Empress Theatre

3616 Olive Street,
St. Louis, MO 63108

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Additional Info

Architects: Harry G. Clymer, Francis Drischler

Firms: Clymer & Drischler

Styles: Classical Revival

Previous Names: Midtown Theatre, Midtown-Empress Theatre

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Empress Theatre

The Empress Theatre was opened as a vaudeville house on February 2, 1913. The Classic style front with its arched windows and floor-to-glass facade for the first story gave a magnificent impression. Located on the south side of Olive Street west of N. Grand Boulevard. On November 11, 1926 it became a movie theatre renamed Midtown Theatre screening Al Jolson in “The Singing Fool”. Movies ended in March 1929 and it went over to live theatre use with a resident stock company, renamed Midtown-Empress Theatre. In 1933 it was taken over by the Ansell Brothers who renamed it Empress Theatre again, this time screening second run movies.

It reverted to live theatre use from 1952 when a resident stock company was formed, and it became a playhouse. The stock company eventually proved unsuccessful, although in some seasons the playhouse made money. The end of its second stock season in April 1953 showed an unusually high profit. Although the playhouse had lost $35,000 the year before because of improvements and remodeling, it was able to pay this back and then some.

A typical season for the Empress Theatre would be one with 27 plays, Owned by the Ansell Brothers, the legitimate theatre managed the profitable second season by cutting corners and upping the admission from $2 to $2.50. The brothers also reduced the average fee for a visiting star from $6,500 to $1,800 - which ultimately may have caused their downfall.

At the end of the 1953 season, the play that brought in the most box office receipts was “Claudia”, earning $18,500, followed by “Tobacco Road”. “Theatre”, starring Kay Francis, brought in the least amount of money - $6,500. That season television stars such as June Lockhart and Jackie Kelk played there.

However, after four seasons, Joseph and Louis Ansell had to close the doors of the Empress Theatre for the last time on live theatre. The Empress Theatre had lost $200,000 during the last two seasons. The Ansells claimed it was hard for St. Louis to support legitimate theatre – but not so. The Muny Theatre and the American Theatre were thriving at this time. Critics attributed the theatre’s failure to the inability to attract big name stars.

The theatre installed a large screen and went back to motion pictures and thrived until the mid-1960’s running first and second-run movies.

The Empress Theatre is one theatre many St. Louisans remember, although it was closed in 1956. It became a Theatre & Television School and ended as a revivalist church until it was demolished in the fall of 1970.

Contributed by Charles Van Bibber

Recent comments (view all 14 comments)

JAlex on May 14, 2005 at 9:36 am

Under Skouras Bros. management, theatre was renamed MIDTOWN in Nov.1928 and first film shown was Jolson’s “The Singing Fool.” With high competition in the area, however, the film policy ended in March 1929. Theatre then was known as the MIDTOWN-EMPRESS and the major use was by the Woodward stock company. Theatre reverted to the EMPRESS moniker in 1933 when the Ansell Brothers took over management for a 2nd-run film policy.

JAlex on June 17, 2005 at 7:43 pm

Architectural design by firm of Clymer & Drischler.

Opened February 2, 1913.

JAlex on October 19, 2007 at 9:47 am

Demolished late 1970.

Lak on July 23, 2008 at 8:58 am

Do any interior photos of this theatre exist? Where do you suggest looking?

DavidZornig on January 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm

I just added a circa 1962 exterior photo of the Empress as The Nation Of God Temple. Photo courtesy of the Vintage St. Louis Facebook page.

rivest266 on February 20, 2016 at 11:42 pm

November 11th, 1928 grand opening ad as Midtown in photo section.

JAlex on February 21, 2016 at 9:04 am

Vindication is so nice! In 2005 I mentioned the theatre was renamed the Midtown for a stretch…and, boy, did I get trashed by the “expert” St. Louis historian.

ronvaughn on December 5, 2016 at 10:45 am

There was a musical presented at the Empress in 1956 called “This Is It”. The lyricist was Don Dunn and it starred Pat Paul (Vaughn), Bob Burnett, and Dave Lukefahr. Does anybody remember it? The same show had been presented in Tower Grove Park.

JAlex on December 5, 2016 at 11:25 am

“This Is It” turned out to be the final public theatrical use of the theatre. The production ran from 2/7 to 2/12, 1956. After this, the house was subleased to a Theatre and Television school, which soon folded. After this the theatre was used as a revival church for a number of years. Theatre was demolished in fall of 1970.

Dondunn on December 29, 2016 at 3:25 am

ronvaughn and JAlex…this is Don Dunn, lyricist of This Is It, with music by Bill Boyd, and Bob Veech conducting…thanx for remembering…show also featured Paula Richards, who became a regular on radio with Arthur Godfrey right afterwards…Good production but suspected chicanery on Ansells' part cost creators $$$. Dunn and Boyd left St Louis following year for New York on advice of Broadway producer Leonard Sillman. Boyd had long careeer as music teacher, arranger for Harms Music, director of musicals, etc. Dunn spent career as writer for Business Week magazine (covering theater, B'way, TV, advertising) and found this site researching when he saw the late Debbie Reynolds onstage at the Empress doing play Gigi.

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