Ambassador Theatre

411 N. Seventh Street,
St. Louis, MO 63101

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Ambassador Theatre

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Though many St. Louisans may not realize it, the Ambassador Theatre was the mecca of movie palaces and is equal in splendor to the major ones in the nation. The Fox Theatre has a twin but the Ambassador Theatre was one of a kind.

The Ambassador Theatre was designed in French Renaissance style. Built in 1926 at the corner of 7th Street and Locust Street, the theater was designed by the C. W. Rapp and George Rapp (Rapp and Rapp) firm of architects.

The Ambassador Theatre opened August 26, 1926, in the Ambassador Building, which cost $5 million to construct. Critics at that time heralded the building with such comments as the Ambassador “will take its place among the world’s most beautiful and modern buildings” and “St. Louis' newest palace of wonders”. The day the Ambassador Theatre opened, St. Louisians flocked to see this unique palace.

Opening night drew a spellbound audience of over 3,000. The program consisted of a movie, stage performances, a chorus, an orchestra, and solos on the organ. The mighty Wurlitzer 4 Manual, 23 Rank organ had a console decorated with silver leaf — a switch from the traditional gold — and jeweled lights on the organ screen sparkled on and off. The organ cost $115,000 and brought fame to the theatre.

Some of the theatre’s unusual decor was coated with silver leaf. The bright, sparkling emporium combined the decor of the traditional movie palace with “modern” architecture of the 1920’s. The ceiling’s wavy lines gave the impression of watery movement, while the silver leaf glistened above the stage.

The Ambassador Theatre was built for the Skouras Brothers with a capacity of 3,005 seats. At first it had live theatre with a combination of stage shows and movies. Actor Ed Lowry made his debut at the Ambassador Theatre as master of ceremonies. A few of the performers to grace the palace’s stage included Ted Lewis, Ben Feld, George Beatty and Eddie Peabody.

The year 1935 saw a change in the format. The Ambassador Theatre stopped its stage shows to become an exclusive movie house. At this time, the movie palaces were at their pinnacle. During the Depression, these temples of entertainment helped provide audiences with a means of escape from their problems.

As the 1930’s patron would enter from either Seventh Street or Locust Street, he would walk into a marble lobby with a 40-foot high ceiling. As he moved forward he would see a marble staircase ascending to the balcony at the west side of the lobby. The marble steps with bronze rails adjoined the bevelled walls reflecting the Spanish Renaissance chandeliers. On the balcony he might have passed the ladies' restroom, a duplicate of Madame Pompadour’s salon at the Chateau Fontainebleau.

In the auditorium the ceiling appears to be suspended — an effect achieved by a series of 11 silver lead domes extending downward. The ceiling of silver leaf and deep blue color gives the appearance of a winter wonderland where everything glistens after a deep snow, the silver while reflecting the blue sky.

After finding his seat, he could listen to the organ which had a screen of glistening jewels. the 1,000 pipes were hidden in the walls to the right of the stage. Some pipes were only an inch in diameter, while others were as large as six feet. The organ was the largest of its kind and put out enough volume to fill this large auditorium. Because of its beautiful but monstorous organ, the theatre required extra electrical current. Therefore, it had the largest electrical switchborad of its size in the world, which controlled over 17,500 globes alone with one of the largest cooling systems in the world.

In 1953 attendance at the Ambassador Theatre began to fall off, and it was remodelled as the Cinerama. Articles in the St. Louis newspapers announded that both the Fox Theatre and Ambassador Theatre were likely to close.

All Cinerama seats were taken and replaced. Advertised as its main attraction was the half circular screen which could give the audience the sensation of hurtling down a roller coaster. The screen gave the viewer 146-degree-angle vision, in contrast to the Ambassador’s original screen which gave only 60-degree angle vision.

The remodeling cost $146,000, and the seating was reduced to 1,400 which provided more leg room and somewhat wider seats. The curved screen proved to be the most costly element of the Ambassador Theatre remodeling. It made theatre history in that it was larger than any of the other Cinerama screens in the nation and had to be carefully constructed. To give an indication of its size, this screen ws six times larger than the Ambassador’s old one, which measured 77 feet across and 28 feet from top to bottom.

But the Cinerama didn’t stay at the Ambassador Theatre for long. After six years it moved into a new building on Lindell, leaving the Ambassador Theatre vacant.

In 1960, the Cinerama, the first major theaters built since the Fox Theatre in 1928, went up at 4218 Lindell as part of a chain of Martin Theatres of California. It claimed to have the world’s largest indoor screen, which measured 100 feet on a curve. The two story building attempted to be a “modern” movie palace. It didn’t quite make it and is now demolished.

The Ambassador Theatre under the direction of the Arthur Theatres made many attempts through the 1970’s to make it as a movie theater and live concert venue but they all failed. It was closed in May 1976, and was added to the Register of Historic Places in 1983. The owners auctioned off all fixtures and fittings in 1989. In 1996, it was demolished along with its office building which turned to quite a task. The theatre was built inside the office building and was constructed to with-stand earthquakes and the demolition took longer than anticipated. The area the Ambassador Theatre once stood on is now a plaza for a large bank that was next door.

The theater’s destruction is one of the greatest architectural losses in St. Louis' history.

Contributed by Charles Van Bibber

Recent comments (view all 71 comments)

Norman Plant
Norman Plant on July 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Scott, I do agree. The Fox certainly lives up to its name “The Fabulous Fox. ”. I never had the opportunity to go inside the Ambassador so I can’t compare them. But they are all impressive in their own way. Heck, even in its dilapidated condition I was really impressed with the Granada before it came down.

Chris1982
Chris1982 on July 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

I agree Scott doesn’t compare to the FOX. But as Norman said it is not a Cinema Treasure

BobbyS
BobbyS on July 11, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Hope you can all make it to the BIG SHOW at the FOX on Sunday, August 23rd. See my post on CT/Fox for details. A show this big in that theatre should be breathtaking!

Chris1982
Chris1982 on July 11, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Norman, the Granada Theatre was often referred to as the Mini-Fox of South St. Louis. Not many neighborhood houses were built like that.

Scott
Scott on July 11, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Norman, I believe I attended a show at the Ambassador in the mid 1970s. My memory of it is vague, as I attended many shows back then in various theatres. However, judging by the pictures I’ve seen, I would say that the lobby and foyer areas of the theatre were standard Rapp & Rapp; nice, but not much in the way of originality. The auditorium was another matter, however. That was obviously a beautiful work of art, and the silver leaf must have been something to see. Such a shame the theatre was destroyed, but then, it’s hard to imagine that a theatre in that location would be well attended today. I guess it’s possible that it could have been a catalyst for an entertainment district down there, but I don’t think it would have worked.

Norman Plant
Norman Plant on July 12, 2015 at 7:51 am

Scott, I agree that the financial viability played a part in the restoration of the property. It wasn’t just a theater, it was also an office building that was being eclipsed by newer and bigger office buildings in the area. At the time of the decision to take the building down decisions were being made or were made on restoring the Fox in midtown. Personally, I believe the correct decision was made, especially given the sketchy history of the American (Loew’s Orpheum) property in recent years and the explosion of the Grand Center area in midtown.

Norman Plant
Norman Plant on July 12, 2015 at 7:56 am

Chris, I loved going to the Granada. Even with the water-stained ceiling and the broken and worn seats, it was my favorite among the theaters I frequented in the ‘70’s, including the Avalon and the Crest.

Chris1982
Chris1982 on July 12, 2015 at 10:20 pm

South Side Man, EH? My Best friend and father were from the South Side. We visited the Granada mostly because their father was best friends with Tony DeCarlo who managed the Granada for many years.

Scott
Scott on July 13, 2015 at 11:19 am

I wish I had ventured inside the Granada. Drove by it a number of times but never stopped to see a movie. The facade was indeed impressive.

Mary03
Mary03 on July 13, 2015 at 12:58 pm

I used to work at the concession stand at the Ambassador when I was in high school in the late 60’s and all I can say is the theater was gorgeous! The staff had to spend the night there one evening when we were all snowed in from a major snowstorm so we had the run of the place. I love old places and still do so I was quite excited to see the nooks and crannies. That large entrance hall always made my jaw drop along with the exquisite staircase. The auditorium was massive with a capital “M” – six stories high! The ornamental plaster work was a dream to behold as well. There’s just nothing like it today. The cineplexes in the malls just don’t have the class and never will. Young theatergoers need to experience a TRUE moviehouse just once in their lives. If they do, they’ll never go back to their very pale imitations.

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