Abandonment Architecture Historic Preservation Illinois Southern Illinois Theaters

Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois

by Michael R. Allen

The charming art deco Massac Theater graces Main Street in Metropolis, Illinois, a small town at the southern tip of Illinois well-known for DC Comics’ designation of the town as “Hometown of Superman” in 1972. Although the front elevation appears well-maintained, the theater has been completely abandoned since the late 1980s, when a radio station using the front section of the building moved out. The theater screened its last film, Superman, in 1978.

The Massac Theater opened in 1938 with 537 seats, a large size for a town the size of Metropolis. The front and side elevations were laid in buff brick; polychrome cream and blue terra cotta disrupt the front elevation with vertical finial-topped piers to each side of the entrance joined a ribbon of portal windows. A jazzy marquee, still intact, further enhances the exterior. Entrances on each side of a box office lead to a low-ceilinged front lobby which expands into a larger lobby space. Although the partition between the lobby and the auditorium is now gone, twin staircases with fine metal rail detailing, probably leading to a missing balcony, indicate some sort of atrium in the lobby. Past the staircases is the bow-trussed auditorium, now cordoned off with a plywood wall.

Here is a view of the lobby.

The view below looks toward the front entrance from inside of the theater. Note the staircases.

The auditorium is shocking — the walls are stripped down to backing block, the seats and flooring missing, and the roof is largely collapsed. Weather-beaten sections of roof deck cover the floor of the auditorium.

Condemned by the city government, the theater sits forlorn. The radio station left behind myriad record, files, desks and other furnishings. No one knows what the future will bring here. Metropolis has not had a movie theater since the Massac closed, but with access to nearby Paducah and its multiplex theater on sprawling Hinkleville Road, the demand for reopening a single-screen downtown movie theater is low. Most of the entertainment in Metropolis nowadays takes place at the giant Harrah’s casino that blocks the downtown area from its riverfront on the Ohio River.

Demolition JeffVanderLou Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis South St. Louis Southampton Theaters

Coming Down This Week

by Michael R. Allen

Urban Review St. Louis reports that the Doering Mansion is almost gone. Demolition began last week.

Also nearly gone this week is the art deco Regal Theater on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I have been following the saga there and hope to post more information and photographs on our website soon. In the meantime, the other endangered art deco movie house in town, the

Demolition Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Theaters

Regal Theater Demolished

by Michael R. Allen

Franchon and Marco (later Arthur Theatres) built the Regal Theater on Easton Avenue (later named for Martin Luther King) in 1937, with their regular architect Arthur Stauder as the likely designer. Stauder designed the same chain’s Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway, which opened just two years earlier. The 846-seat theater cost $15,000.00 to build, and was an impressive three-story buff-brick Art Deco composition. The first floor was clad in lovely blue marble, enhancing the dreamy atmosphere of the movies, while the upper two floors emphasized the linear geometry of the brickwork. End bays carries alternating vertical bands of two brick tones, while the central section carried zig-zag bands above and below a central checkerboard-patterned area. Inside, the finish was not as exciting. A balcony contained 200 of the theater’s seats, and the restrooms were oddly located on the balcony level.

The theater closed in 1986. A photograph of the theater circa 2002, when it still had its vertical sign, appears in Eric Post’s book of nighttime photographs, Ghost Town.

Sadly, the theater never found a new life, and fell into the hands of the city government’s real estate agency, which proved to be a neglectful steward. While the area declined, new development spurred by the demolition of federally-subsidized high-rise housing never included this grand movie theater, which could have provided an excellent community space in a neighborhood lacking many ties to its past. In early 2006, the city had the Regal Theater demolished to make way for a church parking lot expansion.

Coincidentally, Chicago also had a Regal Theater, albeit one more famous than the one in St. Louis. The Regal Theater in Chicago was also located on a street named for Martin Luther King, but met its demise in 1973.

East St. Louis, Illinois Neon Salvage Signs Theaters

French Village Drive-In Marquee Recovered

by Michael R. Allen

The marquee in place on March 6, 2005.

The landmark enameled metal marquee at the French Village Drive-In was installed in 1945 and was manufactured by C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois. After appearing as an item on eBay in fall 2005, the marquee was recovered by Greg Rhomberg of Antiques Warehouse and salvage specialist Larry Giles. The marquee now resides at the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. The marquee was manufactured by the C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois.

Historic Preservation Hyde Park Theaters

Hyde Park Theatre May Get Face Lift

by Michael R. Allen

Thomas Crone continues his intriguing Dead Theatres series with a photograph of the vacant Hyde Park Theatre that is apparently undergoing some tuckpointing work. According to Crone’s conversation with a passer-by, it seems the tuckpointing project is part of yet another hair-tearing scheme: the theater will be rehabbed while a lovely and much earlier building across the street will be torn down for a parking lot.

Demolition East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

French Village Drive-In: Gone

Demolition East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

French Village Drive-In Under Demolition

Abandonment East St. Louis, Illinois Theaters

Ghosts of the Screen

by Michael R. Allen

Photographic collage by Eric Seelig.

LOCATION: 8601 St. Clair Ave.; Caseyville, Illinois
ORIGINAL NAME: East St. Louis Drive-In
ORIGINAL OPERATOR: Publix Great States Theatres
DATES OF DEMOLITION: August – December 2005

The decrepit and broken floorboards of the ticket office at the French Village Drive-In near East Saint Louis don’t look like a place of terror. For anyone who has spent time around broken-down buildings and abandoned places, the ticket office building doesn’t seem very remarkable save its streamlined, late Art Deco facade. Yet only a few years ago, in November 2000, police recovered the body of a missing East Saint Louis dentist, Kenneth Long, in this vacant space. His body was stashed in the ticket office — on the floor — where it lay until its staunch smell disturbed residents of nearby homes. The residents called the police, who came to find the gruesome source.

Perhaps it is somehow fitting that the French Village Drive-In was then and still is the property of a church congregation, the Church of the Living God of Fairview Heights. The forces of abandonment forge unlikely and unsettling relationships and transform functional spaces into locations of intense historical mutation. Add to the mix the possibility that Dr. Long himself had seen a film at the Drive-In and that many of his patients had also attended screenings at the Drive-In, and the story begins to raise many connections whose significance is uncertain yet troubling. Here is a place built to stimulate the collective imagination becoming the scene of almost-cinematic carnage: the dead body in the abandoned drive-in theater ticket office. What could be more disturbing or fantastic to anyone who had seen a movie, perhaps one involving dead bodies being discovered in foggy and forgotten places?

Still, the French Village Drive-In retains a more direct importance. From its opening in 1942 until its close fifty years later, the French Village Drive-In — originally named for East St. Louis — provided entertainment and escape to thousands of East Siders. People such as my mother fondly remember a night spent gazing at the huge screen in the middle of farm fields, removed enough from the bustle of East St. Louis to provide some sense of getaway to the filmgoers.

J.P. Dromey of Publix Great States Theatres, Inc. opened the East St. Louis Drive-In as perhaps the first drive-in movie theater in the St. Louis area. The original capacity was 500 cars. It attracted local competition by 1949, when the noted Jablonow and Komm chain opened the now-demolished Mounds Drive-In Theatre at 7400 Collinsville Road. By the late 1950’s, the ownership fell into local hands, that of the Bloomer Amusement Company (BAC) of Belleville. BAC renamed the drive-in the French Village Drive-In, perhaps in response to the growing out-migration from East St. Louis. The theater was successful until the 1980’s, when the multi-theater format and home video technology lured people away from viewing an only-choice film under the sky.

Throughout its life, the theater’s stylish design enhanced its presence. Being a relatively early drive-in in the St. Louis area, the theater was constructed when patron and proprietor alike still wanted each movie theater, even a drive-in, to look as lavish as the movies it screened. The French Village Drive-In fulfilled these demands with its stately and colorful Art Deco style. The head-house, site of the ticket office, consists of a two-story, narrow center portion with projecting canopy wings for cars to pass through. All of the corners are heavily rounded, giving the building a space-age look that must have seemed quite sophisticated in 1942. Directly behind the head-house — symmetrically aligned — is the trapezoidal screen structure, which presents gray corrugated aluminum walls that are punctuated by lively red rectangles on the main facade.

The screen structure is unique for a drive-in theater in that its builders built it to accommodate stage as well as screen entertainment. The screen is fronted by a long, somewhat shallow stage. The screen is actually one wall of a building that houses a few dressing rooms, prop storage areas and various lighting controls. During the early days of the drive-in’s life, the stage was used often for pre-film and stand-alone live performance.

The screen and stage now look out upon a field of small trees that cloak the comparatively banal projection house. This field in winter appears to be occupied by countless skeletal forms instead of hundreds of east side filmgoers. Of course, the trees are far from deathly as they continue to grow strong in soil that must still be polluted from the exhaust of the thousands of vehicles that people parked there. Traces of the past use are embedded in the very earth here. The blank screen still commands one’s gaze from the field; something kinetic seems imminent there.

In front of the Drive-In is the outstanding although likely not original marquee, a concoction of red and yellow aluminum, neon tubing and the traditional white letter-board space. C. Bendsen Company of Decatur, Illinois made this marquee. The marquee. The marquee frames the words “French Village” in a three-color palate (green, yellow, blue) with accompanying paintbrush. This sign is imaginative — the subtle palate motif rather than an obvious Eiffel Tower image — and shows that the East Side’s aspirations have always been as grand and as accomplished as those of St. Louis. This drive-in is finer than almost any other that has stood in the St. Louis area. Certainly, its architecture proclaims a confident optimism that has been betrayed, however momentarily, by current events.

In the meantime, the French Village Drive-In awaits some future greater than that of body repository. It is owned by a Fairview Heights church that may seek to build a new church on its ground, but it will likely stand for years to come. Perhaps it may even reopen, beating the forces of history that led to its unbecoming and horrific misuse.

From a nearby hillside, one can catch a view that includes the barren theater grounds as well as the Gateway Arch. The French Village Drive-In came into this view first, before anyone would have predicted that anything much more modern could come along.

More information

  • The Web Yard
  • Cinema Treasures
  • A version of this article appeared under the same title in the Fall 2005 issue of the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley Chapter.

    Abandonment Chicago Midtown Theaters

    Two Theaters That Closed in 1981

    New to Ecology of Absence today are pages on two theaters on two different scales in two different cities that closed in the same year, 1981. Neither has reopened and both are deteriorating badly. Yet the future looks brighter than ever for both.

    They are:

  • Chicago’s Uptown Theatre
  • Saint Louis’s Sun Theatre

    (For perspective on the timeframe of the vacancies, consider that I was born on December 31, 1980.)

  • Categories
    Southampton Theaters

    Avalon Theater

    LOCATION: 4225 South Kingshighway Boulevard; Southampton; Saint Louis, Missouri
    ARCHITECT: A.F. and Arthur Stauder
    DATE OF ABANDONMENT: 1999 – present
    CURRENT OWNER: Greg Tsevis