St. Louis Movie Theaters

CA Hi-Pointe_smThe Hi-Pointe is one of the most charming theaters in St. Louis (second only to the Tivoli, in my book)—and has the best popcorn, besides.




CA Tivoli_500

Though it’s been years since I’ve addressed the issue directly, anyone who lives in St. Louis and reads my writing surely knows that my favorite movie theater in town—and one of my favorites in the world—is the Tivoli in University City. At the risk of cliché, that’s the one place I feel the most at home apart from, you know, home. But the movie theater scene has been changing a lot in the past half-decade, with the advent of DCP projection, the increasing rarity of actual film prints, the addition of 3D, and more and more movie theaters adding bars, in-theater food service, and just about anything that might get you away from your goddamn computer and back into theaters, where you belong. With all of this in mind, where are the best places to go in St. Louis to see movies?

The answer to this question will mostly depend on the person. It’s worth mentioning from the outset that, despite my love of seeing films theatrically, I have one major break away from seeing movies the way filmmakers intend them to be seen: the fewer other people in the theater, the happier I am. There are exceptions—film festival crowds tend to be respectful and attentive, for example, and a sold-out festival screening can be a real joy—but on the whole, I’m the guy who goes to the untrafficked movie theaters at weird times (weekdays, and either very early in the day or very late at night) and sits as far away as possible from anyone else who might be there. But in addition to this, there are a number of things to look for in a good theater: quality of its patrons is a big one for me, but programming, screen size, sound and projection quality, charm, selection, and many other factors should be considered.

It’s funny that in the above-linked article I both talk about how much I love Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, and say that the best mainstream theater in St. Louis is AMC’s West Olive. In the intervening years since I wrote that article, many movie theaters have somewhat remodeled themselves after the Alamo (in-seat service, alcohol sales, and an environment that caters more to adults than the neutral-seeming traditional theater), to include the West Olive itself. Some of these theaters can carry off the Alamo knockoff okay (I’d venture that downtown’s newish MX Movies is the best example of this), but the remodeled AMC theaters really botched the job, and West Olive virtually overnight went from the best mainstream theater in St. Louis to one of the very worst: Always-on armrest lights so you can read the menus; wait staff that are intrusive and talk openly over the movie; and shitty, Applebee’s-grade food are enough to permanently put you off the dine-in theater boom.

CA Tivoli_250If my research is correct, the two largest single screens in St. Louis are the Galaxy’s Mega Screen and the Moolah’s screen, with the Mega having the edge in terms of size. Between the two, the Moolah is much more likely to be showing something worth seeing on their big-ass screen than the Galaxy, but I have to give the Moolah the award for the worst movie theater clientele in St. Louis. Seriously: They’re just awful. I’ve gotten to where I refuse to go there unless I just have no other good option. Easily the worst theater in St. Louis for dickheads on cell phones, the Moolah also loses points for having a decent bar on the premises (a weird thing to lose points for, I know), which results in drunken fuckers coming in and talking full volume over the movie, often while also playing on their cell phones. All of this is a shame, too, since I really like the Moolah’s space—the couches, the balcony (which I actually prefer to the couches), the ballroom feel to the auditorium. Well, I don’t care for the on-premises bowling alley, which you can often hear during quieter movies—imagine my disappointment when I saw 12 Years a Slave there, only to hear people bowling louder than I could hear the movie half the time.

Two independent-leaning theaters in St. Louis of which I am a big fan are the Hi-Pointe and the Chase Park Plaza, the latter of which is owned by the same local chain that has the Moolah. The Chase is a nice balance between good clientele, good programming, and cheap prices ($5 tickets to nearly all movies all day on Wednesdays; this is also the case at the Moolah), so if I’m behind on two or three movies, a lot of times I’ll head to the Chase on a Wednesday and have a double or triple feature. The Hi-Pointe, meanwhile, is one of the most charming theaters in St. Louis (second only to the Tivoli, in my book): It is the longest-running dedicated movie theater in the city, and has the best popcorn, besides. I’ve on occasion had problems with the crowds there, but not enough to scare me away: A rowdy crowd is fine for a midnight movie (and their midnight series is the best in St. Louis, by the way), but not at all welcome when you’re seeing a regular-run movie. For the record, it’s more an issue of talkers than it is texters; Plaza Frontenac has a similar problem.

Most of the kind words in this article thus far have been applied to local independent theaters; what, then, is the new holder of the prize for best mainstream theater in St. Louis? I’d give it to the Chesterfield 14, oddly; it’s a mall theater, and I am generally repulsed by the prospect of going to a mall. But Chesterfield gets it right in having a lot of options, good clientele, cheap matinee prices, comfy seats, and nice screens and sound in each auditorium. Also, one key that keeps bringing me back there is that they’re the one theater in town that runs Bollywood movies. They seem to not advertise, announce, or promote them (or not in any outlet I’ve seen, anyway), but they reliably are showing one or two at any given time, and Bollywood movies are a heck of a lot of fun on the big screen. It’s worth checking their screening times once a week or so to see what Bollywood flick they’re running; each one tends to only play a week or two, so if they have one you want to see, be sure to make it out there quick, before they replace it with the next one.

Chesterfield is an AMC property, like West Olive, so there’s a part of me that’s afraid AMC (a national chain) will at some point blow it, like they did with West Olive. They’re walking on a tightrope with it being in a mall anyway. I used to favor the cheaper, run-down AMC theaters, like the now-defunct one in the ghost town that was Crestwood Mall, or the Esquire before its recent remodel. Locally owned Wehrenberg is a chain more in tune with St. Louis (hell, even the Tivoli is run by Landmark Theatres, which is headquartered out of Los Angeles), and also happily willing to run movies that are available day-and-date Video On Demand (because of this, nearly every Wehrenberg in town showed Snowpiercer when most other theaters would not, which scores a lot of points for the former). The seeming flagship of Wehrenberg, the 20-screen behemoth Ronnie’s, used to be my least-favorite movie theater in St. Louis. I’m happy to report that they’re getting better (to my knowledge, they’re currently the only St. Louis theater that still has a 70mm projector—not that it gets used much), but still have a lot of work to do before I start going there regularly on my own volition (the fact is that, whether I like it or not, a great deal of press screenings are held there, so Ronnie’s has long been one of the theaters I attend the most). As far as Wehrenbergs go, I prefer the Galaxy and Des Peres—but really, Wehrenberg is a pretty reliable, middle-of-the-road chain: No one Wehrenberg will blow you away, but none of them are all that bad, either.

This column wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium, which in many ways exemplifies exactly what I’m looking for in a movie theater. They have capabilities to show film from digital prints as well as 35mm (many local theaters no longer have even one 35mm projector); their projectionist actually knows what he’s doing (the last time I saw a 70mm film at Ronnie’s, the film broke, which I’d be willing to bet was the projectionist’s fault); and they show obscure-leaning first-run releases, as well as cool repertory stuff and traveling series. And, much to my delight, they neither sell food or beverages, nor allow you to bring your own in the theater. My kind of place!

There’s plenty of other material to be discussed here—the Keller is a decent second-run theatrer, of which I can be a fan; St. Louis’s two Regal Cinemas, St. Louis Mills and Gravois Bluffs, are both nice, comfy, too-expensive theaters; and I could write a whole new column about why I love the Tivoli so much. The fact is, this article is coming in the middle of a period of change: Who knows which theaters will be capable of projecting film, showing movies in 3D, enacting good anti-texting policies (that they actually enforce!), etc., a few years from now? We can help make those decisions for them by flocking to the theaters that are getting it right; at some point all of these changes are going to have to start benefiting the consumer, right? | Pete Timmermann

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply