Majestic

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Majestic Theater

 

Harry G. Redmon moved to East St. Louis from Lexington, Kentucky, in 1909 and entered show business. He wanted to create a majestic playhouse that would withstand the test of time and that would be a hub for entertainment for theater-goers throughout the area. He made his debut in the business by becoming part-owner of the Lyric Playhouse at St. Louis and Collinsville Ave. The Lyric became the Orpheurn in 1923 and was managed by showman Joseph Erber. Prior to that, Erber ran the Erber Theater on Collinsville Ave. which became the Avenue. In those days, such stars as Florence Lawrence, John Bunny, and Flora Finch were screen favorites in one-reelers. Redmon and Fred Leber purchased the old Majestic -property at 244 Collinsville Ave. in 1919 for $90,000.

Continued increases in attendance soon made the old building inadequate. It was 19 years later when the dream of the showman and builder came true when he teamed with Fred W. Leber, a native East St. Louisan, and built the Majestic Theater in the 200 block of Collinsville Avenue. Leber was the president of Remley-Leber Department Store in St. Louis. His parents ran a meat market at Collinsville and Summit Avenues.

The opening of the $1 million Majestic in 1928 was marked by ceremony fit for a palace. Representatives of the leading film studios joined local civic, business and industrial leaders for the event, and 10,000 East St. Louisans filed into the theater's marble lobby to see Redmon's Moorish masterpiece. Redmon himself ran the theater for a year, then leased it to Publix Theater group.

The theater boasted a huge foyer, chandeliers, plush seats - enough to accommodate 1,800 persons, thick-pile carpet, a three tier balcony, Wurlitzer concert pipe organ, and a huge movie screen that was 20 feet high. Public phones were located in the mezzanine lounge. Rest rooms were also accessed via the mezzanine. The ladies rest room was especially large and contained a powder room with overstuffed lounge chairs and divans. A maid handed you a towel and brushed the hair off your shoulders with a whisk broom. The salon area, in part, was a conversation room.

There was Moorish architecture inside and out. The theater's changeable, illuminated marquee contained 3,033 bulbs of various colors and a chasing border surrounded by neon tubes. It lighted most of the entire block. As years went by, innovation after innovation was incorporated. Sound speakers were added in 1930 to accommodate "talking" pictures. When first introduced, the soundtrack was not on the edge of the film, instead, it was played on a record and it was very difficult to synchronize the sound with the action on the screen.

The first 3-D movie in 1952 was "Bwana Devil," not the horiffic "House of Wax." "Bwana Devil," starring Robert Stack and Nigel Bruce, was about two man-eating lions that held up construction of a British railroad in East Africa. The first Cinemascope picture was "The Robe," shown in 1954. The old flat screen was nineteen feet wide. The curved Cinemascope screen was an astounding 42 feet wide. To accommodate Cinemascope, a new generator was installed. New drapes were ordered. The projection capacity was increased to provide more light, wiring was changed and new control panels installed. A special, wide angle, amaniorphic lens is required to show Cinemascope. Special speakers had to be added to accommodate the new stereophonic sound. Cinemascope replaced 3-D because it gave audiences a 3-D effect without the inconvenience of having to wear special polarized cardboard frame glasses.

Usherettes were first used during World War II. Uniforms worn by both ushers and usherettes were very spiffy. Since showings were continuous, with no break between films, ushers and usherettes were needed to help seat people with their flashlights. They also helped with crowd control when the need arose. Bill Newbold, who currently lives in Belleville, was head usher for years at the Majestic.

The elaborate structure became known as the brightest spot in town. Some even billed it as the "Brightest Spot in Illinois" and one of the country's finest theaters. With the exception of a brief closing in 1933 due to a labor disagreement, it remained A bright spot until its closing in 1960.

The 1933 closing came because of a disagreement between Publix-Great State Theaters Inc. - which had leased the building from Redmon - and union workers and stagehands. The shut-down lasted a month and a half. Mayor Frank Doyle was finally successful in mediating the dispute which resulted in a cut inthe union wage scale, and Mr. Redmon taking a more active role in operating the theater. The theater reopened under the leadership of Vincent O'Leary and the theater kept abreast of the latest innovations in comfort and equipment.

Crowds at the Majestic were so big at times that three persons were needed to sell tickets. Money collected from admissions* was stuffed into bags bulging out of drawers. Other bags were scattered about the box office floor. The theater also made contributions to the downtown business life of the city. During its twentieth anniversary in 1948, for example, the theater sponsored an essay contest, in conjunction with the Journal to attract people to East St. Louis. Entrants wrote a 25-word essay on "Why I Prefer to Shop in East St. Louis." Sunny Shields and his orchestra were on stage for the premiere.

When the theater closed in 1960, the manager blamed the advent of drive-in theaters and television for some of the decline," of movie attendance. O'Leary said increasing costs was an additional factor. Projectionist Hugh Sherman and box office secretary Blanche Underwood were on hand for the last day. Both had worked there since shortly after it was built, 32 years earlier. Blanche said she remembered crowds that were so large, the line was backed up all the way down to Community House on Fifth Street. Blanche claimed that she knew more people than any of the politicians.

Charles Francis "Battler" Nelson was also on hand for the last showing. As stage manager, he was the lured by Harry Redmond. He was raised in Wales and fought in the Boer War. He received his colorful nickname professional boxing fights as a flyweight and featherweight. In 1917, he was made manager of the Avenue showed silent films and featured vaudeville acts. The Avenue had the largest stage in central and southern Illinois until the Majestic came along. "The Bat," as he is sometimes called, remembers when feature films would be shut down in the middle of their showing, so audiences could listen to the popular fifteen minute radio show "Amos and Andy" broadcast over the speakers on the stage.

Other projectionists who worked at the theater were Hugh Sherman, Ray McNickle, Jack Ritter and Paul Beach. In 1940 they worked about seven hours a day, cooped up in fireproof projectionist rooms over the back row of balcony seats. They earned about $85 for a six day week. The closing of the Majestic left the city with only two other theaters - the Colony and the Esquire.

Click here to read about the Majestic in the words of a former employee

 

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