Many of us have happy childhood memories of going to the neighborhood movie house and spending hours in the dark, watching our heroes and heartthrobs on the giant screen. Movie houses were the mainstay of American life for most of the last century, often acting as the center of neighborhood activity. Families would walk to the theatre to catch a show during the week, and on Saturday afternoon the seats were filled with kids watching their favorite serials or adventure movies.
Before the accessibility of the internet, these movie houses were our windows to the world. During the early 1980s these windows were smashed forever when home video players and rentable movies became the new way of life for the American family. Satellite and cable service soon followed and before the decade was over, the old movie houses started closing up.
The early 20th century was a very different time for movie lovers. The medium was young and newly available to rural areas. Across America movie palaces began to spring up in large and small towns alike. In 1921 the Ozark Theatre began construction on a tiny dirt road in rural Webster Groves, a mission style movie palace with an ornately tiled facade.
This was during the pinnacle of the silent film era, with big hits of the day including Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” and Rudolf Valentino’s “The Sheik.” The Ozark could seat 1,100 people for a single viewing and, as was normal in those days, had no air conditioning to offer other than a few windows near the ceiling that would allow some air into the packed house. Since St. Louis summers have always been notoriously hot and humid, the theatre also sported an outdoor “airdome,” for viewing movies outside during the summer months.
During the late 1960s the theatre owners decided to update the facade of the building. “It looked like a Pizza Hut had been stuck on the front of the building,” says owner Dan Stevens. By 1979 competition from the new cinemas offering two and three screens became fierce. The theatre closed and soon after became a medical and dental training school. The inside of the theatre was nearly gutted and revised to include offices and classroom space.
The Stevens family bought the building in 1988 and Dan’s parents, John and Moir Stevens, opened Sterling Pen, a stationary and printing business. The business operated in this location for 16 years and in 2004 moved to a smaller space in Kirkwood. Dan had long dreamt of opening the building as a theatre of some type and used this opportunity to begin renovations.
Steven’s took great care in disassembling the box-like addition to the front of the building, finding and then protecting as much of the original facade as possible. Approximately 40% of the tiles had been damaged over the years due to weather and other factors of deterioration. Dan wanted the building’s face to be restored as closely as possible to the original, and commissioned Krueger Pottery of Webster Groves to recreate all of the missing or damaged tiles. Stevens told us “They (Krueger) built every one of those pieces by hand. We were their best customer for about three years.” Although the theatre is slowly regaining its original beauty and elegance, Stevens continues to work constantly on his restoration efforts.
Operating a concert venue was a natural for Stevens, a long time musician himself who has been involved in the St. Louis jazz scene for decades. In recent years he has assumed leadership of the Johnny Kaye Orchestra, a big band based out of the Great Lakes Region of Illinois and Wisconsin. During the winter months, December to April, Stevens heads south to Texas and leads the Johnny Kaye Ramblers, a scaled down version of the Kaye Orchestra.
Dan partnered a few years back with Dorothy Edwards, the former owner of Robbie’s Jazz & Blues in Webster, and they joined forces at the Ozark. Together the two of them, along with Dan’s wife Maugie, manage the theatre, run the concessions and book the acts.
As family businesses struggle to stay afloat, Dan, Maugie and Dorothy are intent on keeping their dream of bringing a concert hall to the county alive. Stevens imparts “Our competition, ie, Jazz at the Bistro, the Touhill, Focal Point, Webster University, Sheldon, are all “non-profit” organizations that are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, by the corporate world and by private donations. We don’t get anything from anybody. It’s a traditional (family) business.”
Although the moniker “Ozark Theatre” will forever be emblazoned on the building’s facade, the hall has recently been renamed the Webster Groves Concert Hall. The term “concert hall” is no small claim. Acoustic tiles cover the ceiling and walls, providing a clean sound and lyrical clarity that rivals the Sheldon Concert Hall. Bassist Glen Smith declares the hall “one of the best sounding venues in the area. (It) would be a great place to record.” Jazz trumpet player Randy Holmes advises “it’s got a really nice natural acoustic sound and allows us to play (horns) without much amplification.”
The bulk of the bands playing at the new concert hall are jazz, but Stevens hopes for a wider variety of music coming as musical groups begin to learn about his facility. The many classical ensembles who lost the Tavern of Fine Arts performance space last year would do well to give the Webster Groves Concert Hall a try.
Patrons are welcome to bring in their own food, or to have food delivered from one of several local dining establishments. A full lineup of beverages and cocktails are available from Miss Edwards at the bar. The hall offers plenty of free parking and, thankfully, 21st century air conditioning.
June 10-11 will feature the Second Miles Davis Jazz Festival featuring performances by Randy Holmes and his talented crew. Tickets can be obtained in advance for $15, or at the door for $20.
Other groups performing in coming weeks include a concert from the St. Louis Jazz Club on Saturday, July 8 at 4 p.m., and East Coast drumming sensation Winard Harper with Denise Thimes, also on July 8 at 8 p.m. For a full schedule or more information, visit webstergrovesconcerthall.org.