Ghosts of St. Louis Movie Theaters Past

Previously, I discussed the four remaining, fully operational, St. Louis cinemas. While looking into their backgrounds, I became fascinated with the history of the past theaters of St. Louis...most of which are long gone.

How'd I find out about these places?

Well, there's always more than one way to try to understand the past.

You can take the academic approach and go straight to the library, reading through the documents, papers, maps and corroborated information that may or may not exist...this is the time consuming route, the route journalists and other people getting paid should take. Or, you can scour the internet or best of all, get out and see for yourself (my go-to method) and try to imagine the place and how a theater would have fit into the fabric of the neighborhood. The dark horse method, usually the most fun and personable, you can read from or listen to first hand accounts from people who were there or who devoted their time to research and share it with the public. 

For the latter, there is a fantastic source:

Cinema Treasures

This online catalog of movie theaters past and present has some incredible photos and snippets of information. Some of this info is crowd-sourced, so it may be more on the subjective or anecdotal side and there are some cases of slightly inaccurate details. However, that should not stop you from exploring this amazing site.

Lord knows I did, for almost a week straight. And the point of this post is to share a list and as many photos of the St. Louis theaters of the past that I could find.

Most of the entries of St. Louis theaters were written by one Charles Van Bibber. This guy obviously has a ton of experience and first hand knowledge of the city's theaters. I tried to connect with him to get his story and understand how he has so much information and experience with St. Louis theaters. We connected briefly via social media channels, but there was no interest to meet or do an interview. So it goes.

But in typical St. Louis small town/big city fashion, the plot thickens.

I was at a local tavern and started spieling about my new-found obsession with local theaters, and the conversation spread to the table behind me where sat someone who just happens to be an urban explorer with tenfold my experience. Turns out, this guy has devoted a tremendous amount of time looking into this same topic and just so happens to have a three-ring binder filled with research, photos and info...I have connected with him and hope to revisit that conversation and follow up on this fun topic. We'll see.

These chance connections are one the things that makes St. Louis such a charming place to live.

Anyhow, after spending a solid week of my spare time reading, riding around and looking for photos of the St. Louis theaters, I thought I should share my findings and a summary of the info I pulled from various sources.

As a result of my online research, I've also become fascinated with the all-black movie and vaudeville houses and will be posting my findings on them as soon as I do a little more poking around and after I read this recent find on eBay:

But, my true fascination with movie theaters started with something very simple: the signs...the metal and neon of the grand marquees. These signs are disappearing at a tragic rate. I've lived here for ~21 years and many of my favorite metal signs have vanished. Movie theaters and cinema in general are one of the greatest things 20th Century American's gave the world. It is a strength of ours and the buildings themselves were built to be an extension of that artistic expression, a gift to the neighborhood or city in which they resided. There were over 150 theaters at one point in the heyday of St. Louis neighborhood theaters, so there was fierce competition as well. >90% of them are gone...meaning demolished, wiped out. This is not a St. Louis-only problem: the other three Midwestern cities I scanned (Kansas City, Memphis and Cincinnati) have lost most of their theaters too.

History was not on the side of the movie houses. Many were simply places to get the hell out of the heat, a brief respite from the hot and humid St. Louis summer before the onset of affordable central HVAC. Then came T.V. in the 1950s, burlesque/go-go dancers in the 1960s, XXX adult films in the 1970s and VHS/Beta in the the 90s most of the theaters were all gone (except the Hi-Pointe and Union Station Cine) seems these buildings were under constant attack by technology and the changing times. It was tough to keep up, many older theaters were reconfigured to skating rinks or bowling alleys. Pair that with the intense wave of suburban flight that continues to suck people from St. Louis to the tune of nearly 550,000 people lost since 1950...the customers up and left and demanded newer multi-plex theaters surrounded by a sea of surface parking. Such is the trend to this day in the suburbs.

A good example of this eventual demise is the Garrick Theater built in 1904 and eventually razed in 1954. It started as Loew's playhouse and transitioned to vaudeville around the time of World War I, legend has it Al Jolson and Fanny Brice performed here.

Then it transitioned to a burlesque, check out the fine print: "69 people, 32 white, 37 colored", progressively inclusive or insanely racist?

Then by World War II it had become an adult movie house. It was razed in 1954. (source)

Now Showing:  "Burning Question- Victims of the New Sex-Craze"

Too bad we lost so many of these places. But luckily, Cinema Treasures is a repository for some photos that are invaluable if you are trying to understand the history of St. Louis. I've spent way too much time on this site dreaming, driving around getting current photos, trying to find where these once stood; but again, the point of this post is to mine through the photos and information and share the St. Louis-centric stuff for your consideration.

There are other valuable resources out there for documenting St. Louis theaters, usually the ones that are being demolished, like Built St. LouisVanishing STLEcology of AbsencePinterest and several Flikr accounts I stumbled upon. But for a central repository for vintage photos of the cinemas, you can't beat Cinema Treasures.

When searching for 'St. Louis' on Cinema Treasures, it counts 160 theaters, of those 132 are actually in St. Louis (many are in the 90 or so cities in St. Louis County and unincorporated parts of the suburbs that will not be discussed here).

Of those 132, 38 have no photos available so there is no current photographic evidence readily available online. Sadly some of these were the all-black theaters including Booker Washington, Douglass, Laclede, Casino, Marquette, etc. The Lyric was demo'd for the current Busch Stadium parking garages. All these buildings are gone and photos are not readily available online. Here's a list of the 38 theaters with no photo images on Cinema Treasures:

Dig a bit deeper and you can find some photos of some of these missing places. For instance, I was interested in the King Bee (great name), Tower and Chippewa Theater at 3897 Broadway which supposedly became the home of an appliance store owned by locale pitchman-legend Steve Mizerany. I was able to find these:

"a 50 cent show for 5 cents"

Used to host "battle of the bands", just down from the white water tower in the College Hill Neighborhood

will need to verify this

There are 35 theaters (Kings is listed in error) that have photos of the buildings, but no obvious discernible evidence of the signage that it was indeed that particular theater.

Here are a couple examples:

Bonanza: 2917 Olive Street, 63103

Maffitt: 2812 Vandeventer, 63107

New Merry Widow: 1739 Chouteau, 63107 (near Ameren)

Go check them out, many are already gone or on their way to the landfills and brick/scrap thieves.

The good news is, there are 59 theaters with photos of the the buildings when they were operational or with enough there to verify it.

Some were massive losses to Mother Nature, Urban Renewal, or good old fashioned abandonment and neglect.

In my humble opinion the biggest losses were the Ambassador, Congress, Granada, Grand, and Loew's State...nearly all victims of either urban renewal or neglect.

The Ambassador

at 411 North 7th Street was a Downtown treasure. How the hell do we continue to allow this kind of thing to happen? Shamefully, this was destroyed in 1996. Mercantile Bank got the demo permit...and the fools in charge of the city let it happen.

Instead of a big city work of art we have a dead zone "plaza" in the heart of downtown:

The Congress at 4023 Olive Street was in the Central West End.

The Grenada at 4519 Gravois was in the Bevo Mill Neighborhood at Taft and Gravois from 1927 - 1992. The 70s - 90s were brutal for demo's in St. Louis.

Then (image via Cinema Treasures)

Then (image via Cinema Treasures)

Here's the current site use:

                                   Now (image via Google Street View)

The Grand Theater at 514 Market was built in 1852 and destroyed in the 1960s for the latest round of bad ideas (read recent NFL football stadium proposal just north of Downtown) associated with Busch Stadium II which stripped most of Downtown of it's history and brought us a ton of parking lots and surface lots...all activity killers. Busch II lasted for a mere 40 years but its wake of destruction was intense and we're left with...parking lots.

The Loew's State Theatre was at 715 Washington Boulevard. It was demo'd in 1983...

You get the idea, we've lost a lot over the years. St. Louis was built to be amazing and special and boomed when America did...sadly its bust years were devastating as ~0.5M people vacated for the exploding suburbs in a mere 50 years. This vacuum hit the oldest parts of the city hardest.

I've shown the most grand losses, but there are many, many others worth noting.

Following are those others that we have lost entirely or are still there, waiting for someone with the means to save them. All photos were sourced from the Cinema Treasures website.

The Roxy at Lansdowne and Wherry in the Southampton Neighborhood, the building was there from about 1910 through 1975:

The Macklind Theater on Arsenal, just west of Macklind in the Hill neighborhood was operational from about 1910-1951:

Then (image via Cinema Treasures)

Now (image via Google Street View)

The Melba was at 3608 South Grand near Gravois. Here's the entry from Cinema Treasures:

The Melba Theatre was opened on November 29, 1917. After adding a long succession of neighborhood houses, Fred Wehrenberg acquired the Melba Theatre. The 1,190-seat house on Grand Avenue had an airdome next to it. During warm evenings, shows would be stopped in the auditorium, and film reels carried to the airdome. The movie would then continue in the cooler outdoors.
When built, the Melba Theatre had a park in front of it. Later, an office building with stores was constructed on the site of the park. It formed an arcade which led to the lobby of the theater.
When the theater was torn down, the office building remained. The marquee from the Melba Theatre was moved to the Melba Theatre in DeSoto, Missouri, another theater acquired by the Wehrenberg chain.

This beautiful building is still on Grand, here's a more current view:

The Ritz theater was at 3608 South Grand near Juniata and operated from 1910-1986:

The site is now a pocket park with ideas of commemorating the Ritz. Here's a story and excerpt from NextSTL:

"A proposal by artist Walter Gunn has been chosen by popular vote to seek funding. His proposal, titled Ritziata, received more than 42% of votes cast for proposed art installations on the site. You can read the full proposal text below. Now that a selection has been made, an Indiegogo campaign has launched. The funding goal is $133K."

The Shenandoah at 2300 South Grand and Shenandoah operated from 1912-1977:

The Columbia was at 5257 Southwest on the Hill and it is rumored that Joe Garagiola worked there:

photo source: Landmarks Association of St. Louis

The Princess was at 2841 Pestalozzi and is still there although bastardized with a fairly heavy hand:

theater as a church

current scene in Fox Park Neighborhood

The Apache was at 411 N. 7th Street:

The Apollo Art was at 323-329 DeBaliviere and was raided several times by the police because they were showing foreign and independent films:

The Arco was at 4207-11 Manchester in Forest Park Southeast, now called the Grove:

The Armo Skydome was at 3192 Morgan Ford, now a 7-11.

The Aubert was at 4949 MLK:

The Avalon was at 4225 S. Kingshighway just south of Chippewa.  This one was operational from 1935-1999 and was popular in its later days for showing the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  It was demo'd in January, 2012 and its demise is very well documented.

 photo sourced from: "DJ Denim" on Flikr

The Bijou Casino was at 606 Washington Ave:

The Capitol was at 101 N. 6th Street:

The Cherokee was at 2714 Cherokee:

The Cinderella was at 2735 Cherokee and is currently undergoing a renovation, yay!:

The Comet was at 4106 Finney (all black theater):

The Empress was at 3616 Olive, it hosted many performances by Evelyn West, a beautiful dancer some called "the Hubba-Hubba Girl" or "the $50,000 Treasure Chest" as she apparently insured her breasts to the tune of $50,000 through Llyod's of London:

The Gravois was at 2631 South Jefferson:

The Hi-Way was at 2705 North Florissant:

The Kings was at 818 N. Kingshighway:

The Kingsland was at 6461 Gravois near the intersection with S. Kingshighway. It was operational from 1924 through the 1990s when it was sold and demo'd for an Aldi's.

It's destruction was captured within the "Straightaways" album inset by Son Volt showing the stage on display for the final time amongst the piles of red brick:

Album inset photo: Son Volt "Straightaways", 1997 Warner Bros. Records

The Lafayette was at 1643 South Jefferson (the building in white); this is now a Sav-A-Lot:

The Lindell was at 3521 North Grand:

The Loew's Mid City was at 416 N. Grand:

The Martin Cinerama was at 4218 Lindell and was pretty mod, with a curved screen and plenty of mid-century charm:

The Melvin was at 2912 Chippewa and is still there to see:

The Michigan was at 7226 Michigan and was freaking awesome...until ~1999 when it was razed:

The Missouri was at 626 N. Grand (currently being renovated, yay!):

The New Criterion (all black theater) was at 2644 Franklin:

The New Grand Theatre at 702 North Grand apparently screened the first talkie in St. Louis, Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer":

The Orpheum (or the American) was at 416 N. 9th Street:

The Pageant was at 5851 Delmar (not THAT Pageant):

The Palm was at 3010 Union:

The Pershing was at 5917 Delmar:

The Regal (later Coliseum) was at 3144 MLK, check out the Vanishing STL photos and story:

The Rio was at 5566 Riverview:

The Senate was at 9 North Broadway (read the article on the tragic collapse, it calls Downtown "Skidrow"):

The Shaw was at 3901 Shaw at 39th Street. It was most recently Salamah's Market and was purchased from the local community development corporation. It is slated for a renovation into a catering and events company called Wild Carrot per a nextSTL story from May, 2016. Per that story, the sign is returned.

Conceptual image of "Wild Carrot"

The Stadium Cinema II was at 614 Chestnut and was once converted to Mike Shannon's restaurant:

The Sun was at 3627 Grandel Square and was lovingly restored and in use by a public charter school Grand Center Arts Academy:

The Thunderbird Drive-In was at 3501 Hamilton (I'm dying to find better photos of this one):

The Towne (formerly Rivoli) was at 210 N. 6th Street and was a well known adult film spot:

Union Station Ten Cine was at 900 Union Station on the south side of the property.  It was operational from 1988-2003.  It's closing is pretty well documented and I will do a separate post on it in the future.  Photos are surprisingly very hard to find.

The Victory was at 5951 MLK:

This one had a long history as the Mikado and then was renamed the Victory in 1942 per roots web:

"The Mikado / Victory Theater was located on the north side of Easton Avenue, just east of Hodiamont Avenue in the Wellston business area. The address was 5951 Easton Avenue (today Dr. Martin Luther King Drive., St. Louis, MO 63133
The O. T. Crawford chain built the Mikado theater in 1911, the architect was F. A. Duggan. The Original Japanese design seated 1608, including the balcony. The building was completely redesigned in 1939 in a
modern art deco design. Fire regulations, wider seats, and aisles reduced seating capacity to 1103. The newly modernized Mikado added a permanent marquee projecting over the entrance.
In December 1941, WWII began. In many cities a theater named Mikado (a dated term for "Emperor of Japan") would be renamed. The Mikado was renamed the Victory theater in February, 1942."

The Virginia was at 5117 Virginia and is still standing:

The West End was at 4819 Delmar:

Here's another one right before its demo in 1985:

The Whiteway was at 1150 S. 6th Street:

The World Playhouse was at 506 St. Charles was known for burlesque:

Thanks to Charles Van Bibber for the time and effort you've shared with us for future consideration and pondering. And of course, thanks to Cinema Treasures for cataloging these important places.

If anyone out there reading this has family photos of any of these theaters, please consider sending me a note and we can connect to get them scanned in for the future generations to appreciate.