Saturday, May 7, 2016

Union Station 10 Cine' (1988-2003)

When we lose places, be they businesses, homes, or just a building we lose memories, historical touch points to revisit, and worst of all, our identity as a place, as a city.

I gave the many theaters we've lost over the years in St. Louis some consideration here and here. And as of publishing, we have four great movie theaters existing in the city.

Yet, when I moved to St. Louis in the 1990's, there were only two first-run movie theaters in town: the Hi-Pointe and the 10-screen Union Station Cine'. The Avalon at Kingshighway just south of Chippewa (now gone the way of the wrecking ball) was still showing films; but I regret never making it. My wife went there once to see a sing along version of the Wizard of Oz, you know where the little ball jumps around the words on the bottom of the screen. She may have been one of only a handful of women in the seats :)

I did go to the Union Station 10 Cine many times though, so I feel obliged to share my experiences and thoughts on the place since it is the only theater I attended that is now shuttered. It is really hard to find info on the other lost theaters of St. Louis, so I'm compelled to contribute a personal story to the only lost theater I was in.  Sometimes we don't think as kindly of the 1980's as we should, and it might be easy to write these places off. 

The website Cinema Treasures includes many anecdotes from people who attended these lost buildings and I really appreciate their stories and perspectives. So I'll share a couple memories of mine.

I guess even the must mundane spaces have a history and stories tied to the past and Union Station 10 Cine was no exception. It felt like this place needed a proper tribute.

First a little on the building itself.

This theater was just south of the massive Union Station train shed/parking lot near the "Power House". It lasted for only sixteen years, with screenings from 1988 to 2003.  Per "Cinema Treasures":
The theatre opened with a 70mm screen and two auditoriums with THX sound. The theatre itself was a 42,000 square foot free standing building.

The lobby area featured an old fashioned ice cream parlor and a deli so that patrons could either eat before or after the show. There was a mural that was removed from above the old ticket counter in Union Station where passengers would buy their train tickets. The mural depicted line men working on the rails and different types of trains. The mural was restored and put on the wall above the concession stand in the new theatre.

The Union Station Cine' was successful as far as patronage was concerned but the high priced lease hindered the profit. When Wehrenberg went into bankruptcy they tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the lease but to now avail. They closed the theatre and a short time later Wallace Theatres picked up the lease and operated the theatre until late in 2003. It has been closed ever since. (source)
The mural described above was an important work by artist Louis Grell called "Commerce on the Landing".
Luckily, the history of the mural is well documented by the Louis Grell Foundation:
Grell was commissioned to paint a unique seven foot tall by twenty-eight foot long mural to be mounted above the curved “new ticket counter” as part of the World War II renovation at Union Station in St. Louis in 1942. More than 100,000 passengers used the terminal daily during the height of the war. The St. Louis Union Station terminal was the “busiest passenger rail terminal in the world.” This historic mural titled Commerce on the Landing, depicts the Eades Bridge, Mississippi River front, 2 mighty Steam Boats and an old fashioned steam engine train on the riverfront during the 1880′s. The mural was officially unveiled in June 1942. 
The mural was in place until c 1985, when, during an extensive renovation it was moved to the UNION STATION Cine 10 theatre for a short period until the theatre closed and the mural was lost.
This mural was rediscovered in March 2014 by employees during a $66 million renovation of the hotel and terminal. Please see color pictures of the newly rediscovered mural above. Notice the Impressionist style used by Grell for this particular commission. Versatility by Grell was common. Many news agencies covered the discovery from St. Louis to Indiana, Illinois, many across Missouri, the Washington Times, the New York Post and the San Francisco Gate all ran extensive stories and links to the video covering the great find during a time when great art discoveries are being well represented in Hollywood films such as the “Monuments Men.” 
The mural underwent extensive conservation in St. Louis by artist and conservator Irek Szelag, in preparations to be rehung in the Union Station Grand Hall in mid 2015. St. Louis’s Kodner Gallery owner Jonothan Koder conservatively valued the artwork at $150,000 due to its beauty and relevant historical stature. Union Station owners believe Commerce on the Landing ”is considered one of the most important public artworks ever created for St. Louis.”   
Furthermore, local reporter/producer Ruth Ezell did a wonderful story on the mural and Louis Grell on her "Living St. Louis" segment for local PBS station "Nine Network". Watch the ~11 minute segment below, which aired on Channel 9 in 2015.
So the entry on the mural from Cinema Treasure checks out. Another anecdote on the Cine was from commenter "mmiller" who shared an interesting observation about the building's unique location under the elevated lanes of I-64:
One interesting thing about this theatre was that it was built under a major highway and that the support pillars for the highway were actually in the building without actually touching the building (this was a requirement of the highway department). At one time it was the only building in the US with this bizarre use of space. The construction price of this theatre was very high because of all the extras which also included a full service bar and high end sound systems. The lobby was expansive and very interesting to see. (source)
You can see what the commenter was talking about as the theater is truly tucked under the elevated lanes of the Interstate:
The exterior's coolest feature was the incorporation of the overhang waiting areas for train loading.
The marquee and ticket booth were nothing special compared to the older theaters, but oh how 80's:
The 1980's color schemes were in full force, looking like the early Arizona Diamondbacks uniforms...
 former displays for movie posters
Here you can see the deli and ice cream parlor.
Photos of the Union Station 10 Cine' are hard to find on the web; but, thanks to some of the usual STL bloggers, there is some content available. The following photo is from Steve Patterson, posted on UrbanReviewSTL and shows the atrium in front of the theater building...again, very 1980's...but still in great shape (and in the shadow of the K-SHE 95 studios). I don't know if it was intentional or just my imagination, but it looks like a train from afar:
Photo credit:  UrbanReviewSTL
Union Station 10 Cine' closed in 2003 but not before my wife and I took in the amazing martial arts film "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" in or about 2001. By that time the movie theater was becoming run down, poorly staffed/managed and pretty sketchy...it felt like it was on it's last leg. 

Two memories stood out. 

First, by that time the patrons at the theater were nearly all black. And of course, anyone who knows anything, can tell you that seeing a martial arts movie with a nearly all-black audience is a true American experience...not unlike the difference in attending a buttoned-up, priest-led Catholic mass vs. a more outwardly spiritual Baptist choir/band-led service...both good, but drastically different. The stereotypes are well known and documented, this is not news. And the Union Station 10 Cine did not disappoint on this particular evening.


This showing of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was a full-on, max-volume crowd participation night and we were likely the only white people in the theater and it burned a memory into both of our brains. Sometimes the outbursts and constant talking is annoying, sometimes it is transcendent...depends on the internalized elixir, mood and/or vibe of the night. You just can't make this stuff up. Crouching Tiger was rife with beautiful special effects of flying Qing dynasty warriors and plenty of sword play and sparring. 

The crowd would erupt in hilarious outbursts of commentary related to the bad-ass fight scenes. The in-theater commentary was like standup comedy and this particular night we were into the distraction, embraced it and had fun with it. My wife and I still utter little asides that we heard from the crowd during that movie nearly 14 years later.

It was a great night and a great memory.

Another benign yet not as pleasant memory came on a different night when I went to use the restroom during a show. The lobby and concession area was dark and sparsely staffed and some dude slowly followed me into the restroom. Now I'm not an idiot and I know how to minimize potentially troublesome situations. I thought he wanted to sell me some weed, so I made continuous eye contact and kept conversation going as I stood at the urinal. Turns out his business model was more of a tryst-based one and I was just goobed out. You didn't get this kind of thing in Belleville, Fairview Heights or South County where we grew up watching movies, so I chalked it up to city living and making me stronger and better and wiser to the different things going on in our great society.

So these memories are nothing too special, but my two cents and the stories I can remember from this theater. I'm sure there are better stories and photos out there, so please feel free to share them here in the comments section.

Anyhow, these two stories probably don't make up the typical American movie going experience. They are outliers in the huge sample size of millions of people going to the theaters year after year.  But these experiences described above most likely led to why many quit going to the Union Station 10 Cine'.  If you're not up to it, the talking and interruptions during a movie can be considered off putting, rude and/or low brow.  I bet most suburbanites and visitors staying at the hotel in Union Station who wandered over for a movie walked away shell shocked. The older I get, the more I understand that need for peace and quiet.


One thing seemed clear, the theater was on its last leg.

The reports of the theater's demise are fairly well documented and a couple journalists shared the racial component of the story that I suspected.

A 1996 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article by Fred Faust available on Questia.com documented the unfolding drama with Wehrenberg and the struggles of drawing suburbanites to St. Louis.
Ronald P. Krueger, president of Wehrenberg Theatres, is threatening to close the Union Station 10 Cine.

In a letter Aug. 2 to the Powerhouse Partnership, landlord for the theater, Krueger says Powerhouse has breached the lease because of "Union Station's stated policy of preventing access to this center by minors and other young adults, unaccompanied by their parents during the evening hours.

"Due to its geographic location, the overwhelming majority of this class of individuals are minorities. The result, then, of this policy is to make unwelcome at the center a significant portion of the market which the theatre targets and a concomitant decline in theatre traffic and revenue.

"Consequently, present as well as future economic viability of the theatre operation has been eliminated."

Krueger also complains in the letter that parking problems have hurt business at Union Station 10 Cine.

Unless the "access policy" is immediately abandoned and parking problems solved, Krueger writes, the letter is notice that his company will vacate the premises, probably in 60 to 90 days.

A week after Krueger's letter, Powerhouse sued Ronnie's Enterprises Inc., the Wehrenberg entity that signed the lease. The suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeks an injunction that would force the theater to remain open.

The key partners in Powerhouse are developer Garrett Balke and builder Ralph Korte. In addition to the theater, they developed the office buildings at the southern end of Union Station.

In the suit, Powerhouse says the buildings were financed by Aetna Casualty and Surety Co., to whom the rents are assigned. If Ronnie's stops paying rent, the suit states, Powerhouse "will be unable to make its mortgage payments to Aetna."

The theater and other buildings would risk foreclosure, according to the suit.

The Ronnie's lease runs from Aug. 1, 1988, through July 31, 2008, plus optional renewals. The current rent on the 40,000-square-foot theater is $610,887 a year, or $50,907 a month.

There are also common-area maintenance charges. A percentage rent clause says Ronnie's will pay 7 percent of annual gross receipts in excess of $4.1 million.

Neither Krueger nor Balke could be reached Friday for comment.

When Union Station 10 Cine opened eight years ago, Post-Dispatch critic Joe Pollack hailed it as the first first-run movie house in the city since the Stadium Cinemas closed in 1984.

But, noting that Krueger's company had had problems with the Stadium Cinemas, Pollack wondered if the Union Station theater would succeed in drawing suburbanites back downtown, past more convenient mall locations. (source)
The theater was operated by Des Peres, MO-based Wehrenberg Theatres for nine years (1987-1996). Wehrenberg pulled out in 1996 amid some parking disputes and racially charged controversy between Wehrenberg and the theater owner Powerhouse Partnership over parking and Union Station's policy regarding minors at the time. A letter sent to the Powerhouse Partnership shortly before Wehrenberg pulled out contended that the theater's business had been hurt by "Union Station's stated policy of preventing access to this center by minors and other young adults, unaccompanied by their parents during the evening hours." The policy was tantamount to discrimination, according to Wehrenberg, because its primary audience was minority youth. 
Rumor has it that the disputes led Wehrenberg to claim they would never operate another theater in St. Louis and evidence suggests that is true as all their current operations are in the suburbs of St. Louis County and other parts of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.

Too bad, I have good memories of that Wehernberg jingle playing before many a movie in Fairview Heights, Illinois, and it'd be nice to have them back in St. Louis.
The above policy eventually worked itself out and a new investor came. Wallace Theater Corp., a Portland, OR based firm, acquired the theater from Wehrenberg. They spent $1 million on renovations, and reopened the theater in 1998. Just two years after reopening the Union Station 10 cinemas, Wallace entered into talks with Union Station's owner to end the theater chain's 10-year lease as Union Station was courting Aurora Foods who wanted the extra space to expand their corporate operations (source).

The Aurora Foods deal never came to fruition and the theater was kaput.

With the words of Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Lowe dancing through my head:

"So it goes."

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