long-held idea to open an indoor venue.

Slab Cinema Arthouse located at Blue Star allows for flexible gallery space and film showings.
Slab Cinema Arthouse located at Blue Star allows for flexible gallery space and film showings. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Now with city inspections freshly passed, Martinez is moving quickly to program a schedule that will include “art house” films — a loose term that includes indie movies, classic noir and horror genre films, foreign films, cult movies, and films by local filmmakers — along with art exhibitions, live performance, and themed events.

Through August the pace will be slow, partly due to concerns about how the delta variant is affecting public gatherings, and also to give the new space a few test runs for fine-tuning, Martinez said.

If things work out as expected, the Slab Cinema Arthouse will make its full public debut for the September First Friday artwalk at Blue Star with an art exhibit for annual multi-venue photography exhibit Fotoseptiembre.

Once up and running, the Slab Cinema proprietors will return to the early days of their movie venture circa 2002, when they played public domain noir and horror films for small audiences.

“That’s how we started, with showing these art house films, and we’d get like 30 people,” a number which they found perfectly acceptable at the time, Martinez said.

Back then, the screen was a simple white sheet hung from the wall, first at a part of the La Tuna Ice House property dubbed the slab — from which the cinema project got its name — then at the couple’s Planet of the Tapes video store on South St. Mary’s Street. Now Slab Cinema averages 200 showings per year on five portable screens.

Martinez considers herself and her husband to be movie enthusiasts, rather than cinephiles, with the motivation simply to show films they wanted to see, and to create a community of like-minded San Antonians.

That group eventually swelled to reach up to 2,000 audience members per screening at their larger events, which currently range in location from Travis Park and Legacy Park downtown, to La Cantera on the North Side and the Mission Marquee Plaza on the South Side. Outdoor programming will continue in addition to events at the new indoor space.

The new venue will comfortably accommodate up to 60 viewers, though it can be rearranged for as few as 30 depending on the event. Blue velvet curtains decorate the space as a nod to the David Lynch cult noir mystery-thriller, and cushioned chairs and a sofa provide seating adequate for comfortable viewing.

The plan is to offer a limited weekly schedule of art exhibitions, live performance, and film, and sometimes a combination of all three, if the elements come together, Martinez said. She gave the example of Casablanca, a classic noir film that would be an ideal opportunity to program a speakeasy, karaoke, a thematic installation, and the film itself.

Nineteen-year-old Wiley Martinez, son of Angela and Rick, has also contributed by researching Chicano filmmakers, and by acquiring vintage 8-millimeter and 16-millimeter films projectors.

One other coincidence that contributed to the good feeling Angela Martinez got from occupying Suite 134 at Blue Star was the recollection that she and Rick had attended a party there 19 years ago. They left early to go bowling at Hermann Sons, where she rolled her best game ever. Nine months pregnant with Wiley at the time, Angela went into labor while walking home and gave birth to her son that very night.

“So this space has a really important…,” she said, trailing off, distracted by yet another detail awaiting her attention as she prepared for the next chapter of Slab Cinema.

With the schedule still in development, Martinez recommended checking the Slab Cinema Arthouse Edition website for programming updates, to include selections from the Janus Films collection.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...