Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Theaters of St. Louis

St. Louis has four full-time movie theaters. Each venue offers something completely unique and makes a night out at the movies a great experience. While four theaters may not sound like a lot for a city of ~319,000, it works. Among the four, there is a good mix of first run, blockbusters, family, art house and the occasional classics thrown in for good measure.

But, it is the overall experience, the vibe, the place that differentiates the city's theaters from the typical experience you get in the staid designs or faux retro feel of modern multiplexes surrounded by surface parking far from the central city.

The Chase Park Plaza Cinemas, one of the four I'll discuss, claims to be:

"the civilized alternative to the megaplex"

I agree with that assessment, and it seems to apply not only to the Chase but to the other three as well.

You can catch a movie with a little more of that old world charm in  either the Hi-Pointe Neighborhood, the Central West End, Midtown or Downtown.

So lets take a look at each.

1. The Hi-Pointe Theater (1005 McCausland Avenue, Hi-Pointe Neighborhood, 63117)

This theater is one of the things that makes St. Louis great.  From the metal and neon marquee, to the curved stainless steel and glass box office, to the concession stand, to the seats and...even the bathrooms are cool with mostly original fixtures.  This is the coolest venue simply because it is like stepping into another time when you enter. The Hi-Pointe is the oldest continuously operating venue in the city and stepping into the lobby is like time-travel as the owners have tried to maintain the original character of the interior as well as the exterior.  And its location near Forest Park, Dogtown, The Cheshire Inn and the massive Amoco Sign, just add to the ambiance of this place on the very western edge of St. Louis.

This is a fun place to take people from out of town and a great return for date nights.

 St. Louis City Talk circa 2010

St. Louis City Talk circa 2010

Notice the billboard and grey paneling over the marquee in the shots above taken in 2010?  As of publishing, the front facade is getting a makeover.  The brick and windows on the second floor are now on display and the grey paneling is no more, giving the building an even more authentic look...check it out:

"An understated and wonderful St. Louis gem, the Hi-Pointe Theatre was built in 1922 at the incredible intersection of Interstate 64, Clayton Road, Clayton Avenue, McCausland Avenue, Forest Avenue, Oakland Avenue and Skinker Boulevard, today also the home of the world’s largest Amoco sign and just at the southwest corner of Forest Park. Taking its name from the surrounding neighborhood, it is the highest point in the City of St. Louis. Unlike other theaters of its time, the Hi-Pointe was always intended to show movies—not vaudeville or plays—on the big screen in a huge, comfortable auditorium. 
During the early days of cinema, the Warner Bros. Circuit of Theatres operated the Hi-Pointe, followed by Fanchon & Marco, St. Louis Amusement and St. Louis’s Arthur Enterprises. 
St. Louisans George and Georgia James have owned the theater since the 1970s. Their daughter, Diana and her husband Bill Grayson have expanded the Hi-Pointe's repertoire adding a second screen with 'The Backlot' and are continuing the family tradition these days. 
The theater has benefited from many renovations over its history. The aquamarine seating, long a favorite of St. Louis moviegoers, was added in 1963. Today, the theater boasts a huge new screen and explosive Dolby Digital sound while preserving the theater’s historic and neighborhood cachet, including a cozy lobby, turquoise curtains, quaint second-floor restrooms and men’s urinals noted by the Riverfront Times as “best in St. Louis.” 
As the oldest continuously operating single screen movie theater in the St. Louis metropolitan area, the Hi-Pointe is proud to continue its 90-year tradition today. The theater features convenient parking, student discounts, reasonable ticket prices, and awesome popcorn that won’t require a bank loan. 
Moviegoers from all over the region love the Hi-Pointe, and it’s frequently voted St. Louis’s favorite theater. 
See the newest movies in style at St. Louis’s oldest theater!"

As noted above, the current owners recently opened "The Backlot", a second screen on the second floor of the building directly behind the main theater.  This brick beauty was converted to a 50-seat, single screen theater with a nice sized screen (19 x 8 feet) and comfortable, reclining seats.  They have beer, wine, cocktails and all the usual salty and sweet snacks you would expect all for a reasonable price.  The theater is on the second floor and there are offices on the first floor.  

My favorite approach to the Backlot is from McCausland through a narrow brick gangway that just makes the city experience that much better.

my girl on her way to the Backlot

Parking is adjacent and plentiful and of course accessible by foot, bike and Metro Bus.  This place is a St. Louis treasure.  Congrats to the owners for the investment, good stewardship, and love for St. Louis movie traditions and of course, brick architecture. 

2. The Moolah Theater (3821 Lindell Boulevard, Midtown Neighborhood, 63108)

Get ready folks, this one is something to behold.  From the minute you arrive, you know you are somewhere special.  Centered between the bustling Central West End and the main St. Louis University campus centered near Grand and Lindell, this location is easily accessible from anywhere.

Walking up to this beauty created in the Moorish vein is something to behold with it's blue and yellow terra cotta trim, pharoah's head sculpture and lavish archways.  The building opened in 1914 and was the home of the Moolah Shriner's a Masonic Organization that used the building until the 1980s when they vacated St. Louis for the staid and safe suburbs in 1988.  The building was left to rot and fell into severe disrepair.  It's amazing how destructive the legacy of abandonment and middle class flight can be on a city...but, thanks to good stewards of St. Louis history and architecture, Amy and Amrit Gill, a massive multi-million dollar renovation took place around 2003. The Moolah was converted to apartments and the existing single screen theater opened in 2004.

The lobby is awesome.  There is a side area to watch movies or the Cards/Blues game if you are waiting for your kids to take in a movie.  There is a great little bar that shows vintage, sometimes kitschy, films and offers up local beers and tasty cocktails.

There is an eight-lane bowling alley downstairs if you want to bowl a few frames, shoot some pool or play some ping pong. Full bar in the bowling alley as well.

The theater is single screen...yeah, that's right multiplexes, a single screen. It is THE largest screen in the region (20 x 45 foot) and the seating is mixed with standard seats, leather couches, love seats and chairs. There is a balcony and a main seating area that accommodates ~500 total patrons.

The ceiling is a work of art and is illuminated with alternating colors and shades of light.

There are plenty of nods to the Shriner's legacy from Fez-shaped lamp shades to art work.

This place is a testament to the value of re-use, re-purposing and historic renovation in place making. St. Louis is better off with this work of art. There is nothing else like it in the region...go enjoy it!

Access by Metro bus, foot and bike are easy, as is the convenient and free structured parking lot directly north of the Moolah.

3. The Chase Park Plaza Theater (212 Kingshighway Boulevard, Central West End Neighborhood, 63108)

How can you not love the Central West End, the most diverse, bustling and well-to-do, yet accessible neighborhood in St. Louis. Vibrant and bustling, this is another fully urban experience.  You can arrive by Metrolink (Central West End red and blue line stop), Metro Bus, foot or cycle. Parking is free in the lot across Lindell at Kingshighway.

The Chase Hotel is work of art and the hallways and lobby are nothing short of stunning. Walking in from the Lindell side is the best point of entry, walking through the revolving doors into the dimly lit box office area complete with Grand piano.  Walk through the hallways amongst the various ballrooms toward the grand hall connecting to the hotel lobby. 

You can't help but feel grand at the Chase.

This 1920's era building is swanky and has that big-city feel. The theaters opened in 1998 and boast some of the vintage charm including an organ player who serenades the audience before the show, Bissinger's chocolate, local beer, wine and ushers who hand out candy on the way out.

Want to impress your significant other or out of town guest? Take them here. The scene is top shelf, elegant and meant to impress. The screens can be a little small, but the handsome murals, intimate setting, sound and picture quality more than make up for the modest screen size.

"The theaters at Chase Park Plaza Cinema consist of five intimate auditoriums with luxury seating, all-digital sound systems and "state of the art" projection. 
This unparalleled design and composition effectively sets a new standard for the St. Louis cinematic experience. 
Renowned architect Salim Rangwala, in conjunction with innovative cinema operator Harman Moseley, worked together with nationally recognized artist Dick Godwin to transform the former Chase Club into five modern day atmospheric theaters. 
With a stadium seating "presentation theater" and trompe l'oeil masterpiece in each auditorium, the Chase Park Plaza Cinema is a high tech representation of the Hollywood studios' great screening rooms of the past. This unique cinema concept is now offered for the first time to the discerning moviegoing public at the extraordinary redevelopment of a St. Louis landmark, the one and only Chase Park Plaza."
If you don't walk the neighborhood after the show, you are missing out.  There are too many great bars, restaurants, dessert shops, etc to mention.

4. The MX Theater (618 Washington Boulevard, Downtown Neighborhood, 63101)

This is St. Louis' newest theater, opening in 2013.  Located in the Mercantile Exchange (MX) district downtown, the building used to house the shuttered St. Louis Centre indoor mall...although it is hard to recognize it today after an amazing redo and modernization.  You can't miss the MX with it's beautiful sign that mimics a classic film reel with alternating red lights illuminating "M-O-V-I-E-S", letter by letter. 



The style of the interior and exterior of the MX is sleek and modern. The three screen theater has padded seats that recline, and have a pull out lap-table for food and/or beverages.

photo credit:  MX Movies Flickr Page

concession stand

They serve more substantial food including gourmet hot dogs, nachos, tacos, quesadillas and of course toasted ravioli that can be enjoyed in the theater or in the adjacent full bar and dining area called the French Connection Lounge.

The location is fantastic between Laclede's Landing and the more concentrated restaurants and bars along Washington Avenue.  It is accessible by Metrolink, within steps from the Convention Center stop, Metro Bus, foot and cycle.  There are bike racks along Washington right in front of the venue.  Parking is free and super convenient as you enter the garage near Locust and 17th Street and park on the second floor, walk right into the theater and they validate your parking with the purchase of a movie ticket.

The National Blues Museum, slated to open in early 2016, will be located across the street.
Photo source: www.nationalbluesmuseum.org

Pi Pizzeria, Snarf's, Taze Street Food, Takaya New Asian and many other dining options exist within walking distance.  You can't go wrong at this venue and with the structured parking, bike racks, big city skyscrapers and Metrolink stop, it has that big-city feel.

Like many other examples in St. Louis, the setting is as impressive as the destination, you really get an experience along with your ticket, you get to experience places that are special, not just a boring suburban multiplex that you can find from coast to coast.

In part two of this post, I will discuss the cinematic treasures that we have lost over the years.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Forest Park

Forest Park is one of St. Louis' 108 parks.  It is the largest park and is clearly the crowned jewel of the park system.  Per the city website:

Forest Park was dedicated on June 24, 1876, coinciding with the centenary of the United States Declaration of Independence. It played host to the 1904 World's Fair and Summer Olympics. The 1,300-acre park offers something for everyone — amazing destinations and institutions that challenge the mind, a Dual Path system that invites both leisurely walks and intense workouts, quiet places to picnic and read, and a variety of popular festivals and events — all set in the background of a city oasis, a place to escape it all.
This is one of the most visited places in the city.  The park benefits from a rare St. Louis County - St. Louis City pooling of public moneys with the creation of a special taxing district where the vast suburbs of St. Louis County pay taxes to Forest Park as part of the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD).  Just look at what can be accomplished when resources are pooled!  We have a world-class art museum, zoo, history museum and planetarium...all in Forest Park. Oh, and don't forget the Muny, Steinberg Ice Rink or the Jewel Box.
Bird's Eye View from Forest Park Forever (source)

The surrounding areas of this sprawling park include some of St. Louis' most swanky neighborhoods including Skinker-DeBaliviere, Central West End, Wydown-Skinker and DeBaliviere Place but Forest Park is also flanked by very affordable yet equally charming neighborhoods to the south including Hi-Pointe, Clayton-Tamm, Kings Oak and Cheltenham.
Now, you can't talk about the park without mentioning Forest Park Forever (FPF).
“At 1,300 acres, Forest Park is one of the largest parks set in an urban environment in the U.S., surpassing New York's Central Park by 500 acres. Much like other parks in urban cores around the country, heavy use — combined with decades of deferred maintenance — took their toll; by the 1980s, Forest Park was in an alarming state of decline.  
Forest Park Forever was created in 1986 as a private, nonprofit organization to work in partnership with the City of St. Louis to reverse this downward trend and strive to make Forest Park a premier American urban park once again.” (source)
Forest Park Forever has done an amazing job re-investing in the park. And the good news just keeps rolling in for the park as a historic donation was made:
June 10, 2015 – Forest Park Forever announced today it has received a gift of $30 million from Enterprise Holdings founder Jack C. Taylor and his family. This gift marks the largest donation Forest Park Forever has received in its 29-year history and one of the largest gifts to support a public park in the United States. The Taylor family has designated the entirety of this gift toward Forest Park Forever’s endowment, which provides support for the maintenance and operations of Forest Park. (source)
As a result of the hard work and dedication of FPF, the current state of the park is nothing short of stunning.  Not only has FPF raised a tremendous amount of money and volunteer capital for infrastructure and hardscape, they have paid special attention to wildlife-sensitive and Missouri-native plantings.  They have also done the little things, like not cutting down all the dead trees which are critical habitat for several denizens of the park.  
There are surprises around every corner.  Everyone likely has their favorite spots, and in order to properly take in this park as a whole, you have to do it by foot.  But that is not to say the park is only a pedestrian park.  The park is accessible by foot, bike, stroller, Metro Link, Metro Bus' Forest Park Trolley and car.  
Navigating the park has recently become much easier with the installation of beautiful and well-placed maps and way-finding signage.
So, in order to broaden the approach on covering this park, a collaboration was in order.  A recent effort of the City of St. Louis' Web Content Specialist/Writer was updating the data on the City's park website; they reached out to a small group of like-minded, outspoken park enthusiasts. That small group included, among others: Claire Wolff, Nick Speiser, Sonia Emmons and Liz Kramer from the website "Park Picnic Project" and myself; all city explorers vowing to visit and talk about each park in St. Louis.
We decided to get together and talk about ways to give Forest Park a proper shake. We decided to break the park up into four sections and split up to give the four corners of the park a different perspective.

Here are the arbitrary borders of our sections:

I covered section 1, Claire, Liz and Nick took sections 2 and 4 and Sonia covered section 3.
We made separate, in some cases repeat trips to the park to take it in and capture the essence of the park.  We converged over coffee and hot chocolate at Rise Coffee in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood to share photos, talk strategy and tell our stories.

One common thing that stuck out was that this park is functioning like a healthy city park should.  At most parks you will see fisherman, joggers, picnickers, kids playing, adults exercising, etc.  This park had it all and in the greatest numbers of any park we'd visited.

The park goers in Forest Park were from all walks of life.  More than any other park, this is a perfect cross section of all of St. Louis as well as the inner ring suburbs of Clayton and University City.   The level of diversity is high and it is easy to feel comfortable no matter who you are in the park.  There is something there for everyone, and probably many others.  The overall activity and healthy vibe in the park is infectious and inviting.

Not only are there world-class cultural institutions, facilities for multiple sports (jogging, cycling, softball, rugby, football, hand ball, racquet ball, cricket, tennis, golf, archery, etc.), ponds, lagoons, brooks, picnic pavilions, historical markers, statues, and fountains there are also woods in the Kennedy Forest on the southwest corner of the park.  This is more than just a tourist destination, it is a neighborhood park and a regional gathering place all at the same time.  This is everyone's space.

We took hundreds of photos and there is a lot you can say about the history and the recent renaissance of the park.  You could easily write a book about the Zoo, Art Museum, etc alone.  We decided to take the approach of keeping it short and simple and letting the photos do most of the talking.  
Simply jump to the sections below to follow each of our lenses and perspectives on Forest Park.

This final park post completes my personal goal to visit and write about all 111 St. Louis parks, now officially 108 parks after the City revisited the published list. Thanks to Liz, Claire, Nick, Sonia, Jeff Wunrow and Cari Cleeland. You guys make me hopeful for the future of St. Louis.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

St. Louis Street Name Pronunciation

I love St. Louisans who grew up in the city, live in the city and root down in the city.  Being an Illinoisan and now St. Louisan for 20 years, I get constant joy from hearing how people talk and pronounce St. Louis names and streets and buildings.  

These real people give us that local linguistic soul, dialect and annunciation that I've come to appreciate over the years.  Being in the near geographic center of the U.S. affords us the opportunity to get tastes of how different people talk in this country...we might just be the melting pot of American diction.  Drive just an hour south of St. Louis in either Missouri or Illinois and you'll hear the countrified rural drawl...not like the deep south, but definitely southern.  Drive north of Decatur, IL for a taste of the Polish/Chicago thing.  Near the Iowa border with Missouri you get a taste of the Northern Midwest thing (a taste of Brainerd from Joel and Ethan Coen's "Fargo") or Scandinavian diction.  Not Minnesota or Wisconsin...but getting a bit closer.

Scandinavian Midwestern Gold

Nationally, St. Louis is probably not recognized as having its own accent, but colloquially, we probably do...it's just not well documented.  I think it is there buried in nuance  But a trained or curious ear can pick it up.

Look no further than local hip hop artist Nelly and actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer discussing the nuances of pronunciations in the St. Louis black community on the intro track to Nelly's still kick ass recording "Country Grammar".  I love hearing that nuance when I talk to people.

St. Louis needs its own Alan Lomax, the famous theoretician of folk linguistics (and one of my favorite Americans), to investigate and record these weird sounds and dialects and pronunciations from my fellow St. Louisans.  St. Louis University should get a sociology or languages grad student to take this on :)

Anyhow, as I continue to traverse this city, I'm usually on my scooter which is the perfect vehicle to drum up conversations with strangers.  People want to talk when they see a dude on a scooter.  "How much mileage you get?"  "How fast does that thing go?"  "You need insurance on that?", "You look stupid on that thing"...you catch my drift.

Memories of Billy and Benny McCrary dance through my 1970s memory banks every time I turn the key of my low cc ride...

Anyhow, a two-wheeled vehicle, a motorcycle helmet covering my ears and a clunky camera around my neck means you can't safely use GPS, so I often find myself asking people for directions to certain buildings or streets.  Sometimes the street pronunciations I hear back are truly entertaining.

I am providing this list for new comers.  This is how the locals pronounce the following streets:

Gratiot = Gra'-chit
Gravois = Grav'-oy
Chouteau = Sho'-to
Goethe = Go'-Thee
I-64 = For'-tee

Your highfalutin French is not needed here kind sir, this is how we/they roll it off the tongue in the STL.

I will add to the list as new discoveries are made.

But back to our great street names...

The St. Louis Public Library has compiled a list of all the St. Louis street names with a brief history. Glen Holt and Thomas A. Pearson of the Special Collections Department of the St. Louis Public Library are responsible for this fascinating resource.  Thank you, gentlemen, for your hard work and tireless research.  Your efforts have helped me understand and uncover the mysteries of my city and for that I am very thankful.  

So thinking about the work of Lomax, Holt and Pearson, why not embark on a field recording of St. Louis Street Pronunciations?  You could have the proper annunciation and the colloquial one side by side.  

But this has got to come from the real St. Louisan's, the ones who live on these streets...and this won't be hard, because St. Louis is a porch-sitting paradise in the summer.  People line the stoops in most neighborhoods, especially many of the all black neighborhoods in North City.

I had a conversation with an old man that I will never forget when I was photographing a park in North City.  He was hilarious and cool.  If half the shit was true, you could write a graphic novel about his view of his neighborhood.  He about laughed me out of the conversation when I grossly mispronounced Cabanne Place...it was like I almost offended him...and I ended up laughing too.  I now know how pronounce Cabanne in a way that won't get me laughed at.  But, I still don't have the proper pronunciation cemented in my brain to either match reality with or enjoy the play of local vs. proper. 

I imagine traveling to the more curiously named streets...microphone and recorder in hand and getting a sampling of the street names as pronounced by the hoi polloi.  You could add these tiny .wav files in a link next to the street names on the directory.

Hey Glen and Thomas, if our paths ever cross, let's talk!

Meanwhile, I'll keep logging my weird street names and the way I hear people say them.