Screens A movie mogul in Greta Garbo's mold 

John Santikos would prefer to be left alone so he can get on with building more theaters

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John Santikos stands before one of his theaters. The distractible yet prolific creator has plans to renovate the Galaxy into a 20-plex called the Palladium, with architectural details mimicking the Parthenon of Greece. (Photo by Laura McKenzie)

John Santikos would rather not talk about the past. Faced with another interview, he immediately balks at the prospect of retelling the same old story of extraordinary success that begins nearly a century ago with his father's immigration from Greece and ends with the largest locally owned and operated theater circuit in San Antonio. "Everyone already knows that story," he says, instantly dismissing an entire line of questioning.

Santikos speaks in a slow, hushed voice that accentuates his natural reticence. Besides the past, he would also not care to speak on other matters. For one, he prefers to remain ageless, at least in print. "No, please, please, do not put my age," he insists, the timeworn creases in his face shifting with displeasure. "That is secret." Santikos also declines to note the exact year in which he followed his father's path to America. "I was 19," he says decisively. For all his reserve, Santikos escapes obscurity with a lucid old world grace, manifested in rare moments of warmth and openness, made all the more disarming by the silent gleam of an eye and the hint of a Greek accent.

In particular, Santikos likes to talk about his theaters.

"I love creating things," he says, sitting in the café of one such creation, Embassy Theatres. "I don't do it for the money. I don't need any money right now. I do it because I like to use the money to create things."

And create he does, on a prolific scale. In the beginning, Santikos was inspired by his father, whom he calls his "mentor." He says Louis Santikos decided to enter the theater business after arriving in America in the early 1900s. "He was looking at people `who` were waiting in line to go to the movies," says Santikos, "and he said that would be a good business to go into." The elder Santikos promptly established one of Texas' first nickelodeons. Then, in 1923, he created San Antonio's luxurious Palace Theatre.

His son soon followed suit.

Beginning with the creation of a single-screen theater following his graduation from St. Mary's University, Santikos has gradually scattered a vast constellation of multiplexes throughout San Antonio, from the Mission 4 Drive-In to the Northwest, Galaxy, Westlakes, and Embassy theaters. In the last few years, he has enhanced his expanding universe of flickering pictures with the Silverado 16, the Bijou art house at Crossroads, and the lavishly decorated Mayan 14. To think Santikos would stop there would be to underestimate his vision.

"There's always new ideas," he says coolly. Among them: the remodeling of the Galaxy theater - "a few architectural things" - and the construction of "a beautiful new theater," with 20 screens, called the Palladium.

Pressed for details on his newest creation, Santikos becomes restless and distracted. "I really don't have a lot of time," he says, consulting the clock. He now appears on the cusp of complete disengagement. Then, abruptly, Santikos turns expansive, providing a detailed description of the design. "The entrance to the Palladium is the Parthenon," he says, smiling. "I hope we get authentic enough."

Ancient Greek architects erected the marble columns of the real Parthenon to honor Athena, the virginal goddess of wisdom. In constructing a replica, Santikos seeks to serve a decidedly more terrestrial presence: his customers. He says the first thing he considers when creating a new theater is "what the customer would like." After all these years, Santikos thinks he has a good idea: "Primarily, they enjoy a nice, clean place," he says. "This is what I concentrate my attention on."

As evidenced by some recent innovations, Santikos' aim extends beyond mere cleanliness. At the Mayan 14, for instance, he has assembled a self-serve concession bar to eliminate long lines. According to Mike Richards, an Embassy theater manager who has worked for Santikos since the early 1970s, his boss has always had an eye on improving the movie-going experience. "He's always looking for new things to do, how to update the theaters, so the public will be happy," says Richards. "He's here all the time, and he interacts with the public on a personal level." Richards recalls one interaction in particular that revealed a glimpse of Santikos' shy side. A woman, believing Santikos to be the theater manager, approached him to say how pleased she was with some recent changes. When Richards informed the woman that Santikos was actually the owner, the proud creator began to blush profusely.

Santikos is quick to emphasize his humility. He does not live extravagantly, he says. Instead, he returns his prodigious spoils to the theaters themselves. "I don't use my money for my personal use. I live very average. I don't have any extraordinary cars or airplanes. I work seven days a week, so I don't have time to spend my money anyway."

Santikos says he also rarely has time to enjoy the movies he brings to town: "I see the first 15 minutes and then something comes up." When he does find the time, Santikos prefers "sophisticated" fare to the latest overheated thriller. "I'm not an action man," he says. In particular, Santikos likes biographies; he mentions Callas Forever as a film he recently enjoyed.

From the increasing terseness of his replies, it is apparent that Santikos has finally tired of discussing himself. Nonetheless, after rising from the chair, he radiates gratitude. "I really appreciate the interview," he says warmly, extending his hand. "I'm sorry I'm such a bad subject." Then he retreats to an empty theater for photographs. His escape, however, is short-lived. Soon after vanishing into the dark, Santikos is pursued once again by his inquisitor, who wishes to clear up a small detail. In good form, Santikos declines the request regarding his age. Instead, standing amid an array of empty seats, he offers a disjointed yet conclusive reply.

"I just want to make a beautiful place," he says, as if this is all anyone ever needed to know about John Santikos.

By Brian Chasnoff


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