Photo from the Charles Van Bibber collection
411 N Seventh St|
Saint Louis MO
|Record #9928 |
Opened: August 26, 1926|
Capacity: 3000 seats|
Architect(s): Rapp & Rapp
Architectural Style(s): Spanish
National Register: 1983
Current Organ: none
| Also Known As: Cinerama|
| Previously operated by: Arthur Enterprises|
Information for this tour was contributed by Darren Snow.
In January 1925, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned plans for a 22-story office building containing a Skouras Brothers theater; the entire structure was to cost $2.5 million. What was eventually constructed was a 17-story building, with a 3,000-seat theater -- designed by Rapp & Rapp -- occupying the first six stories. The theater cost $5 million and the organ alone cost $115,000. The grand opening was held on August 26, 1926, and the Ambassador welcomed 2.6 million patrons in its first year.
In the mid-1930s, the theater, which had been running a mix of live entertainment and films, switched to movies full-time.
Notable happenings in the 1940s included a scuffle that took place during a newsreel; apparently, one patron failed to hoot derisively at the image of Mussolini, and he was bopped by the American Legionnaire in the next seat. In 1943, one James Louie Jenkins robbed the ticket booth of $1100 and later confessed to the crime in jail after being served a "sumptuous meal" by his fifteen-year-old wife.
3-D movies came to the Ambassador in February 1953 with the Midwestern premiere of Bwana Devil. A more profitable gimmick was in the works by year's end, as the theater closed temporarily in December to allow the $146,000 installation of a Cinerama screen. The St. Louis debut of the Cinerama process was held on February 10, 1954. St. Louis was the tenth American city to have a Cinerama theater; the initial feature, This Is Cinerama, ran for a year.
As the Cinerama fad waned, new attractions were sought. A capacity crowd attended the August 1958 debut of Windjammer, a film that utilized the new "Cinemiracle" process -- along with performances by a drum & bugle corps and the Singing Sea Scouts. In February 1954, the Cinerama company's lease ran out, and the Ambassador closed temporarily for the installation of other modern processes such as Todd-AO, 6-channel sound, a 48' curved screen, and 35- and 70-mm projection capabilities. Though the Cinerama craze was fading, the local franchise moved to the brand-new Martin Cinerama theater, built especially for the purpose.
As the population spread out toward the suburbs, downtown movie palaces like the Ambassador fell on hard times. In January 1974, movies were discontinued and the venue entered its concert-hall era with a show by Van Morrison. (In an incident symptomatic of the times, an April concert by ZZ Top was disrupted -- or, perhaps, enhanced -- by a pair of streakers. The concerts were discontinued in May 1976 and the Ambassador fell dark.
Designated an official city landmark in 1978, the building was beloved by many, but no one had a clear idea of what could be done with it. In 1979, a trio of real estate barons purchased the building and two live-theater proponents expressed interest in using the Ambassador. Seattle's Jack McGovern signed a lease to use the venue as a dinner theater, but his failing health put the project on permanent hold. Ray Shepardson of Cleveland, meanwhile, came "close to signing a lease" and estimated a re-opening date of April or May 1981 -- which was later pushed back to fall and ultimately abandoned entirely. A fast-food adaptation of the space was also suggested and subsequently shouted down.
By 1983, the owners were contemplating converting the theater to 54,000 square feet of retail space. Meanwhile, the Theater Historical Society Guide declared the Ambassador the "flagship" of the Skouras chain, and stated that it was "considered by historians to be St. Louis' most aesthetically pleasing theater." Still, it sat empty.
1986 found the owners telling a local columnist that they wanted to bring the Ambassador back as a theater; a "Save the Ambassador" group was founded. No positive action was forthcoming, and in 1988 exasperated owner Keith Barket declared that the theater was no longer for sale and would, in fact, be gutted for use as a parking garage. (A particularly sloppy and depressing example of this particular adaptive reuse can be found at the old Michigan Theater in Detroit.) The following year, all of the interior fixtures -- including stairways -- were auctioned off. Having basically destroyed the first six stories of the building from within, the owners had set the stage for demolition.
Knocking the Ambassador down was no easy task. The upper stories were no problem, but toppling the reinforced steel-and-concrete columns shaping the theater space were the most difficult job the seasoned wrecking company had ever tackled. In the midst of the carnage rose a pathetic comedy involving the disputed ownership of a long-forgotten equestrian statue found hidden in the rafters.
After demolition was completed in 1997, a "plaza" involving paving stones and garden areas was installed on the site; some decorative terra cotta panels from the Ambassador's interior were attached to a neighboring building. The bank that had commissioned the plaza as an entryway for its adjacent headquarters was promptly devoured by a competitor, and the sordid, protracted annihilation of the Ambassador remains one of the most pointless tragedies in the cultural and architectural history of downtown St. Louis.
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Photos from the Charles Van Bibber collection.
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Last featured 3/8/2005. Last edited 2/3/2015.