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Gem Theatre

2002 Photo from the Adam Martin collection
8840 Saint Charles Rock Rd
Saint John MO 63114

Record #11277  
 Closed: Yes (date unknown)
 Current Use:
Architectural Style(s):
National Register:
Current Organ: none
 Also Known As: The Art, Saint Johns Cinema
 Previously operated by: General Cinema Theatres, Mid-America Theatres

Information for this tour was contributed by Darren Snow.

The Sordid History of The Gem

The Gem theatre in the St. Louis suburb of St. John opened in the mid-1920's and spent its first half-century under the aegis of Henry Halloway, who was the proprietor of several other theatres in the North- and Mid-County areas.

After a thorough remodeling, the Gem reopened on 11/23/35, advertising the event in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that had never carried listings of the cinema's fare and did not begin to for several more years.

Just after noon on 8/24/44, a fire began in the rear of the theater and swept through the structure, causing $60,000 worth of damage. Though part of the roof caved in, the lobby and offices escaped unscathed but for a little smoke and water damage.

When the repairs were finished and the Gem was ready to reopen on 1/16/46, its staff was confronted by a phalanx of union stagehands who were upset that the theater no longer had any work for them. (This was a common problem in those days, as movies had replaced live entertainment at most theaters, and the new ones were being built without any stage at all. Cinema operators had no work for stagehands, but in classic blame-the-messenger fashion, the unions refused to recognize the changing nature of the entertainment business and chose to harass the owners of the theaters rather than take up a more useful trade. Unfortunately, these jilted stagehands were usually backed up by the projectionists' union, which crippled the cinemas and forced them to either close or re-hire the stagehands -- even though they usually wound up doing no work other than turning the air conditioning on and off and changing the occasional light bulb.) In an unusual turn of events, the picketing laborers were run off by a band of about thirty neighborhood youths, who hadn't had a movie house in the neighborhood for over a year and weren't about to be put off any longer. The schoolkids carried signs of their own, bearing messages like "Unfair to public -- we want this show opened;" "Don't yipe about juvenile delinquency -- These guys won't let us have a show;" and "We want $85 a week for nothing too!"

Halloway managed to round up enough non-union employees to get the Gem up and running by the 27th of January, but within a couple of weeks the picketers were back and behaving badly. Some of them warned neighborhood children that there was a man in the theater who would cut off their ears; others photographed theater patrons' license plates and threatened to publish their names in the union newsletters. Halloway was unbowed; he recalled a time some nine years hence when he had been forced to pay a union stagehand $75 a week at another stageless cinema, and in his three months there, the guy did nothing but change a single light bulb. "I paid off $200 to the right party," Halloway told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, "and the stagehand disappeared."

The media apparently tired of following the Gem's travails at around this point, so it's unknown whether Halloway caved in and hired the stagehand, or once again greased the palm of the "right party."

Things went smoothly at the Gem for quite a while, with the General Cinema chain assuming management in the sixties. The cinema closed in August 1969, and the Mid-America chain reopened it the following January as an "art house," going so far as to rename the theater the "Art." Under this arrangement, the cinema raised eyebrows by running kiddie matinees in the daytime and X-rated movies in the evenings.

By the mid '70s, the theater was known as the "St. John's Cinema." Mid-America dropped it from the family in summer 1977, and it continued as an independent operation for several months before closing. It soon resumed business under the management of Harman Moseley.

Thirty years after the union fiasco, the neighborhood kids were doing the cinema more harm than good -- or so thought certain St. John police officers. On April 29, 1979, two cops entered the theater and demanded that the show be stopped so that they could search the premises for a couple of suspicious youths. When they failed to present a warrant, Moseley turned them away.

Early the next morning, a fire damaged the cinema to the tune of $100,000. At first, it was thought that a popcorn machine had overloaded a circuit, but a letter Moseley received from a neighbor several weeks later put things in a new light. The neighbor claimed to have heard one policeman tell another that he had "gone too far" at the theater on the morning of the fire. After an investigation, two St. John police officers and a former sergeant were arrested for arson and confessed to the crime. They had been upset with Moseley for not keeping his teenage patrons in line, so they decided to break into the theater and vandalize the lobby -- hoping, no doubt, to make it look like the work of rowdy kids and turn Moseley against the youths. In the heat of the moment, however, the cops got carried away and wound up torching the place.

That November, the Gem Theater and its creditor, St. John Bank and Trust, sued the City of St. John for the irresponsible actions of its boys in blue. The cinema never reopened.

In July 1980, the city of St. John expressed an interest in purchasing the damaged theater and refurbishing it as a community center. That plan never got very far, and the building was instead made into a van-conversion business.

(This history was assembled from the collected files of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.)

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Last featured 7/25/2002. Last edited 9/3/2016.

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