Esquire Gets New Life

The Esquire Theater, 824 Broadway, may not turn into a parking lot after all. John Buckner, the building’s new owner, has announced plans to spend up to $2.4 million to renovate the 67-year-old building as an art-house theater. (Click on any photo to make it larger.)

New owner like a kid with a toy

Buckner is tackling the project with a lot of enthusiasm and a healthy dose of fun. He couldn’t wait to get a message on the marque, even though a cold front was moving in and dropping lots of chilly rain down his collar.

The place is a mess

The Esquire closed as a motion picture house Oct. 7, 1984, with a showing of Purple Rain. After that, it tried to be a second-run movie theater; a teen club; a gospel music theater, and ended up a repository for junk, including the set from the Tom Hanks movie, The Green Mile.

This photo, taken from the projection booth, gives only a hint of the clutter. Wife Lila’s brother, John Perry, is helping Buckner clean out the accumulated stuff so Penzel Construction can begin renovation. He said that the building was crammed so full that they could barely get the lobby doors open.

Tiny concession stand

The concession stand, with the candy counter still showing prices, was much smaller than I remembered. Another thing mis-remembered by me and some of the curious folks who wandered in on Tuesday was a balcony. Most of us would have sworn that the Esquire had a balcony, but it didn’t. The Broadway must have been the only theater of the three on Broadway to have upstairs seating.

(The dishes weren’t used by the theater. They were some of the miscellaneous stuff stored there.)

Short of seating

The theater seated 800 when it opened in 1947. The audience had better have stayed seated in the red upholstered seats because there was a dearth of another kind of seating.

The men’s room had a urinal and a toilet – and you’d better be skinny to use the former – to handle the needs of the audience. Maybe they didn’t serve extra-large drinks in those days.

Esquire stories

  • Scott Moyers did a long piece in The Missourian on plans for the building. I’ll point you there for the details. An accompanying sidebar has a historical timeline of the theater.
  • Missourian photographer Laura Simon made it into the Esquire a day before I did (and went to the trouble of lighting it better) to produce a photo gallery.
  • I ran a collection of exterior photos of the theater in March of 2010 and went into a little of its history.
  • In September 1965, I used infrared flash and film to capture kids watching The Beatles movie Help! It was the first (and only) time I used that technique.

Esquire photo gallery

I prowled from the boiler room in the basement to the projection room high above the viewing area. I discovered the old projectors, boxes of tickets, the plastic marque letters, the 1947 Workman’s Comp placard and a devil’s brew of mold that will either cure anything I have wrong or kill me.

Many of the things I photographed won’t bring back memories because they were just items that were stored there and had no connection with the theater we remember. I’m including them to give an idea of the scope of the project in the before stage and as a reminder of how far the building has come (assuming that the project is completed).

Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the picture to move through the gallery. Please, leave comments. It seems like everyone who walked into the place had a story to share. I wish I had set up a video camera on a tripod to capture those memories.


32 Replies to “Esquire Gets New Life”

  1. My mother could get me out of her hair by sending me to the Esquire, the Broadway, or the Rialto on a Saturday afternoon. One theatre took milk bottle caps (Sunny Hill) and a dime and you could stay all afternoon and watch “B” westerns. Great memories Ken.

    1. Tim and Paul,

      I’m not sure exactly how the Green Mile set ended up there. One of the previous owners acquired it somewhere and somehow.

      The details on the cell doors are remarkable. You’d swear you were looking at a steel door and not a light-weight wooden one.

  2. I was hoping you had access to see what it looked like inside (counting on it, actually).

    Whoa, what a job! Sure that $2.4 million will cut it? Figured it was bad in there, since it’s been retired as a theater since before I was born. I wonder if the Broadway is better preserved, as I remember going there in the 1990s. Regardless, I hope it goes well.

    1. The building is in better shape than the pictures would lead you to believe. The room is leaking in a few places and the plaster has pulled off the walls, but the building has been pronounced sound.

      Early stories said the 100 x 60 building was constructed without using lumber to make it more fire safe. So, you pretty much have a concrete and steel box with decorative trim.

      I’d love to get into the Broadway, but I fear it may be in worse shape. It all depends on how much water has gotten into it over the years.

    1. I gave him my business card and told him to look for a story in a couple of days, so he’ll probably see your comment and offer.

      He said he might put one or more of the projectors on display. To qualify for some of the historic tax credits, he has to restore the place to as close as original as possible.

      The walls, for example, he said, will have to be replastered; it’s not enough to just slap drywall up. He’s searching for photos that will give the design team an idea of what it used to look like.

    2. Micah,

      Are you local? I talked with John Buckner for a few minutes this afternoon. He said virtually everything in the place that isn’t going to be used in the renovation is being discarded / sold, including the projectors and Simplex unit you saw.

      Friday afternoon, the doors will be locked and nobody but the contractors and inspectors will be allowed in until the grand opening. He wants to build suspense.

  3. My neighbor hood kids who lived south of cape used to go to the broadway show on Good Hope just about ever week in or so. This theater was the only one in town that allowed the black people to watch a movie, there was a door on the side of the building that allowed them into the upstairs area of the theater.
    I spent many a saturday at the movies, for a quarter you could spend all day and never go hungrey. I believe the price of the movie was a nickel and they would have give aways some saturdays to draw more people. I am still a movie hound, good memorys.

    1. The name of the theater was the Orpheum. I spent many Saturdays in that theater as a kid from South Cape. It did have a balcony but it was partitioned. One half was for black folks, the other for whites. And, yes they had to enter from a side door in the alley. I don’t think blacks were allowed in the Broadway, Esquire or Rialto theaters before integration in the Cape schools in 1954.

  4. Another scoop…great shots of a landmark that looks like it will see better days ahead! Many memories of this great theater. I always thought the Esquire was the best. The Braodway was too big and they never let you sit in the balcony. s The Raltio had a weird seating araangement, you alway felt like you were sitting in a hole in the ground looking up.

    1. Terry, it was more like a scooplet, not a scoop. I was supposed to go down on Monday, but something came up.

      Laura Simon from The Missourian got her gallery up a day before me.

      The Broadway wouldn’t let YOU up in the balcony because they knew you were a hooligan who would rain down stuff on your unsuspecting classmates below.

  5. I grew up loving movies and still do to this day! Went to the Esquire Theatre many times also the Rialto and Broadway! Don”t think I ever visited the Orphum Theatre! Movies and the Maryann Skating Rink was my favorite things growing up in Cape! So glad the EsquireTheatre is not being torn down!! Good deal!

  6. My hat’s off to John Buckner for tackling what will be a hugh restoration. Much as they did for the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, this restoration can have a very positive effect on “downtown” Cape. Good luck in your job John!

    1. Yeah, I bet the Fox was 10x the undertaking; a bit of research says it cost $3 million in 1980s dollars to restore and it had only been vacant for three years! Hope that the Esquire is the same kind of success; the Fox is excellent!

  7. I have very fond memories of the Esquire Theater. My boyfriend, John Burciaga was an usher there and I remember the first time I saw him in his red uniform with the epaulets on the shoulders. How handsome he was and still is!

  8. Never made it to the Esquire but sure hope to in the future. John, best of luck to you and this grand undertaking! Can’t wait to see it when you open!

  9. Kenny,
    I am so thrilled to see these pictures!!!! I worked at the Esquire while I was going to college at SEMO (1966-1970). I have such fond memories of the theater and the people I worked for and with. It was a great place to work except for the pay. I had always hoped that I would be able to get inside the theater again sometime, and I feel as if I have been inside after looking at your wonderful shots. It certainly doesn’t look like it does in my memories!! Best of luck to the new owner. I sure wish I could get to Cape before he closes the doors on Friday. I would love to have something that was actually part of the theater, but I guess that something is going to have to be your pictures!!!

  10. In 7th grade, I arrived at the Esquire with six or eight pals to see some forgettable flick. We just wanted to be out on the town. The Jujubes from the concession stand made for nice wet, sticky blobs to throw at the screen from the front row. They stuck and we howled. A moment later the house lights came on and down the aisle walked the tall gray-haired man who ran the place. He announced to the audience that we were the trouble-makers which was humiliating. Regrettably he wasn’t finished. He made each of us stand and reveal our identities as well as those of our parents. Lesson learned–till we hatched new plots.

  11. Nancy Seabaugh Skinner sent me an email which she has given me permission to share:

    What a project on the Esquire Theater. I use to work there when I was at Central High for 2 years back in the 50’s. I love it. I can’t remember my boss’s name (which I never thought I would forget) but he was a very pleasant, caring & fair boss. He was so good to all the help I’ll never forget him. As a matter of fact I can still see him.

    I also have a cousin that worked there later on & went on to a biger town in the theater business.

    I live in Tucson AZ now, but I’m hoping that I’ll get to see the new theater finished.

  12. What a trip back in time!! I worked at the Esquire for 3 years during high school and college in the 60’s. I spent many hours sitting in the ticket booth watching the cars go up and down Broadway. Mr. Foster, the theater manager for many years, was usually working in the office behind me — or having a great steak at Bill’s Cafe next door. I’m so glad that the building will finally be restored. seeing it fall apart was heartbreaking.

  13. The most fantastic news! For Broadway, for Downtown and for Cape. Soon the entrance to the downtown district won’t have such a eyesore to greet visitors. This great improvement, along with the now going on renovation of the old Toasted Shop building on the SE corner of Sprigg and Broadway are true signs of the commitment investors are willing to make in Downtown CG. Three million dollars is being spent on Broadway beautification. A couple of years from now, Broadway will have a complete new look!
    Great memories of the Esquire. I remember tickets for kids was .35, and the Cokes, served in paper cups has no ice. Mr and Mrs Foster would allow you to bring in your own snacks, my mom would pop us a paper sack full of popcorn before dropping us off. Mr. Foster would patrol for “talkers” and had a low wattage flashlight he would hit you with and give you a low whistle–Shushhh!
    After the film, it was next door to the Play-Mor for pool at .15 per game….

    1. The owner held onto the marquee letters. The chairs might have ended up in the dump. The plan was to haul off everything at the end of the Friday I took these photos.

      There were some things I would like to have followed me home, but good sense prevailed.

      1. The guy who was going to bring the theater back to life was a scammer who left a trail of big projects that went bust in his wake. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Esquire turn into a SE MO University parking lot one of these days.

  14. It saddens me that whoever owned this beautiful building before Mr. Buckner thought it was worth nothing more than a junk repository. I knew when that damn mall came it it would destroy beautiful downtown Cape, but downtown Cape had its revenge. It’s worth revival. The mall isn’t.

    P.S. How in the world did sets from The Green Mile get there?

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