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.

Fender-Bender at Broadway and Fountain

Looking south toward the Idan-Ha Hotel

I’ve got a gazillion wreck pictures in my files, but I’m  going to run only those that are of unusual vehicles, unusual circumstances or have interesting backgrounds. This fender-bender between a car and a taxicab at the corner of Broadway and Fountain in 1966 fits the criteria. I assume the two guys in the foreground were the drivers from their universal “Oh, Bleep” pose.

The old Idan-Ha Hotel is on the corner. I spent many a lunch hour in the coffee shop there when I was working at The Missourian.

Looking north toward the Marquette Hotel

The Marquette Hotel is on the right and the H&H Building is on the left.

Officer Fred Kaempfer directs traffic

I looked at the officer directing traffic and thought I had a shot of him from another occasion. Yep. It was a portrait of a guy with sort of a soulful look in his eyes. I remembered him as being one of the nicest guys who ever wore a uniform.

Wife Lila immediately recognized him from her days working at the Rialto Theater. The only problem was that we couldn’t think of his name to save ourselves.

Fortunately, we have house guests from Cape Girardeau staying with us. Lila’s sister, Marty Perry Riley (Class of 68) and her husband, Don Riley (class of 67) are in town for Marty to do a chalk drawing in the Lake Worth Street Painting festival this weekend. Son Adam’s company, DedicatedIT has brought her down the last three years to do the drawings. (It’s chilly down here this year, but it’s generally not hard to convince her to come to Florida in February with the kind of weather Cape’s been having.)

As soon as I showed them the photo, they both said, “Fred Kaempfer.” Don had been a Cape police officer himself.

What I didn’t know about Officer Kaempfer was that he was a song writer who came up with “Keep Walking On,” sung by Ken Roberts, in 1970. Fred died in 2004, at 80. His obituary fleshed out his life. He worked at Leming Sawmill for 25 years, was a Cape policeman from 1965 to 1973, and was a Scott City policeman from 1973 until he retired in 1978.

A letter to the editor in The Missourian after his death pointed out something else. Few know that during World War II Kaempfer fought in five major campaigns: Sicily, Central Europe, Normandy, Rhineland and the invasion of France, where he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.

View to the east shows First Federal Savings and The Southeast Missourian

It was a hot day in 1966, if the temperature sign on the First Federal Savings is correct – 88 degrees. This is quite a contrast with a Frony picture taken at the same intersection during a snow storm when the temperature was 28 degrees on the sign. You can see it in Fred Lynch’s Southeast Missourian blog.

Notice the phone number on the side of the cab: ED. 5-4433. ED stood for Edgewater. Jackson was the Circle exchange.

You can see The Missourian Building and the Royal N’Orleans, but the KFVS tower hasn’t been built yet.

The Idan-Ha is gone

The Idan-Ha Hotel caught fire a couple of times and was torn down. Here’s what it looked like on Oct. 24, 2009.

The Marquette Hotel escaped the wrecking ball

The future of the Marquette Hotel was very much in doubt for many years, but it looks like it’s taken on a new life. The canopies over the doors were more interesting when the building was a hotel, but, overall, the building looks better than it has in decades.

Note the KFVS TV building sticking high up into the sky.

It’ll Always Be Vandeven’s to Me

Howard’s Athletic Goods – October 2009

Howard’s Athletic Goods, which provided school PE uniforms and other sporting equipment to the community since 1947, moved diagonally across the Broadway – Pacific intersection in 2009. The original Howard’s building was torn down for Southeast Missouri University parking.

I didn’t really have many warm and fuzzy feelings about the old Howard’s building. I always thought it was a bit ugly and run-down looking.

Of course, it may also be that I never got over the trauma of having my Mother accompany me there to buy my first jockstrap for Central High School’s Physical Education class.

At least the boys got black shorts and orange / black reversible shirts that were better looking than those horrible green uniforms the girls had to wear. (I think the shirts were reversible or was the black side mold from when I forgot to take it out of my locker to have it washed?)

Howard’s may be there now, and other things have occupied that corner over the years, but the building at 835 Broadway will always be Vandeven’s to me.

Vandeven Mercantile Company 1894 – 1969

The building at 835 Broadway where Howard’s relocated was the original Vandeven Mercantile Company, founded in 1894 an operated until 1969.

Over the years since 1969, it’s been a number of different businesses. It was Craftsman Office Supply Co. long enough for The Missourian to call it the Craftsman Building.

The Grace Cafe moved in 2002. They had great sandwiches and fast Internet connections. I’d gravitate there to connect with my office at faster than dial-up speeds when I was in town on vacation. The upstairs was an art gallery.

I ate at Wayne’s Grill almost every day when I was a kid

My folks gave me permission to leave the Trinity Lutheran School grounds almost every day to walk up to Wayne’s Grill across from Vandeven’s. I’ll cover them in a later post.

On my way back, I’d stop in at Vandeven’s to pick up candy to resell to kids who couldn’t leave the campus and to kill time before going back to school.

Miss Blanche Brooks

My favorite person in the whole store was Miss Blanche Brooks. She had already been working in the store for more than a quarter century when I was a kid. There was another woman working the register, too, but Blanche was the one who would talk to a 10 or 12-year-old kid like his opinions mattered.

She may have even given me permission to call her by her first name. I don’t ever recall prefacing “Blanche” with Miss, and I didn’t know her last name until I did this research.

When a customer would come up to the register, I’d fade away until Blanche had tallied the order one item at a time on a big cash register. This was not a place where you would find a scanner or an electrical conveyor belt.

It also wasn’t a place where customers were rushed away. I got the feeling that a lot of the folks saw Vandeven’s as a social center where they could catch up on neighborhood gossip.

Skeets wrote the store’s obit

Cecelia “Skeets” Sonderman wrote a great obituary of the store when it was going to close April 5, 1969.

(Skeets, by the way, was a feisty broad (meant as a compliment), who covered  government, education and courts in the days when women were usually relegated to the Pink Ghetto of tea parties and church news. Men who demeaned, patronized or underestimated the diminutive Skeets were apt to be found singing soprano in the church choir after Skeets was finished with them.)

Thanks for Google’s News Archive Search, you can read it straight off the microfilm.

Customer service was hallmark of Vandeven’s

The Missourian article said that the three owners, William Vandeven II, Edwin Vandeven and their sister, Elma A. Haas, were all born on the second floor above the family store.

Three employees, including Blanche, had been with the store for years, Skeets wrote. Blaine Swan had been there 43 years (in 1969); Charles Stimle had been there for 35 years. I imagine some of the photos in the gallery show those employees.

Elderly customers depended on Vandeven’s unique special services in the days before direct deposit of Social Security and pension checks. Vandeven’s would send delivery boys with cash to a customer’s home to cash his or her Social Security check. If a long-time customer wasn’t home when the delivery boy arrived, he would enter the home and place the perishables in the refrigerator.

You could buy almost anything at Vandeven’s

They had the usual range of groceries, but they also had their own butcher on premise. You could watch him wrestle slabs of meat and get exactly the cut you wanted.

Vandeven’s was said to be the first store to offer frozen foods.

At one time, shoes made up the bulk of sales. I can still remember seeing old-fashioned rubber galoshes on the shelves.

If they didn’t have it, you probably didn’t need it

Even before you stepped over the wooden door sill that was worn down from generations of foot traffic, you could get a sense of the wide variety of products available.

  • Bushel baskets of apples
  • Garbage cans
  • Vigoro Plant Food
  • Dairy products
  • Bakery products
  • Gumball machine and soft drink machine

Got a hankering for notions?

Nearly half the store was made up of material, sewing supplies, patterns and the like.

Gallery of photos

Here is a gallery of photos of the new Howard’s, the parking lot where the old Howard’s was and pictures that I hope will bring back memories of the Vandeven Mercantile Company. The Vandeven’s photos were taken February 4, 1967, when I must have stepped in for a visit. Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or ride side of the picture to step through the gallery.


633 Broadway Falls to Wreckers

633 – 635 – 637 Broadway at the corner of Sprigg

The Southeast Missourian had a story and photo of the demolition of a building at 633 Broadway on Tuesday’s web page. The property has been part of an ongoing controversy for some time. Rather than steal their content, I would encourage you to read it there.

While I was in Cape this fall, I walked Main Street, Water Street and Broadway shooting store fronts to try to compare them with the historical pictures from the 60s. Here are some pictures of the three buildings that made up 633, 635 and 637 Broadway on the southeast corner of Sprigg and Broadway.

The section of the building that was torn down for safety reasons was the part with three windows on the left side.

I always hate to see parts of Cape’s past disappear, but I remember thinking that the building was in sad shape.

Here is a gallery of photos of 633 – 635 and 637 Broadway

Select any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side to move through the gallery.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.