Friday, April 15, 2011

Historic St. Louis: The Roberts Orpheum

One of my favorite destinations during my regular downtown walks is the old American Theatre. "Old" in that it is rapidly approaching the century mark, and old in that unless you've been in St. Louis for a while, you wouldn't know it once was the American. When the Beaux Arts style Orpheum Theatre opened at Ninth and St. Charles streets in 1917, Hollywood films were in their infancy. It would be more than a decade before "talkies" would arrive and begin rapidly extinguishing the fire of vaudeville theater.

Downtown St. Louis was once home to a variety of movie houses and theaters. The original American Theater was part of a hotel built a decade earlier (in 1907) and a few blocks away. It was demolished in the 1950s to make way for -- what else? -- a parking lot! Today, the Orpheum/American remains the last of its kind, following the senseless demolition of the Ambassador in 1995/96.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was a movie house. During the 1970s and 1980s, it had an occasional theater offering but became better known as a concert venue, hosting the likes of Pearl Jam (who filmed a video there), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alicia Keyes, Dave Mathews Band, Tori Amos, Phish, the Black Crowes and Nelly. It was during this period that this beautiful old building made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. After that distinction and continuing its long run of concerts from up-and-coming performers, the poor building sat. And sat. It might well have seen the fate of downtown's other performance venues at one point. For much of the last decade, it’s been owned by Mike and Steve Roberts, St. Louis brothers who now possess much of historic downtown. To their credit, they undertook a major rehab of this glorious old building and even restored its original Orpheum name. The theater is rented out for private gatherings and even still manages to host live performances a few times a year. I've got to get back there one of these days! For now though, I'm content to know that it's there and to take in the lovely views its exterior affords. The day that I took these photos (which was last spring) a woman was walking with two young children in tow. The elder of the two, a boy no more than 10, suddenly charged several yards ahead of his mother, wildly pointing at the building's roofline. "Looooook, Mommmy!" he yelled. "I see lots of faces." There are, indeed, DOZENS of faces that make up this gorgous cornice. And the fact this future little architecture buff noticed was more gratifying to me than I can describe.

To my delight, they were only momentarily distracted by my presence as the mother then became just as absorbed in the architecture as her son. Had I been smarter, I would have offered to snap a photo of the trio outside the theater and offer to email it to them. Though it might have been an awkward offer to extend, I'd like to think it would be a nice memory for them.

I know that it is for me.

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