The Best of the St. Louis Theatre Experience

There’s something inherently magical about the theatre experience no matter where you live. I live in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, a smaller–but major–metropolitan area. There are 319,000 residents in the city proper, and 2.8 million residents in the Greater St. Louis area. The city itself is old. A century ago, it was a booming city seemingly on the verge of rivaling Chicago as a colossal hub in the midwestern United States. While growth eventually crapped out, the city still possesses a certain old world charm. Much of the city proper contains the same unique brick architecture that it did in the early 1900’s. That fact is reflected in many of the area theaters. In fact, I’d say I’m very lucky that I’ve got so many wonderfully preserved cinema options within the city limits. On the other hand, suburban expansion has propped up several multiplexes. Typically, these are soul-sucking buildings, but at least one in metro St. Louis has managed to maintain its charm. Here’s a rundown of my favorite St. Louis theatre options.

The Tivoli Theatre
6350 Delmar Blvd.,
University City, MO

This is my absolute favorite theatre in the city. It sits just a few short blocks from the city’s most esteemed university, Washington University in St. Louis, and aims their fare at attracting a more progressive-thinking crowd. Typical showings include foreign, arthouse, documentary, and indie films. It also hosts the St. Louis International Film Festival, and has the Reel Late Midnight Movie series throughout the late spring and summer. Selections for the Reel Late series range from cult classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, and everything in between.

The theatre itself originally opened in 1924 on the Delmar Loop but fell into disrepair after a 70 year run. It was one of the centerpieces of a revitalization of the Loop in the mid 1990’s. The interior still contains much of the charm of the original incarnation. The architecture is ornate and breath-taking, like being transported into an episode of Boardwalk Empire. The theatre ceiling is domed. The ambiance around the lobby is tremendous, as well. All of the walls are lined with posters from classic films, several with either ties to the city of St. Louis or the history of cult cinema. Last but not least, concessions fare includes craft beer, wine, and giant cookies. Pictures of the incredible interior may be found here.

Wehrenberg Theatres: Ronnies 20 Cine
5320 South Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO
Ronnies is my go-to theatre for most standard movies. It is the prime example of a multiplex that has managed to maintain a lot of original charm. In 1948, St. Louis theatre magnate Fred Wehrenberg opened his first drive-in theatre, named “Ronnies” after his son. Eventually, in the late 1990’s, the drive-in was taken down and a humongous multiplex was put on the same spot. They maintained the name, however, and realized that they had to pay proper respect to the drive-in that had been so popular in the same spot. The interior features an “indoor drive-in”, which has tables made to look like classic cars from the 1950’s. It also has a surprisingly full menu that includes beer (mostly Anheuser-Busch products), chicken, hamburgers, and ice cream. That’s on top of the usual theatre concessions items. Additionally, the theater has a massive arcade sure to give any 8 year old child a joy-induced seizure.

Standard showings are of the usual multiplex variety–blockbusters tend to rule the day, along with kids movies. However, Ronnies will occasionally break out with their own midnight movie series. And anytime a theatre has 20 screens, there’s room for more critically acclaimed independent fare. Seating is extremely comfortable. The staff is accommodating, although there are minor nuances that I’ve had issues with. Specifically, theatre doors are left open during viewings (leaving me to hear the movie showing on the screen next door, a distraction from the film I paid to see) and sound is inconsistent from screen to screen. Having said that, I love going to Ronnies because it fights hard to be anything but a run-of-the-mill mutliplex. The cherry on top of the sundae is their theatre ident, played before every movie. You can walk up to just about any St. Louisan, start rhythmically singing “ba-bababa, ba-bababa” and they’ll recognize the Ronnies theme. Here it is in all of its earwormy glory.

The Moolah Theatre and Lounge
3821 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO
The Moolah is to Saint Louis University what The Tivoli is to Washington University. In fact, they’re quite comparable in terms of age and architecture. The Moolah was built in 1912 and used as a Shriner’s Temple for 70+ years. It fell into disrepair for another 12 years before renovations began. Developers had a unique vision in mind–a theatre complete with the trappings of St. Louis’ unique early 20th century architecture. Adding further flair to the building, one portion of it is used as a bowling alley.

The theatre itself is stunning, possessing a wonderful balcony, chandeliers, and a lower level populated by huge, comfortable leather couches. Just like the Tivoli, the interior has a domed ceiling. Just to the right after entering the building is a full-service bar which often prepares cocktails themed after whichever films are showing at the time. It’s the most balanced of St. Louis theatres in terms of their nightly listings. The Moolah never shies away from a blockbuster but gives special love to Oscar quality films, as well as indie gems. They’re also fond of special screenings of past classics. For instance, in coming weeks, viewers will be able to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The Moolah is a spectacular place to watch a movie, importing its own special brand of hip.

Plaza Frontenac
210 Plaza Frontenac, Frontenac, MO
The Plaza Frontenac Theater is the dark horse on the list. It’s not a cinema in a conventional sense. It’s nestled next to a Saks Fifth Avenue inside the Plaza Frontenac, which is an upscale shopping mall just on the outskirts of the city. What makes it unique is their devotion to independent and limited-release films. If you’re looking for a foreign film, Plaza Frontenac is your best bet, even more so than The Tivoli. The theater itself isn’t brimming with amenities like others on this list but the presentation has been top notch in my experiences. I’d happily recommend it to anyone who asked.

Hi-Pointe Theatre
1005 McCausland Ave.,
St. Louis, MO
The Hi-Pointe Theatre is located at the intersection of Interstate 64, Clayton Road, Clayton Avenue, McCausland Avenue, Forest Avenue, Oakland Avenue and Skinker Boulevard, which just happens to be the city’s highest point. It was built in 1922 and is the city’s oldest continuously-operating theatre. They play up this fact with 1950s decor. When I first moved to the city, it was a champion of independent, foreign, and arthouse cinema. In recent years, under new ownership, they’ve become almost exclusively a place that shows blockbusters during regular operating hours. However, they haven’t completely abandoned their roots, often using special occasions to show limited release films and classics. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the Hi-Pointe offers incredibly and consistently low pricing, both on tickets and concessions items. It tends to attract a hipster crowd, offering bottom-shelf beer options (Pabst Blue Ribbon, for instance). The staff oozes enthusiasm for movies, which adds a really neat extra layer. Combine everything and it’s the kind of business that you want to give your money. And you’ll never get lost on your way there. Go to the world’s largest Amoco sign and cross the street. You can’t miss it. It is admittedly not my favorite theatre in the city but it’s a damned fine option that makes St. Louisans proud.

Chase Park Plaza Cinemas
212 North Kingshighway Blvd.,
St. Louis, MO
The Chase Park Plaza Cinema is located inside of the Chase Park Plaza luxury hotel, located in the city’s central west end (that’s CWE for you locals). The cinema is a renovated version of what used to be The Chase Club, a place where national headliners would come to perform, most notably during the Rat Pack years. The interior is what makes the Chase stand out. The walls are covered in elaborate paintings. The interiors are designed as an homage to great theatre halls of the past. They provide alcohol and St. Louis’ finest frozen custard, Ted Drewes, at the concessions stand. Prices are good, if in line with the other options on this list. The options tend to run the gamut, usually weighing in with typical blockbuster films but occasionally offering documentaries and indie films. It’s not as diverse as many others on this list but does a solid job of providing what they can. My knock on the Chase is that it’s not a particularly warm place to watch a film. I tend to think of it as the bourgeois theater; placing an obnoxious exclusive bar (made out of ice) next door does little to assuage those concerns.

Skyview Drive-In
5700 North Belt West, Belleville, IL
Drive-in theaters are a dying relic of the past. But here in St. Louis, if you’re willing to drive 20 minutes into the Illinois suburbs, you can still enjoy movies the way your parents and grandparents enjoyed them. The prices are higher–$9 for an adult– but you get TWO movies, and you watch them from the comfort of your car, often while playing grab-ass with your significant other. They encourage patrons to bring their lawn chairs and have a radio station set up inside which gives the film’s volume. Obviously, they stick exclusively to big-budget movies, but who gives a shit? If you’re there, it’s not because of the selection of movies. You’re there because it provides viewers with a one-of-a-kind movie-watching experience. If you’re a St. Louis movie nut, you owe it to yourself to go to the Skyview at least once. There will come a day when these type of theatres won’t be around.


12 Comments

Filed under Movies

12 responses to “The Best of the St. Louis Theatre Experience

  1. Chloe

    Man! I am super jealous. Ever since I was in Jr. High, my escape was movies…I so wish in Fayetteville we had old art housey type thester’s and such :). Maybe I will have to make a special trip up and do a “film festival” of my own. Thanks for sharing!!

    • If you do, you won’t be disappointed. The St. Louis Film Festival happens each November (happened last weekend), so November wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  2. Wow you have some really amazing theatres there HUH?

    The first one reminds me a lot of our Duke of York’s which I am sure you have read about on my webby!!

    Great post matey

  3. MJ

    We live in a small town with a drive-in (one of the few left) and a regular theatre (3 screens). We only really get the biggest of blockbusters. However, we did have the interesting combination of ‘Grease’ and ‘Bullitt’ at the drive in, and we had a VERY small indie film festival (mostly docs) at out theatre. I’m pouting a bit, though, because NOW I want to go see Holy Grail in St. Louis!

  4. Christmas Vacation on the Big Screen! We need to do that. I actually saw it in the Theatre as a kid – probably Ronnies.

  5. I am so happy you included Skyview in this! As a born Bellevegasian, i loved going there when we were kids. They used to have a HUGE playground in front of the screen for the kids to get all their energy out waiting for it to get dark while parents set up lawn chairs and cocktails. I dont know if it’s still there. But i remember going when you still clipped the speaker to the window. I really should go again soon!

  6. This a great list and covers all the big local theaters. I also have a soft spot for the Keller 8 theater in South County. It’s one of those old ’80s theaters (pre-Stadium Seating) that I visited as a kid and has second-run movies for $4. It’s also locally owned.

    My favorite spot in any theater is the first row of the balcony of the Moolah right in the middle. The couches are comfortable downstairs, but the view of the screen is a bit odd. Sitting up high with no one in front of you, there’s no better spot to watch a film. I’m also a huge fan of the Tivoli too.

    • I know exactly what spot you’re talking about at the Moolah and I agree completely. The couches are a really cool concept and I’m glad they have them, but I definitely prefer the balcony.

  7. Bob in Palm Springs

    Thank you for posting this webpage. I am age 78 and until I started 5th grade in 1947, we lived on Westminster Pl. in St. Louis West End. Almost every week we went to the movies at the Pageant theater at 5851 Delmar. We had no car but the Pageant was a short walk from our apartment. In spite of my age, my parents took me to many serious films, such as “Lost Horizon” and “Anna and the King of Siam”. Occasionally, a family friend would take me to one of the downtown theaters, such as Lowe’s State or the Orpheum. There we would see a movie that might not come to the Pageant such as an offbeat Disney feature like “Three Caballeros”.

    In 1947 we moved to University City about a mile north of the Tivoli and Varsity theaters on Delmar. They usually showed Hollywood films that had completed their first run at the downtown theaters. I recall going to the Tivoli on Saturday afternoons to see a black and white “Western” and a serial from the 1930’s & 1940’s. Nobody cared, then, that these “Westerns” depicted the genocide of Native Americans. In the mid-1950’s, as TV captured our attention, neighborhood theaters had a hard time. But the Tivoli survived!

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