Remember the painted red brick, cheesy signs and junk food adverts at the corner of Shaw and 39th Street? That building used to be the Shaw Theater, and boy is it looking good these days. This is a big historic renovation save for the Shaw Neighborhood and St. Louis in general. This one is an eye catcher.
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.
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 t
he 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
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)
Then, according to a November, 2000 St. Louis Business Journal report:
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.
"So it goes."
Continuing my posts on St. Louis Movie Theaters, I've looked at the four fully operational theaters as well as the many we've lost. This time I'll consider the long list of what were exclusively or became African American (AA) theaters.
How many? Hard to tell as the subject has not been fully researched to date. But per my best source of published information on the subject is Eric Ledell Smith's "African American Theater Buildings - An Illustrated Historical Directory, 1900-1955". Per Smith's assertion, there were 31 AA theaters in St. Louis.
Eric Ledell Smith, a Detroit, MI native, was a historian at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He died June 15, 2008 at the age of 58. He published this book in 2003.
This book is hard to find; I got it on Ebay and I hope to donate it to the St. Louis Public Library as I feel it is the best place to start if you are interested in the subject and the citations are complete and thorough if you want to dig into the microfiche and digital archives of newspaper ads and movie trade journals which are becoming more and more available in digital format.
I'm assured by several librarians, who've been cherished resources, that the Central Library will be interested in the book. So hopefully you'll be able to check it out soon.
Per Smith, it was extremely hard to find information on the AA theaters. Very little visual and written documentation was available in his research. But you have to start somewhere and Smith's book is valuable in that it identifies theaters by state and city and where possible, the years of operation. He claims that his book is the first to feature photographs of black theater buildings. Admittedly, the author was honest in stating that it is going to be very hard to document the history of black theaters due to the lack of reliable info. But he intended the book to serve as a touchpoint for local historians to take it over from here. In my assessment this book does just that, but not much more. It provides the most comprehensive list of AA theaters in St. Louis that I could find. But, if you are looking for more than addresses, Cinema Treasures and Cinema Tour offer more photos and first hand/local knowledge, but it's a good scholarly start. No photos of St. Louis theaters were published in this book and the only two discussed greater than a simple address and # of seats is the Booker T. Washington Theater that was at 2248 Market Street.
Josephine Baker performed her vaudeville act here as a young girl. Drake Walker's Bombay Girls vaudeville act came here in 1926 and included, among others, Bessie Smith. The Count Basie Orchestra played here many times in the 1930s and 40s.
So here's the comprehensive list that Smith accumulated; but note it is a clunky, non-reliable list.
Per Smith, there were 31 AA theaters in St. Louis; but if you do a simple review of his list, you'll find some duplications based on "renaming" the same theater over the years. I've color coded the duplications for your consideration:
Amytis 4300 Ferdinand Streek
Assembly* Jefferson Street
Aubert 4949 Easton Avenue
Booker T. Washington 2248 Market Street
Carver 1310 Franklin Avenue
Casino 1620 Market Street**
Circle 4470 Easton Street
Comet 4106 Finney Avenue
Criterion 2644 Franklin Avenue
Douglas 4201 Finney Street
Globe Franklin Street
Jest-A-Mere 4201 Finney Street
Joy* No Address Available
Laclede 3116 Laclede Avenue
Lincoln* 3045 Olive Street
Marquette 1806 Franklin Avenue
Movie 2620 Market Street
New Movie 2620 Market Street
Olympia* No Address Available
Palace* No Address Available
Pendleton 4264 Finney Avenue
Queens 4704 Maffit Street
Regal 3142 Easton Street
Retina 2008 Market Street**
Roosevelt 317 N. Leffingwell Street
Star 16 S. Jefferson Avenue
Strand 2000 Market Street
Sun No Address Available
Uptown 4938 Delmar Avenue
Vendome* 2313 Market Street***
Venus 4264 Finney Avenue**
* = Not listed on Cinema Treasures
** = sourced from Cinema Treasures
*** = address found in the Freeman Illustrated Colored Newspaper
Upon further inspection and based on subjective evidence on Cinema Treasures, the Carver and the Globe were one in the same, just the product of a name change over the years, so really the count is probably more likely to be 26.
So where does St. Louis fit in with the rest of the country? The following count represents the total number of AA theaters documented in each city in from 1900-1955.
The top 20 cities were listed:
City # of AA Theaters
New York, NY 60
Chicago, IL 49
Detroit, MI 48
Washington D.C. 34
Baltimore, MD 34
Philadelphia, PA 31
St. Louis, MO 31*
Indianapolis, IN 22
Houston, TX 21
Atlanta, GA 20
Cleveland, OH 20
Los Angeles, CA 18
Pittsburgh, PA 18
New Orleans, LA 17
Dallas, TX 15
Norfolk, VA 15
Cincinnati, OH 14
Newark, NJ 13
Jacksonville, FL 13
Kansas City, MO 12
* = by my count, 26 unique theaters; no change in Nat'l placement, but I did not research the other cities for accuracy.
This top ten national ranking in AA theaters is largely a reflection of the history of St. Louis (and old cities of America in general), with many mostly free blacks on the East Coast, and descendants of the slave trade in the South and of course, the substantial migration of black people arriving from the South looking for work in northern factories in the days of segregation which happened to coincide with the golden age of Hollywood and central HVAC when all-day theaters hit their stride. This customer base and social trend meant lots of theaters in St. Louis.
Researching the AA theaters is tough and finding printed material on the subject proved a challenge. But, our library system is local treasure and most of the books out there on the subject are available in the central stacks.
One of the books cited in Ledell was "The African American Theatre Directory 1910-1960" by Bernard L. Peterson, Jr. available in the Central Library's reference section.
There are only two AA St. Louis theaters mentioned in this book:
This book is a great resource for the non-local AA theater & vaudeville troops that passed through St. Louis, but really isn't much help in understanding the buildings themselves. So nothing else in book form that I could find.
But, in the digital era, newspaper and trade journal ads being scanned and uploaded to a server are our best bet for understanding more about these theaters.
Oh, and of course, documenting the stories of old timers who attended these and are willing to talk about em is the BEST method...but it takes time and connections and a strong bullshit meter calibrated toward fact vs. folklore.
Let's get into what I could drum up for each theater:
Amytis Theater, 2300 Ferdinand
Sourced from Cinema Tour, contribution from Darren Snow (source):
As is the case with most of the St. Louis theaters catering to African-Americans in the first half of the last century, the history of the Amytis is difficult to trace since these theaters generally did not advertise in the daily newspapers. City directories do, however, show a listing for the Amytis at this address from 1937 to 1958. This theater does bear at least a tangential relationship to a major figure in Black history, however: It was located in the Poro College/Hotel complex founded by Annie Malone, America's first Black female millionaire.
The theater is no longer there, here's an entry from Cinema Treasures:
The Amytis Theatre, which opened in 1934, was closed in 1960 and afterward demolished in preparation for a neighborhood redevelopment project that never materialized.
It is now an empty lot next to a church in the Ville Neighborhood.
Assembly Theater, Jefferson Street
This one was listed by Smith, but not Cinema Treasures or Cinema Tour. It was managed by AA, Richard Barrett in 1921. It is listed on Jefferson Street which is dubious, because Jefferson is an Avenue (nerdy nuance). Its existance is corroborated in the Julius-Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide, 1921 ed.
Aubert Theater was at 4949 Easton (now MLK):
This theater operated from 1923 to 1953. It's hard to believe these brick beauties could only stand for 30 years. The times didn't think these buildings mattered from a historical or architectural standpoint. There is a Family Dollar in its place today.
Booker T. Washington, 2323 Market Street.
Booker T. Washington is the theater with the most entries from Smith, 2003. It was originally a vaudeville house and eventual a picture house. When central AC came around, it was later named the Booker Washington Air Dome. It was at 2323 Market, not 2248 as listed in Smith, 2003 as corroborated by an advert in the August 20, 1910 edition of The Freeeman, An Illustrated Colored Newspaper out of Indianapolis, IN:
Smith, 2003 goes on to cite that it was originally managed by Charles H. Turpin, son of a free slave and brother of Tom Turpin, a famous ragtime pianist which is a whole other story worth exploration. The story on rapiano.com describes the theater as:
"a vaudeville theater in a partially tent-like structure at 2323 Market Street, just a block down from the former Rosebud on the other side of the street. Charles employed many ragtime greats during the theater's run through the mid-1910s, including composer/arranger Artie Matthews."
The Rosebud Cafe, at 2220-2222 Market Street, was a legendary club for black pianists.
Carver/Globe/Palace Theater, 1310 Franklin Avenue
I couldn't find much on the Carver/Globe, frequent poster "JAlex" on Cinema Treasures said:
"Originally known as the Palace Theatre, the first mention of the house I found was in February 1911 when (the) theatre became part of the O.T. Crawford circuit…an affiliation lasting one year. Theatre renamed Globe in 1932. Renamed Carver in 1944. Theatre operated until late 1955. Structure demolished in early 1956."
Here's a possible photo of the theater when it was the Globe:
Casino Theater, 1620 Market Street
Cinema Treasures has an entry that lists that address as 1618 Market. No photos. The property is now a parking lot for the U.S. Post Office facility. This was the part of St. Louis that had many of the ragtime clubs.
Circle Theater, 4470 Easton (Now MLK)
From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"One of many theatres that lined Easton Avenue. The Circle Theatre had a varied life. It opened in 1910 as the Easton-Taylor Theatre, later shortened to the Easton Theatre, and later renamed the Circle Theatre. From 1943 until it closed in 1951, it was an African-American theater. For a neighborhood house it was elaborately decorated. It had a small balcony with colums along the staircase that led to the balcony. There were a lot of mirrors in the lobby with lush red draperies and trim." (source)
It is now and empty lot.
Comet Theater, 4106 Finney Street
Apparently the theater had a sign with a lit up shooting comet. It was demo'd in the 1980s. The site is now a group of urban scaled new homes called the North Sarah Apartments in the Vandeventer Neighborhood. Too bad the history was not recognized and preserved.
Criterion Theater, 2644 Franklin Street
Rumor has it a Greek family owned this one. It was operational until the mid-1960's, it was demo'd and is now an empty lot. Prior to it's demo there was talk of making this an AA history museum. Too bad.
Douglas Theater/Jest-A-Mere, 4201 Finney
An entry from Jerry Alexander on Cinema Treasures has this entry:
"The Douglass Theatre, at 4201 Finney Avenue, was opened in November 1918 by Charles Pitman as the Jest-A-Mere Theatre. One of the theatres for the Black population in a time of segregation, the theatre was purchased in 1927 by Thomas James and was renamed the Douglass Theatre, after the Abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
When the theatre opened, newspaper coverage said: “Entirely built by Colored labor, completion of big building is a triumph for the race; continuous fight made by unions to force Colored men off the job”.
Seating capacity listed as 850 at opening; reduced to 700 in 1934; reduced to 650 in 1950 (per Film Daily Year Book).
Located in St. Louis' Ville neighborhood, the Douglass Theatre apparently, per newspaper advertistments, was last open in April 1962." (source)
It is now an empty lot.
Joy (no address)
This one is a mystery. Nothing on Cinema Treasures or Cinema Tour.
Maybe it was mistaken in Smith's list as a St. Louis theater, when really it was in a small Missouri town, as there are three other Joy Theaters in MO:
Laclede Theater, 3116 Laclede
Here's an entry from Charles Van Bibber from Cinema Treasures:
"The Laclede was built and opened in 1940 as an independent theatre. It was located in the Mill Creek section of the city just blocks from the Grand White Way where all the movie palaces were located. The theatre had an African-American audience. No trace of the Laclede to be found at all. The Laclede closed in 1959."
Per JAlex, frequent contributor on Cinema Treasures added the following:
"Laclede Theatre built by Alex Pappas. Architect of record was O. W. Stiegemeyer. House approximately 500 seats. Opening date was March 23, 1940. Closing date was June 23, 1959. Theatre, from the beginning, was for the African-American trade."
This one was demo'd for what is now the Harris-Stowe University campus.
Lincoln Theater, 3045 Olive Street
Not much exists on the Laclede. Cinema Tour lists this as existing, but no address or other info.
Smith's reference cited the Film Daily Yearbook 1952-1955; which I was unable to track down. This one remains one of the bigger mysteries.
Marquette Theater, 1806 Franklin
According to Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Marquette Theatre opened in 1913...(and) became an African-American theatre in 1943. The theatre went to weekends only in the mid-1950’s and closed in 1961 when the area was mainly demolished to make way for an industrial park." (source)
No photos; it is now an empty lot.
Movie Theater/New Movie Theater 2620 Market Street
This one was right at Jefferson, across from MSD's HQ. Cinema Tour lists the address as 2351 Market, not 2620 as published in Smith.
From Cinema Treasures:
"The Movie Theatre opened in 1921 seating 406. The Movie was just a small sub run house located a few blocks from the busy Union Station. It was remodeled in 1946 and renamed the New Movie Theatre. It stayed around until the travel by trains had dwindled to nothing and closed in 1957 when the area was set to be redeveloped."
Olympia Theater, 107 South Broadway
Smith said Olympia (like the beer), not Olympic. But I'm pretty sure it was Olympic...although this should not be confused with the Olympic Drive-In (nee Rock Road Drive-In) in North County.
From the "My View From The Balcony" website:
The Olympic Theater was located at 107 S. Broadway St. Louis Missouri and opened in 1866.
The above picture is from 1870, The Olympic first entertained with vaudeville acts and minstrel shows. After 1869 it turned to legitimate drama. A new theater building replaced the 1866 building in 1882. Theater greats of the nineteenth century, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Forrest, Helena Modjeska and Charlotte Cushman performed on its stage. (source)
There is a book published on the subject: "A history of the first Olympic Theatre of St. Louis, Missouri, from 1866-1879" by Theodore Clark Johnson. It is in the stacks collection of the Missouri History Museum.
I'd be surprised if this was an AA theater.
Never been there, that's another one to add to my list.
***Update from November 2, 2015***
Reader Greg Johnson (twitter: @PresbyterianStl), tweeted a photo from the Missouri History Museum archives which indicate the theater was in the 1400 block of Market Street and was razed for the Kiel Auditorium. Here's a photo and link to the story:
Pendleton/Venus Theater, 4246 Finney
Per Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"One of the theatres for the black audience in the times of racial segregation, this opened in September 1915 as the Pendleton Theatre (the theatre just east of Pendleton). Opening publicity stated “the only house for colored west of Jefferson”. The name change to the Venus Theatre occurred in February 1924. The theatre was last noted as being open in 1933." (source)
This was another AA theater owned and managed by an AA, E.F. Austin (source).
Here's an entry published inThe Moving Picture World Volume XXVII from January-March, 2016:
Queens Theater, 4704 Maffitt
This one had an airdome on the east side of the street. There are some great personal stories from former employees at Cinema Treasures. Read them HERE.
This building is still standing in use as a church. The front has gone through some major alterations, so I showed the side of the building here:
Regal Theater, 3142 Easton (MLK):
Some photos capturing the demolition were taken by Ecology of Absence:
At one point it must have been called the Coliseum, as this building below, certainly looks the part:
From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Regal Theatre opened in 1931 seating 846 as part of the Arthur Theatre chain. (Franchon & Marco at that time) Very impressive theatre from the outside but rather plain on the inside. A two story building with a small balcony seating just under 200 with the balance on the main floor. Odd thing about the theatre was that the rest rooms were located in the lobby of the balcony. No rest rooms on the main level. The front of the theatre was constructed with a pale blue marble up the front of the building and about twenty feet down each side."
Retina Theater, 2008 Market Street
No photos available, is now a parking lot for Maggie O'Brien's next to Union Station.
I was able to find this ad on Todd Franklin's Flikr page:
This one was managed by a white guy, J.H. Gentner. (source)
Roosevelt Theater, 317 N. Leffingwell
Entry from Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Roosevelt Theatre was one of about six neighborhood theatres built for African-American clientele. The theatre opened in 1927 seating 591. A single floor theatre, located in the middle of the block just a half block from busy Franklin Avenue and three blocks from the neighboring Criterion Theatre. The Roosevelt Theatre outlasted the Criterion Theatre by many years.The front of the theatre was a simple block front with a cream and orange mix in color with a large marquee lined with tons of neon. The theatre closed in 1966 when the neighborhood was slated for redevelopment. Remained a busy theatre until the day it was closed. Admission prices remained the mainstay until the theatre closed. When it closed adults were 75 cents and children were 25 cents." (source)
It was demo'd and is now a surface lot for an auto repair shop.
Star Theater, 16 South Jefferson
From Charles Van Bibber on Cinema Treasures:
"The Star Theatre opened in 1922 as part of the Komm Theatre chain and seated 866. A two story theatre on the outskirts of downtown St. Louis. 344 of the theatres seats were in the balcony with the balance on the main level. The Star had a black with burgandy streaked marble facade with a large marquee. The verticle sign had no lettering just a huge flashing gold neon star. The three sided marquee came all the way to the curb and the larger tractor trailers were always bashing into the front part of the marquee. The neon on the front side seldom worked because it was always getting torn off. The inside of the auditorium walls had two large star shaped light fixtures on the side walls that would dim when the features started. One of the few theatres that had curtains that raised up instead of opening from the middle to the sides. The theatre was closed in 1959 when the area was redeveloped for a large hotel. The Star theatre was a movie over house for both the Loew’s State and Loew’s Orpheum theatres downtown. When the features were done at the Loew’s they moved to the Star." (source)
It was managed by a white guy: Christ Efthim (source).
Strand Theater, 2000 Market Street
I can't find any evidence of a Strand on Market. I could find a Strand right next to the Columbia Theater on Sixth Street by St. Charles Street. But this was not the one at 2000 Market Street.
Here's a photo of the 6th Street Strand Theater from the Missouri History Museum collection:
Sun Theater (No address listed)
I cannot find anything to corroborate this theater ever existed as a AA theater. The Sun that was in Grand Center was never an AA theater, it had German roots, I have no idea where Ledell got this info.
Uptown Theater, 4938 Delmar Boulevard
Per Jerry Alexander on Cinema Treaures:
"The theatre opened in 1910 as the Delmar Theatre with a stock-musical company policy and within a few years became a motion picture house. The architect was E. W. Pipe.
The theatre was located at 4938 Delmar Avenue and seated 839. An airdome opened next door for the summer months and seated 1,380.
The theatre was renamed the Embassy Theatre in 1924 and in 1931 became the Uptown Theatre.
As a film house the theatre closed in 1953 and in 1954 the theatre was last used as the site of a jazz festival." (source)
It is a suburban styled strip mall today, just east of Kingshighway.
Vendome Theater, 2313 Market Street
The Ledell book was unable to find this address, but I was able to find it listed in a ad from the Freeman Illustrated Colored Newspaper from October 8, 1910:
There was a cluster of AA theaters around Jefferson and Market where MSD and Wells Fargo now stand.
So there's my best contribution to the AA theater history in St. Louis. Tracking down the Film Daily Yearbook, 1952-1955 as well as the book Blacks in Black and White by Henry Sampson will be key in filling in some of the blanks.
If you want to collaborate on research or have photos or stories to share, look me up.
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:
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 1980s...by the 90s most of the theaters were all gone (except the Hi-Pointe and Union Station Cine)...it 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. Louis, Vanishing STL, Ecology of Absence, Pinterest 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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo source: Sante at the Chase Park Plaza
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.
From the STL Cinema's website:
"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
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.