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.



Blomeyer Drive-in Theater

Reader Toni Eftink asked, “Wasn’t there a drive in right outside of Cape near Blomeyer? I think the screen is even still up…has a lot of vines covering it, but I drive past it on my way home to Leopold.”

Toni is a decade or two too young to have ever seen a movie at the Montgomery Drive-in Theater just south of the Diversion Channel on Hwy 25, but the old concrete screen is still there. She’s right, too, that it’s being devoured by creepy-looking vines like something out of one of the sci-fi movies shown ON that screen.

1960s Montgomery Drive-in aerial

That’s the drive-in in the lower left portion of the picture. The screen is the bright, square object. The Diversion Channel is on the right. Click on any photo to make it larger.

I’m not sure I ever saw a full movie there. Wife Lila and I went there one night when we were dating, but the mosquitoes were so bad that we bailed early.

Montgomery Drive-In aerial in 2010

Used mobile homes and other structures have replaced the movie parking area, and thick brush has grown up around the screen. The screen is at the lower right part of the photo.

No popcorn available here

The roof of the projection / concession stand building has collapsed.

Building used for storage

It looks like the building had been used for miscellaneous storage of parts by the mobile home folks along the highway.

Screen made of concrete

Morris Montgomery, owner of the drive-in, said the original screen was made of redwood shipped in from Oregon. A Missourian story said a windstorm blew it down Sept. 22, 1965. Morris said the wooden screen was replaced with one made of concrete panels cast locally and supported by heavy steel I-beams.

Concrete and I-Beams look sturdy

The screen and its supports have held up well for being nearly half a century old.

Theater showed few first-run movies

Morris said the drive-in showed very few first-run movies. “The big movie theaters in Cape had contracts that embargoed those kinds of shows for at least 14 days.” TV and air conditioning took its toll, too.

A dollar per carload

Morris said they experimented with different ways to make the drive-in appealing to the cost-conscious.

They tried free Monday nights for awhile, counting on the $100-$150 in concession sales to carry the freight. That’s a lot of hamburgers at 25 cents each and hot dogs priced at 15 cents.

In 1958, you could bring in a whole carload for a buck. “Dad laughed about the night he saw a car coming in with just the driver, but the car’s rearend was dragging the ground. He stopped the car and said, ‘Get ’em out of the trunk. It’s a dollar a carload. I don’t care how many people you stuff in it.'”

I’m not sure when the last movie was shown. Morris said his mother and son tried to re-open the theater two nights a week – Friday and Saturday – in June 1980, but decided very quickly to close it for good.

New Blomeyer roundabout

While we’re talking about the Blomeyer area, the state just finished construction of a new roundabout at the intersection of Hwys 25 and 77. Some locals have said that the only problem is that it’s not big enough to accommodate the big grain trucks common to the area. The trucks have to drive up on the red brick area to make the turn.

The theater is located slightly to the north of this intersection.