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Friday, September 9, 2011

Ambassador Theater, 411 N. 7th and Locust St., St. Louis, MO

 Capacity 3000

The Ambassador was designed in Spanish Renaissance style by the Charles W. and George Rapp (Rapp and Rapp) firm of architects.(9)
Photo by Toby Weiss

The Ambassador opened August 26, 1926, in the Ambassador Building. 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". It cost $5.5 million. The day the Ambassador opened, St. Louisians flocked to see this unique palace.(8)

The Ambassador rose 17 stories with eleven office floors above the theater at 7th and Locust Streets.
The theater occupied the first six floors.(1)
No expense was spared for the Ambassador: at over 5 million for just the theater, the it was reputed to have the highest cost per seat of any theater in the world.

Air conditioning, an elevating orchestra pit, and "the largest major-type switchboard ever constructed" were among the building's up-to-the-minute mechanical systems.
Elaborate plasterwork filled the interior. (this information from the Landmarks Association report on the building, quoted in an article from the Riverfront Times.)
Opening night drew a spellbound audience of 3000.
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 theater'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.(8)

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 your seat, you 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.

Notable happenings in the 1940's 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 on 2/10/54. 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.(1) Stan Kahn at the “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ filled the huge enclosure with the overture to the first in the series of “Cinerama” movies.(3)

As the Cinerama fad waned, new attractions were sought.
The Ambassador closed in December 12, 1953 and Cinerama opened there on Feb. 10, 1954.(misterbluesky-cinematreasures)

Lobby clock, Ambassador Theater
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. (Darren Snow)
The Ambassador under the direction of the Arthur Theatres made many attempts through the 70's to make it as a movie theater and live concert venue but they all failed. It was later demolished along with its office building which turned to quite a task. The theater was built inside the office building and was constructed to with stand earthquakes and the demolition took longer than anticipated. The area the Ambassador once stood on is now a plaza for a large bank that was next door.(8)

The three ornate oriental styled chandeliers that hung in the lobby of the Ambassador Theatre are now in the lobby of the Des Peres Cine in Des Peres. (Chuck1231-cinematreasures)
Lobby chandelier
The organ, a 4m25r Wurli was sold to Fred Pilsbury FOR $35K. Fred never got around to installing it, he already had the McVickers Wurli from Chicago in his home. He paid $35k for it. The console was also in silver leaf. The Tibia Clausa from the organ became Allen Organ's first sampled Tibia in their digital organs. Fred then bought Allen's biggest digital organ they made up to that point. It had 7 computers in it and had 20- 100watt amps and 21 speaker cabinets. The Allen is now in Rickman Auditrium in Arnold, MO. (James Grebe)

The Ambassador closed in December 12, 1953 and Cinerama opened there on Feb. 10, 1954.(misterbluesky-cinematreasures)
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. (Darren Snow)

Bob Marley & The Wailers played here in 1976, on May 14.

The theater portion of the building closed in 1976 after a number of years as a venue for rock concerts. The seventeen stories of offices above remained viable for many years afterwards. However, efforts to find an operator for the theater failed; after ten years of trying to renovate the building, its owner ultimately stripped it of its elaborate interior decor, which was then auctioned off.(9)

Box Office, Ambassador Theater
1977-It was bought and then owned for 13 years by Barket Levy and Fine Inc. During their ownership, office occupancy had declined to about 50%. Several redevelopment ideas were floated, but nothing went forward. Of all the ideas proposed to my knowledge there were none for residential conversion office floors, which would seem like a no-brainer today. By March of 1989, the Barket group had apparently given up on any kind of re-use or restoration of the theater itself, and held a public sale, stripping out all decorative features in the lobby and theater including chandeliers, drinking fountains, staircases, and sections of decorative plaster work. (Paul Hohmann)

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. (Darren Snow)

Some light fixtures and seats from the Ambassador are now being used at the Gem in Detroit. They took them in 1990.(5)

The building's owners in the 1990's wanted to put a shopping mall in the theater space, then auctioned off as many furnishings as they could get out of there in order to turn it into a parking garage, then decided to sell the entire building to Mercantile Bank to tear it down.(4)

Mercantile acquired the building in 1993. (Paul Hohmann)

In May 1996, demolition opened views from the sidewalk of the theater that occupied the building's first six stories. Decorated in the Spanish Renaissance or Carnival style, it was rich with amazing, lavish decor and trim which turned heads and made passersby stop and pause, even as it was being destroyed. It was the last remaining movie palace in downtown.

Photo by Toby Weiss

Photo by Toby Weiss

Photo by Toby Weiss

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. (Darren Snow)

The theater's destruction is one of the greatest architectural losses in St Louis' history. The area the Ambassador once stood on is now a plaza for a large bank that was next door.(10)

There was a special series of pages in the issue of "Marquee" magazine of Vol. 16, #1 of 1st Qtr. 1984 where there are 7 photos of it in its prime, plus the cover illustration. There are also photos in that landmark book: "The Best Remaining Seats, The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace" by the late Ben M. Hall.(12)
The THS Annual No. 33 2006 the entire book is dedicated to the Ambassador Theatre. It pretty well covers its history from beginning to end with tons of detail and photos from cover to cover.(11)

Jerry performed here on:
12/20/74 Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders(6)
3/27/76  Jerry Garcia Band(7)

1.)^Snow, Darren,
4.)^WesternWatcher, comments, 2008-09-12,
5.)^Doerr, Sean, comments, 2005-08-27,


8.)^Van Bibber, Charles, 
9.)^St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 1926-08-22.
10.)^Patsy, comments, 2009-10-07,
11.)^Chuck1231, comments, 2009-04-28,
12.)^Rankin, Jim, comments, 2004-04-02,


  1. Hey, amazing post about the Ambassador. I came across a matchbook advertising it, looked up the history of the theater and found your blog. I've added your link to my clubs blog here:

  2. Hi Greg,
    Do you have a list of matchbook covers that you have?

  3. It would take forever. I have thousands upon thousands. Looking for anything special?

  4. My dad was an usher at the Ambassador in the late 20s and as an organ student was taking lessons from one of the house organist. He often practiced on the organ in the wee hours after the last show when the cleaning crew was working. The Ambassador Wurlitzer was a very special instrument and ranked among the most distinctive theatre instruments. It was designed by organist Stuart Barry and was a step above the usual Wurlitzer stock models.

  5. Thanks for the info, I've added it to the Encyclopedia.

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  7. Thanks for this updated list. Waiting for more sites…
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