POWELL HALL - Saint Louis Theatre


Saint Louis Theatre (Powell Hall)
The building was originally called The Saint Louis Theater. It was built in 1925, designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp. The theater spent the first 40 years of its existence as a stage for live vaudeville performances as well as motion pictures. The last movie shown in the old theater was The Sound of Music in 1966. At that time, the building was acquired by the Symphony Society for $500,000, through a gift from Oscar Johnson, Jr.. After spending an additional $2 million to update and renovate the theater, the hall re-opened in January 1968 as the new home of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The building is said to be haunted by the ghost of a man named George. He is often seen in a white suit and white hat and is thought to be that of a former vaudevillian. He is said to often play with the lights and the elevators.


Thousands of lights once sparkled along Grand Avenue's Theatre District. The most outstanding of the sights were the Saint Louis' and Missouri's six story vertical signs illuminating the evening sky. The Saint Louis Theatre opened November 25, 1925. Inside, the lobby resembled the Palace of Versailles -- at least it was architects Rapp and Rapp's version of a European palace. The mirrored walls reflected ornate white and gold decor. Rows of crystal chandeliers with tiers of candles hung from an ornate plaster ceiling. Flanked by fluted Corinthian columns, two balconies overlook the lobby. The auditorium is a fairy-tale world of French opulence. Above is a great dome with curved edge rectangles and circles painted with gold leaf. The theater's auditorium gives the impression of flowing movement. The balcony rails have small curtains hanging from them and are topped with red velvet. The Saint Louis Theatre had remained true to its namesakes -- both the city and the French kin. The stage curtain bears the symbol of the city of Saint Louis -- the profile of the French king with his sword pointed heavenward astride his horse. The profile comes from the statue in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Royal crowns adorn the exits, and fleur de lys decorate the walls. In 1925, the orchestra pit stood below the stage. To the left of the pit was an organ which would rise from the floor. The Saint Louis' $50,000 organ, a Kimball 4M-19R, was well known. Organist John Wagner helped make the organ famous by playing it on radio station WIL Radio. Because of this, he needed to wear headphones and take his cues from the radio station. He would often have to interrupt his program for commercials. Movie viewers had to put up with broken music and music that did not always conform with what was going on during the movie: Wagner played for the radio listeners' enjoyment. Use of the organ soon became obsolete because of the advent of the talkies. When wide screen movies became popular, the Saint Louis installed a new wide screen to keep up with the competition. Since the organ was no longer needed, a larger stage covered the organ console. Under the stage, the organ became severely damaged. Somehow, water leaked into its main chamber, and vandals ruined some of the pipes. When the theater was sold to the Saint Louis Symphony, its parts were strewn about the floor. The 1,500 pipes ranged from small pencil-sized to tubes to 18 foot tall cylinders weighing about 1,000 pounds. These pipes had allowed the organ to imitate special effects such as the xylophone, drums, a harp, piano and even horses' hooves -- no doubt used during westerns. The organ is now in the possession of the American Theatre Organ Society.

The Saint Louis Theatre was the second theater built by the Skouras Brothers; the first was the Missouri which stood only a block away. They were in the heart of the Theatre District, and were the most popular theaters of their time. Lines often stretched around the block. The Saint Louis provided ample space for its patrons with 4,100 seats. It was much larger than the Missouri, which was considered one of the nation's largest at the time it was built in 1921. (The Missouri seated 3,700). Appropriately, the last movie to show at the Saint Louis was "The Sound Of Music", after a long run from 1965-66. The theater closed immediately afterward, but in 1967 restoration work began for use as the new home for Saint Louis' symphony orchestra. A year later, the orchestra performed for the first time in the theater's spectacularly restored auditorium, its seating reduced to a more roomier 2700, and noted for its excellent acoustics. Another restoration in 1995 brought further beauty to Powell Hall, named for its chief benefactor, a local businessman who donated $1 million towards the theater's renovation. Along with the nearby Fox and Sheldon Memorial Hall, the Powell is the focal point of St Louis' thriving performing arts district.

Contributed by Charles Van Bibber, Bryan Krefft

 

Saint Louis Theatre Organ Society.
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Revised: November 04, 2010