Call of the Wildey: A Plea for Refurbished Theatres

As regular readers of this site know, I’m trying to tackle 15 to 25 classic or non-new release films on the big screen in 2012. Since I’m fortunate enough to live in a major metropolitan area, there are several options for theatres that occasionally show classic or non-new release films. There’s a rotation in the city of St. Louis of at least five theatres where I can see films like The African Queen (1951) in widescreen splendor. In the process of trying to determine my options, I discovered the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois. The Wildey has a really magnificent story.

From their site:

 Located in Downtown Edwardsville on Main Street, the Wildey closed as a full-time movie theatre on March 8, 1984 after more than 400 people attended the movie “The Big Chill.” The Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission later designated the Wildey Theatre as a “Local Landmark” in 1986.

Recognizing the importance of the Wildey Theatre to the overall downtown development efforts, the City acquired the property (or theatre) in 1999 with a state grant. The City has now finished the renovation, and the resurrected theatre is ready to once again be a venue for live performances and classic films.

The interior of the Wildey. Image credit: Marci Winters-McLaughlin/The Edwardsville Intelligencer

Their movie lineup is composed exclusively of classic films. I have visited the Wildey twice, for Psycho (1960) and The Last Waltz (1978). The theatre itself is wonderfully majestic, adorned with paraphernalia from before their closure. I particularly enjoy the nod to The Big Chill in their lobby, a tip of the cap to the last film they showed before shutting down. The theatre has a comfortable balcony that supplies a dead-on view of the screen. Some of the employees are volunteers, and all of the extraordinarily friendly employees are united by their love of film. Concessions prices are miniscule, and the managers on duty will gleefully tell you of their upcoming schedule. It really is one of the best theatre experiences I’ve found because it caters to the cinema lover with such relish.

I’m writing about the Wildey today for two reasons. First and foremost, I feel like it deserves the attention and I would like to raise awareness. The crowds I’ve seen aren’t small by any stretch, but I imagine they require larger crowds since they can’t supplement their 1/3-full showings for classic films with a packed house watching the latest blockbuster. It’s precisely the type of venue that deserves your money.

The abandoned Sun Theatre in St. Louis, MO.

Second, refurbished theatres are a magical trip into the past, a link to our movie-going brethren of yesteryear. Multiplexes serve a function but they clearly lack character. The refurbished theatres have character spilling out of their doors. Last year, I saw a haunting, heartbreaking link on the IMDb Hit List. Someone had compiled a series of 75 pictures of abandoned theatres around the US. Just two months ago, St. Louis’ Avalon Theatre right down the street from me was demolished after more than a decade of inactivity. It’s a shame. It had been open for 64 years. A theatre can amass a lot of memories, a lot of ghosts of happy movie patrons knocking around the seats over the course of six decades. With one swift kick in the pants from a wrecking ball, a place that had once introduced people to The Godfather, Jaws, Casablanca, and Sunset Boulevard was destroyed. If that doesn’t tug at the heartstrings of a cinephile, nothing will.

And that brings me back to the Wildey. The Wildey, and places like it, are phenomenal places to see a movie. You can take the next generation of movie lovers, your own children, to see a film in the same seats that swaddled you as a child. They deserve a better fate than abandonment. If you live anywhere near theatres like these, you owe it to yourself to patronize them.


30 Comments

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30 responses to “Call of the Wildey: A Plea for Refurbished Theatres

  1. I do love a refurbished theatre. So much more than a multiplex. Such character and style. that Wildey looks amazing!

  2. The Wildey looks like a great place. Unfortunately, there are more than a few abandoned theaters here in Chicago. Some are being talked about getting restored, but the renovation fees are astronomical. Who knows if that will ever happen. As long as the Music Box Theatre sticks around, I’ll be happy. One of my favorite spots in the entire city: http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

    • Holy cow, I’d love to visit the Music Box.

    • Gwyn

      John, you owe it to yourself, as a Chicagoan, to give the newly reopened Patio Theater a try. It was re-done as a labor of love, and seeing “The Artist” there was a near religious experience. Irving Park Road and Austin. Check it out!

  3. Dan

    I still need to check out the Wildey. I love the idea of a place that shows all old movies in St. Louis. A while back, the Tivoli used to show classic films on weekend mornings, and I caught a bunch of great movies for the first time.

    I have fond memories of seeing movies as a kid in the city at The Avalon, The Granada, and the Kingsland, and it’s sad that they’re all gone. It’s really too bad.

    • I’ve only been here for 10 years, so I’m still sort of feeling my way around. The Tivoli still has their midnight movie series in the summer, thankfully (and they’re another one of those theatres I’d love to write about because they deserve the attention). I’m a huge fan.

      Dan, are you out west? If so, the Wildey would admittedly be a haul. It’s 45 minutes for me from south city. Otherwise, I’d be there even more.

      I just looked up the Kingsland and it looks like it was an incredible place to watch a movie.

      • Dan

        I live in Shrewsbury, which is right on the edge of South City and near Webster Groves, if that helps. I’m guessing the Wildey is about 45 minutes away too. For a while, I lived in Dogtown and was within walking distance of the Hi-Pointe, which was an awesome location. Pretty much all the nice theaters in the city (The Tivoli, The Moolah, Hi-Pointe) are about 10-15 minutes away, so that’s really nice.

        When I was a kid, the Kingsland and Granada would both showing second-run movies, so my parents would take us there since it was cheaper. I have a fairly clear memory of seeing Return of the Jedi at the Granada when I was seven. It was a really cool place.

  4. I wish there were more old theaters in the Sacramento region that did classic movies. There used to be a great old theater that showed classic films but much like everything in our current economy the funding dried up. Such a shame that audiences don’t appreciate the old elegance of classic films in a classic theater.

    • There’s another place in St. Louis- called the Hi-Pointe, because it’s at the city’s highest point- and it’s been in operation continuously since the 1920s. The fact that they’ve never shut down, and are still upgrading just enough to stay open, makes me very happy.

  5. Baltimore’s old movie houses pull at my bones…I want to buy them all and refurbish them and then…move in.

  6. Yeah baby Hitlist twice in a week… you is like my hero or summat!!

  7. We have got so many run down theatres in Liverpool,wish more people would take a risk and refurbish some. We had to fight to keep the oldest cinema in Liverpool open last year. They need more support, they bring the best atmospheres

  8. Jack Coupal

    In Lexington, Kentucky, is the Kentucky Theater. Opening Oct. 4, 1922, with a Wurlitzer Grand Symphony organ (currently being refurbished in Indianapolis) for silent films, the theater is still operating. It shows indie and newly-released major films. During each summer it has a Summer Classic series showing old films requested by local film lovers that the film booker can obtain. Lexington is about 80 miles from either Cincinnati or Louisville.

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  11. rtm

    What a beautiful theater!! Yes I’d love to see it refurbished.

    Congrats on the IMDb hitlist, John! Between you & Scott I don’t think any wee bloggers like me have a chance :)

  12. Albert

    “The African Queen”, though, was not made in widescreen. Widescreen wasn’t used widely until 1953 or’54, with Cinerama being the only widescreen process before that in 1952. (That is, unless you count the early widescreen experiments of 1930. “The African Queen” was released in 1951.

  13. Tom Udo

    The movie lineup is composed, not comprised, of classic films. And “The African Queen” is not wide-screen.

  14. They “refurbished” an old Art Deco theater near my house and pretty much ruined it. It’s now a rental hall that happens to have a balcony and a screen. The screen’s lit by an inadequate video projector, and much of the decorative detail didn’t survive the overhaul.

    It’s a sorry excuse for a theater (my screening room is much better), but people seem to like it as a room to rent. That’s probably worth more money, unfortunately.

  15. This is really awesome, John. I was actually asked this week to write an article about my favorite movie going experience and I am planning to write about my one and only trip to the Detroit Theater in Lakewood, Ohio. I went there to see Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween II’ with my sister and brother-in-law. The Detroit closed in January 2011 and it broke my heart to hear that it had closed its doors. The first thing I noticed about the Detroit was the character it had. It was so alive with the magic of movies, run down and perfect for watching the trashy ‘Halloween II’. Seats were deep red, ripped, and the print of the movie was a bit scratchy. It made me long for the days of art deco movie palaces to the commercial insincerity of Regal Cinemas.

    It’s awesome that there are places like this around you. In the Cleveland area, we have two drive-ins still in operation and I fully plan to go to one this summer. I’ve always wanted to buy one of these old theaters, fix them up, and play old exploitation films. I was born just late enough to miss the beauty of these places. A guy can dream though.

  16. It breaks my heart as well to see a classy old theater demolished, so I get such a thrill to see a cinema with real character survive. I’m honored to have spent four years with the Screenland Armour in North Kansas City. The 1928 theater was renovated four years ago to include a full bar. I love when people tell me about growing up coming to the Armour, and especially those who worked here. Too bad folks have grown conditioned to attending the multiplexes, because our customers know we may be one of the best kept secrets in town.

  17. Jessica

    Here in Bloomington-Normal, IL, we have the Normal Theater. It’s my family’s favorite place to go for classic films. They also have a wonderful selection of independent films and documentaries. I’ve been going there since I was a little kid and I hope I can take my kids there someday. I still remember the first movie I saw there- “Harvey” at Easter time. They play classic Christmas movies during December and I’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” there at least half a dozen times. It gets better every time I see it. The Normal is a 1930′s-era theater now owned by the city and run by volunteers. They even still play a cartoon before the classic movies and have door prizes. It’s my favorite place in my hometown and the first place I want to visit when I’m home from school. I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves these old theaters. Whenever I go to the Normal and see its candycane lights lit up, I wonder why I ever go to the multiplex. http://www.normaltheater.com/

  18. Darren

    If you ever make it to Melbourne, Australia, check out The Astor Theatre.

    http://www.astortheatre.net.au/

  19. Angela

    Here in Norfolk, VA, we have the Naro:
    http://narocinema.com/about.php
    Wednesday documentary nights and speakers, summer film festivals, too often *the* only place to catch independent films in the area, and they regularly show Rocky Horror Picture Show late on Friday nights! Love it.

  20. Migilicuty11

    Great article! I remember reading the article you referred to showcasing all the dilapidated and abandoned theaters across the country. Truly a sad sight to see. We have an old theater here in Sag Harbor, I’m not sure exactly how old it is since I’m only 26. It’s a great theater, although they play art house films and showcases Oscar noms around that time ofthe season. Regardless, it’s a great single screen theater that echoes an era where an usher, with his maroon uniform and hat, would greet you for a journey into cinema. The theater has been for sale for some time and it will be truly terrible if it were to be bought and turned into yet another restaurant or something (we have a couple dozen a half mile of each other). As part of the Hamptons it has been iconic for residents and tourists. If only I could raise $12 million…

    A link to a photo of the theater:

    http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/6111184

  21. Tucker Johnston

    We have a refurbished movie theatre here that, through facebook,we have convinced the owner to give one more try opening back up as a revival house:

    http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Bring-Back-The-Englewood-Theatre/109165122452555

    There wasn’t enough patronage before, but hopefully with socail media, it will work this time.

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