Nearly three months ago, Bert Guerra successfully prevented demolition on the historic Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in McAllen.
Now, he faces another difficult fight right on his homestead — keeping Cine El Rey afloat against the raging waters of the COVID-19 pandemic — and he’s unsure of how long they could fend off defeat.
The historic Cine El Rey was built in 1947 as a movie theater and continues to serve the community 73 years later as a performing arts center.
While Guerra co-owns the theater with his brother Isaac since 2007, he emphasized the theater belongs to the community as well; he has witnessed how the theater impacted lives from stories of people meeting their future spouses at shows and becoming successful business people to holding social justice events.
The pandemic hit early to mid-March and extended into April, Cine El Rey’s biggest months for revenue every year, according to Guerra.
Artists route their tours around bigger markets — such as New York City or Austin — then branch out to smaller markets such as McAllen and Cine El Rey.
With the cancelation of Austin’s South by Southwest festival, one of the largest markets for small venues like Cine El Rey, Guerra said first the shows in March and April were cancelled, until eventually the entire year’s slate of shows were cancelled and postponed.
“That took out a big chunk of what we would normally make and probably won’t have the opportunity to make,” Guerra said. “A lot of the bigger tours that we were gonna depend on — it was going to be good enough to tie us over— cancelled.”
Also losing profits are venues owned by a city, like Bert Ogden Arena and Payne Arena. However, unlike Cine El Rey, those are subsidized by taxes.
Patrick Garcia, a local promoter who has worked with Guerra for over ten years, recalled instances of speaking to Bert throughout the pandemic about cancelled and postponed shows and noted he gradually began worrying about the venue’s future.
“I’m one of the few that has [Guerra’s] trust, and vice versa,” Garcia said. “At first, he seemed very confident, but I think as as time progressed he saw the writing on the wall and realized ‘Holy crap, [the pandemic] is going to last a lot longer than anticipated.’”
Guerra began his application for the Small Business Loan program ahead of time, but was denied because they didn’t meet the criteria.
Freelance entertainers, which range from hundreds to 1,000, that use Cine El Rey bring their own employees, which ultimately disqualifies Cine El Rey since they technically don’t have full-time employees, Guerra explained.
“The problem is that every month that we’re not open,” Guerra said, “we still have the burden as if we do employ hundreds of people as far as what it takes to keep an operation like this going.”
Due to its appeal as a historical landmark, the VisitMcAllen website advertises the theater as entertainment — emphasizing on its reputation as “the best venue in South Texas” — it is included in Mexico City airport’s McAllen tourism guide, and has its image enlarged at McAllen’s Dave and Buster’s, which receives tax breaks from the city.
Despite its appeal being used to attract tourists, Cine El Rey faces another problem: although it’s a historical landmark, it cannot receive grants or subsidized loans dedicated to historical preservation because it’s privately owned.
While there are several types of business loans, there’s two similar but different loans whose focus relates to the pandemic: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) gives businesses funding employees’ salaries eight weeks to expense a percentage of those annual salaries to be forgiven and the Small Businesses Assistance (SBA) disaster loan, which account for losses that are sustained by the business because of the pandemic.
According to State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, the first round of PPP funds ran out very quickly. While he isn’t aware which one Guerra applied to, he expressed a concern over worthy businesses like Cine El Rey being denied.
“The reality is, Cine El Rey is such an important part of the Rio Grande Valley’s history and a proponent of the arts in our community,” Canales said. “To me, it’s tragic and heartbreaking that they’re struggling because of this pandemic.
“I do think that a greater effort should be made by our local congressional delegation in Washington to try and secure, perhaps, funding through the FDA or other funding to preserve some of these institutions that are facing financial difficulty, such as our museums, Cine El Rey and other things that promote the arts.”
Legally, Guerra said, Cine El Rey can be considered a movie theater. Although Governor Greg Abbott’s reopening guidelines include movie theaters, Guerra feels hesitant.
Cine El Rey doesn’t have all the licensing in place to open as a movie theater like Cinemark. When the theater does show movies, Guerra said they showcase independent filmmaking with directors and actors in attendance.
Canales mentioned crowdfunding as an option for fundraising, noting his example with the food bank; Guerra, for his part, considered online fundraising to further the word out, but ultimately decided it wasn’t a viable option due to additional fees required.
So instead, Guerra penned a letter to the community that loved Cine El Rey the same way it loved them; he posted it to the theater’s Facebook page and asked the followers to donate $5.
“I felt responsible to be honest with our fans, at least, and let them know where we are economically,” Guerra said. “We took the cheapest, tightest route. The money goes straight to our bank account.”
Guerra was specific as to why he was asking for $5: If the pandemic forces the theater to remain closed for another six months, he mentioned as an example, Cine El Rey would need about $100,000 to avoid foreclosure. With over 20K followers on Facebook, Guerra asked for the very thing he said he had never needed: help.
From cutting Cine El Rey’s garbage services to limiting their usage of electricity, Guerra has been looking into how to save money to pay for their loan and insurance payments.
“I’m losing Cine and I could theoretically work with whoever takes over,” Garcia said in regard to Cine El Rey’s potential closure. “But I’d be losing Bert.”
To Garcia, it’s not about the theater remaining open, it’s about who is overseeing the venue.
Garcia mentioned when the theater had different owners before Guerra’s ownership, it was difficult to book shows there. Back in 2009, around the time Garcia began booking at Cine El Rey, Guerra let him book shows from peculiar indie bands even though there wasn’t any money in it.
“Bert really has his head on the ground and he’s really in tune with the community, and if the venue goes, it could change owners and management and a lot of people may think that’s fine, but if the venue goes so does that sort of touch it has with the community,” Garcia said.
Actor and Valley native Valente Rodriguez shared similar testimonials about Cine El Rey’s uncertain future. From music clubs to comedy shows to being challenged by an old woman during a wrestling match, Rodriguez has been involved with the theater long before Guerra’s ownership.
Rodriguez singles out Cine El Rey after acknowledging there are other older entertainment venues, due to its everlasting “dynamic energy” surrounding the theater since he started attending, he recalls, ten years ago to meet up with Guerra.
Once the Guerra brothers took over, they turned it into a unique performance space for the Rio Grande Valley, Rodriguez said, adding the theatre has a capability to serve a diverse community of patrons and not just a specific group of “go-ers.”
“This is one of those places that we can’t afford to lose,” Rodriguez said. “Once we lose it, it’s gone forever.”
As of Saturday, Cine El Rey has raised $2,860 online and $230 by mail. Guerra noted the donation link has had 4,952 page visits, but only 382 donated.
There are two ways to donate to Cine El Rey, the first being online by visiting https://cine-el-rey-theatre.square.site
An additional option is what Guerra calls “the old fashioned way,” mailing the theater, 311 S. 17th McAllen, Texas 78501.
The mail-in option is Guerra’s preferred method because of the letters he receives from the community along with the monetary donation.
Although he knows he can’t pay the donations back, in his heart he wishes he could, Guerra said.
“I love Cine El Rey. Stay strong,” Guerra read from a letter.