3616 Olive Street,
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Firms: Clymer & Drischler
Styles: Classical Revival
Previous Names: Midtown Theatre, Midtown-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.
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