The really cool Imperial Theater was at 814 N. Hagan St., at the corner of Dumaine Street. In its early days — the 1920s — the theater was the site of vaudeville shows. Later, many of the popular films of the day played at this neighborhood theater.
Early on the morning of March 1, 1957, a fire burned the theater to the ground. Two firemen were injured as they tried to contain the blaze. Thirty people were evacuated from neighboring houses, but none of the houses sustained damage.
Rene Brunet Sr. hired the Boswell Sisters to sing at the Imperial before the trio became nationally famous. Price wars and giveaways also sought to lure audiences from one theater to another. Brunet recalled a Thanksgiving promotion that went awry when the prize turkey escaped and ran down Hagan Avenue.
Rene Brunet Sr. died of a heart attack in 1946, forcing his son to drop out of college to take over the Imperial. The young Brunet ran the theater until it caught fire and burned to the ground 10 years later. “It was a very dramatic thing for me,” Rene Brunet Jr. said. And while there wasn’t enough insurance to rebuild, he forged ahead.
Faubourg St. John neighbor Jean Lichtfuss says,
“I remember as a child being awakened by my mother to come to see a fire blazing somewhere in our neighborhood. My mom probably wasn’t interested so much in our seeing the fire as to be prepared in case we’d need to evacuate.
Anyway, in the darkened kitchen, my mom, my brother and I watched out the kitchen door as sparkes lit up the sky and large pieces of burning material flew through the air.
Because I felt safe with my mom, it was quite a spectacle, and only with a tinge of fear did I watch the plumes of smoke and the smoldering timbers land in our yard. We lived on Ursulines at the time.
I also remember many a happy Friday night or Sunday afternoon going to the Imperial. Mama sent us on Sunday afternoon when we were young and when we got older we met our boyfriends there on Friday night. We kids of the 50’s had it good.”