Cape Girardeau’s Art Deco Esquire Theater

Esquire Theater Oct. 28, 2009

Cape Girardeau’s Esquire Theater opened Jan. 21, 1947, to 1,300 customers in two showings. A block-long line of moviegoers were treated to a double feature of Blue Skies and Two Years Before the Mast at 6:15. A late crowd caught the 9 p.m. showing.

It was the third of Broadway’s theaters – the Rialto and the Broadway were the others – to open. Within 18 months of each other, all three were closed by 1985. The Esquire was the last to go dark.

There’s a lot of interesting reading in the National Register of Historic Places registration form filed in 2005. [This link takes you to a pdf file that may require a special plugin for your browser.]

Windstorms and a truck accident damaged the marquee

The city blocked off the sidewalk in front of the movie theater when the marquee was deemed unsafe. This photo was taken Oct. 24, 2007, before it was removed.

The Esquire gave its last first-run movie show  – Prince’s Purple Rain on Oct. 7, 1984, with four shows – 2:00, 5:00, 7:15 and 9 p.m. Newspaper accounts of the day don’t say if that particular movie led to the theater’s demise. (It scored 7 Rotten Tomatoes on the Tomatometer.)

The Esquire experienced a brief revival on Mar. 22, 1985, when it opened as a second-run movie theater, charging $1.50 a head, but it closed again in December of that year. A church held services in the building for a time. It’s being used for storage today.

When it was built, the local newspaper said that it had more than a mile of neon lights, more than any other theater in the South. Sometimes boosterism collided with facts, so this may or may not have been exactly true.

Terrazzo tile extension still visible

The National Register application says the interior of the theater retains its original space configuration of lobby, foyer, auditorium, restrooms and projection room. Many of the original interior finishes, including the mosaic tile and painted designed walls in the auditorium remain. The original seating and screen have been removed.

The multiple-colored terrazzo floor of pink, gray, buff and green blocks in a geometric designs runs up to the red doors and into the lobby.

Curved glass blocks guide you into the entrance

The gently-curving glass blocks that guide you into the entrance of the of theater are a characteristic of the Art Deco style of architecture. Other Art  Deco touches are the use of steel, marble, colored steel enameled panels and curved walls.

When construction started in 1946, the projected cost was $75,000. By the time it was finished, the total cost had doubled to $150,000. Gerhardt Construction Company of Cape was the general contractor. Preston Neon Sign Company installed the neon lighting.

Few homes had air conditioning in the Esquire’s heyday, so Cape Girardeans took refuge in the movie houses during scorching summers. A heating and air conditioning system installed in the basement was powerful enough do a complete air exchange in the theater every minute.

The 100′ x 60′ building used no lumber in its construction to make it as fire safe as possible.

Remember the fancy ticket dispenser?

When you finally made it up to the ticket window, you would speak to the cashier through a hole in her glass window, tell her (it was always a woman) how many tickets you wanted and for what ages. She would push some magic button (I don’t know if it was hand or foot-operated) and the requisite number of tickets would come shooting out of slots in the top of the counter.

The apparatus is still there, but it’s been heavily decorated with bird poop over the years.

Help! The Beatles movie played the Esquire in 1965

I wrote earlier about ordering special infrared film and flashbulbs to cover the teenybopper reaction to the Beatles movie Help! when it played at the Esquire in September 1965.

You can read the whole account at this link. Who knows? You may see yourself in the audience.

Did you ever try to sneak in through the fire exit door?

And, if you did, were you caught by one of the male ushers (they were always male) who prowled the aisle maintaining order. Hint: it was a Bad Idea to sneak in during a daytime movie. The blast of bright daylight was sort of noticeable in the darkened theater.

Do you miss those days when unruly patrons were shushed or ejected?

Did you work at the Esquire?

Were YOU an usher, cashier or concession stand worker? Based on the stories that Wife Lila tells from her days as a cashier at the Rialto, I bet you have an experience to share.

Here’s a gallery of Esquire photos

Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the photo to step through the gallery.

37 Replies to “Cape Girardeau’s Art Deco Esquire Theater”

  1. I was introduced to Shakespeare (Othello), opera (La Boheme), and ballet (Nureyev and Fontaine) through films shown at the Esquire. Thanks to Miss Sadler and her Humanities class my senior year.

  2. I forgot to mention the ticket despenser is an Automaticket,. haven’t seen one of htose since I worked at Loew’s State in St. Louis many moons ago.

  3. Thanks, Chuck. I’m guilty. The 1965 HELP! photos were taken when I was working for The Southeast Missourian. The 2007 and 2009 photos were taken when I was passing through Cape.

    How was the Automaticket triggered? Oops, I think I answered my own question. When I take a closer look at the device, I see three buttons on the cashier side below the countertop.

    I’m assuming that was to handle two different movies and a child ticket, right?

  4. Ken, on the side toward the cashier there were 5 buttons for each set of tickets. Usually they were set up with three sections one for adults, one for children and one for the matinee tickets or senior citizens tickets. Some automatickets fed out straight and some that had perforated tickets (ready to tear in half by the doorman) fed tickets out sideways. That was modern technology. I remember the Melvin in St. Louis had rolls of tickets hanging on spools in the window that the cashier tore off by hand. I remember “Help” when the Loew’s State opened with it in St. Louis and all the screaming girls in line and then in the theatre. Some of the girls would come for the first matinee show and stay until the evening show, watching the movie three or four times before they left.
    You did a great job with the photos and this site. Did you do anything with the Rialto or Broadway like you did for the Esquire?

  5. Chuck,
    Well, I married the cashier who worked the ticket window at the Rialto.

    I guess that should count for something.

    The Broadway is pretty nondescript from the front. I shot some pictures when I did the 2009 Esquire photos that’ll run sometime soon. Sign up for the email feed for whenever the site is updated and you won’t miss them. You won’t recognize it as a movie theater, certainly not like it was in it heyday.

    I have a few vintage shots of the inside of the Rialto, but I’m holding off running them until I have a chance to go through the rest of my film from that era. You wouldn’t know the building had ever been a theater from looking at it these days. It’s the building that’s in the best shape of the three movie houses, but it maintains none of its old characteristics.

  6. Chuck,

    My wife just commented that the Rialto’s ticket booth was low-tech. She had to tear tickets from rolls by hand.

    I remember going to the afternoon movies as a kid. We’d stay until we ran out of popcorn money. It didn’t bother us any to come in in the middle of the movie and stay until we remembered where we walked in.

    Hitchcock’s Psycho changed all that, said a 50th anniversary review of the movie in Newsweek: “It was the first major movie in which the star got murdered early in the proceedings. That prompted another first: Hitchcock and Paramount persuaded theater owners to close their doors once the movie started to preserve the surprises—Hitchcock didn’t want latecomers wandering in and wondering where Janet Leigh had gone. When the film was over, the theater was cleared.

    “If this sounds routine, then you weren’t born before the ’70s, when audiences were routinely permitted to come and go during the showing of a film. If, like me, you miss the ability to blissfully sit through a movie more than once, blame Hitchcock.”

  7. The first movie I ever saw was in that theater. It was a Disney Animated feature. It might have been “101 Dalmations”, sometime in the early 70’s. I also remember, some years later, slipping on the terrazzo tile and falling on my butt as I ran up to the box office. Two girls walking along the other side of Broadway found it quite amusing.

  8. Andrew,

    Amazing how a trauma like that will stay with you for so many years.

    Of course, if it happened today, you’d have won the liability lottery and you could have retired on your injury claim.

  9. Thanks for this, Ken! I have so many memories of the Esquire and I am sure it inspired my eventual move to Los Angeles, my masters degree from UCLA in film and the frustrating ten year career in the movie industry I engaged in. I remember being taken to an evening showing of Auntie Mame where I sat between my parents, feeling very special that I was being allowed to see this very funny and “sophisticated” film. The next day I took my friends Linda Caldwell and John Cochran to see an after school matinee. The woman at the previously mentioned ticket booth looked at us suspiciously and asked if our parents knew we were there to see Auntie Mame. I proudly told her that my parents had taken me to see it the night before. This did not persuade her. She just knew that it would be somehow ruinous to what she had incorrectly assumed was our burgeoning sterling characters. And so she refused our admittance. It just fueled my fascination with the “exotic”. I can’t speak for Linda as she left Cape at some point and I have not heard what has happened to her. John Cochran has remained one of my best friends to this day (although he also moved from Cape for some time but returned as an adult and married Bonnie Strom) and I can vouch for his character although I suspect that the Guardian of Morals behind the glass booth of the Esquire would still not approve. BTW, I never realized what an Art Deco treasure the Esquire was. What is it’s current fate?

  10. Michael,

    So, Auntie Mame is what left its mark on you…. Bonnie Strom and I went through school all the way from kindergarten. Did you see the photo of her in the eighth grade? She was the eighth grader in the bottom row on the far left.

    The esquire is in much better shape, at least from outside appearances, than the Broadway. The Rialto has been remodeled to the point where you wouldn’t recognize it as a theater these days.

    I’d love to say that someone is going to step in to preserve the Esquire, but the way SEMO is mowing down buildings for parking lots, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for it.

    Maybe someone who lives in Cape and follows this kind of thing can chime in with more promising news.

  11. Is the Esquire the one that was near an ice cream parlor called, IIRC, the Martha Washington? I think I also saw “101 Dalmations” there, and it was my first movie also. Ice cream at the ice cream parlor was always a post-movie treat.

  12. I was curious if anyone knows if the Esquire is up for sale? The sign on the front “The Gospel Connection” was done back in the early 90’s when my family used the theatre for gospel music concerts. We have since relocated to the Kansas City area and are investigating the possiblity of opening it back up again.. any info on it would be helpful.

    The Reeders,
    aka, The Gospel Connection.

    1. I’m trying to write a story for the college newspaper down here, the Capaha Arrow, concerning the history of the Esquire theater. So any information that you could give me about that would be greatly appreciated!And would you spell your name please, should I quote you?

      1. Is it still the Capaha Arrow? I thought SEMO had purged all those references along with poor Chief Sagamore.

        My latest Esquire story has links to all of the earlier pieces I did. Be sure to check out the comments. If you’ve been to the page before, press Ctrl-F5 to refresh your browser and bring up any new content.

        My name is Ken Steinhoff. Quote away. A link to the site would be appreciated.

  13. Candace,

    I don’t know for sure, but here’s a part of a story from The Missourian June 4, 2009:

    * Broadway Theatre, 805 Broadway, and Esquire Theatre, 824 Broadway. Foley said owner Phil Brinson is being selective with plans to use the theaters so they can best meet the needs of the community. She said he is interviewing other theater owners for details of how they rehabilitated their buildings and is talking with architects who have experience in reuse of theaters. Foley said Brinson is doing minor work on the Broadway Theatre, such as painting the second floor.

    Foley said rehabilitating theaters is difficult.

    “Most people think it is so simple to take an old building and rehab it, but they don’t stop and think about having to bring it up to code,” Foley said. “These are two terrific buildings and are rare for our community.

    “To paint the theater part will be difficult as all the chairs have to be removed so the scaffolding can be put up,” Foley said. “Then you have to constantly readjust the scaffolding to the slope of the floor.”

    It would be great to see the Esquire and the Broadway brought back to life. Let me know if your plans come through.

  14. From 1963 to 1965 I was one of the “girls behind the glass” at the ticket booth of the Esquire Theater. My grades improved considerably because I had plenty of time to study when not punching tickets from the “modern automatic ticket machine”. Also, what fun waving at the cars driving up and down Broadway. Mr. James Foster, the theater manager, treated all of the kids who worked there just like we were his own. It really breaks my heart to see the building in such a state of disrepair. I have so many fond memories.

  15. All the talk about the old theaters reminded me of how lucky we all were to be parented by the whole town. My father worked part time at Cutrate drugs. On the weekend if Daddy was working on Broadway he would drop me of in the theater office until the movie started , then the usher would take me to the first seat in the last row where he could keep an eye on me until hte movie was over. Sometimes after the movie I would walk next door and eat at the little dinner. When I was finished they would call Daddy and he would send (Doffus) to pick me up and pay the bill.

  16. Does anyone remember being able to get into the movie using the green plastic connectors that held two quarts of Sunny Hill milk together? We used to save those “religiously”, and when we had enough, 10 I think, then we were able to go to the movie.

  17. Yes, I remember saving the Sunnyhill milk carton to get to go to the movies. Carol and Gail Avery and I would save these, enough to go to the movies, that was the good old days. I told my boys about this and they thought I was fibbing them. Nobody goes to the movies on saved milk cartons.

  18. I too was one of the girls who worked at the Esquire, first during high school, 1963 to 1965, and again after I was married, 1972. I worked behind the concession stand and in the ticket booth. Mr James Foster was like a second parent to all of us kids working there. There were four of us who always worked together, Carl Seabaugh, Jerry Dunn, Carole Avery and myself. We had many good times there and fond memories.

  19. My friend Mike Buhs was the janitor at the Esquire in the late 70’s – as a high school student. Often, I’d join him in the theatre as he cleaned. We’d always go up to the projection booth and rummage thru the dozens and dozens of old movie posters that were stored up there. I’m sure today, they’d be worth thousands of dollars! I also vividly remember Mike showing me the “secret” room upstairs. It was accesable thru some type of hidden door and had an escape staircase that led to a out-only door into the east alley. Mike & I always assumed it was a room for poker or some other type of gambling, because it had a built-in bar on one side of the wall.

    Has anyone else been in or heard of this room upstairs at the Esquire?

  20. My dear friend, Mike Seabaugh shared seeing “Auntie Mame”. He should have also shared that we saw “Some Like It Hot” at the Esquire. Both of us are still affected by that wonderful film.

  21. Ken,
    How are things going, hope all is well and Happy New Year. I wanted to ask you if and what you might know on the Fox Cape Theatre. It was at the lower end of Broadway (215). There is some controversary on this theatre but I can’t find anything on it on the web. The address would have placed it between the Presbyterian Church and what is now a park. Someone even said that the area is now part of the University Campus which I know is not correct.
    Appreciate any help you might provide or if any of the followers might provide.

  22. Ken: I was a freshman student at ‘Cape State’ in 1958 & worked part-time (Marquee Tech. & Usher) at the ‘Esquire theater’. Jim Foster, manager, was a terrific guy who assisted his employees (students)and allowing time to study, if needed. He invited me on a duck hunt with his pals at one time.
    I have never forgotten that great year at the ‘Cape’ & the Esquire Theater & wonder whatever happened to my co-workers?
    Joe in Colorado

  23. My Mom (Shirley Fulton) and Dad both worked together at the Esquire theater during the early 50’s. There’s a lot of history there. I remember seeing Bambi and Mary Poppins there as a kid. They had program booklets for Mary Poppins. I don’t remember if you had to buy them or not but I would sure like to have it now.

  24. Genie Vandiver and I saw many movies at the Esquire
    along with many friends. We saw the “THING” there
    after Brownie Day Camp. It is making a comeback soon.
    I do wish someone could or would restore the movie houses in Cape.

  25. Also there we’re some supposed Green Mile movie props there. One of the men working when i went in told us that these Cell doors we’re from the set. I’m just wondering if anyone might have any idea if its true. or if you might know what movie they are from.

    here’s the link to the picture of the cell door. let me know if you have any ideas what it might be from.

    p.s. i know the movie came out long after the theater had closed. so I’m hoping it might be older than the guy told me.

    1. Adam, I’ve been told those are really Green Mile props. Which previous owner bought them and why is an unknown.

      They are available to be hauled off, but Friday is the last day. After that, everything in the place that isn’t needed for the restoration is headed to the dumpster.

      The owner said that after Friday only contractors and inspectors will be allowed inside the building until the grand opening sometime in 2013. He wants the renovation to be a big surprise.

  26. Hello Ken,

    I have been searching online for photos of the Esquire Theater that I can purchase for a Christmas gift. I am interested in a couple of yours. Are prints available? What would be the cost? How do I get in touch with you other that through through this means?

    Thanks, Susan (class of ’67)

  27. I can remember seeing “Dirty Dingus Magee” with Frank Sinatra and The Neptune Factor with Ben Gazzara at the Esquire when I was growing up. I have family in Cape and it was a rare treat when we got to see a movie while in town visiting.

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