The Old/New Grand Central

The New/ Grand Central Theatre
By James Grebe
Vers: 1.4

Our story begins with the Central Theatre, which was at 525 Market in downtown St. Louis. The Rex Amusement Company, which was a liaison of three men, operated that theatre
The first was Edmond Koeln, who was born September 10, 1866, in Carondolet. He married Annie Jodd and they had 4 children and resided at 3624 Loughborough. His home has been replaced by new construction. He was an active Republican politician and the Collector of Revenue for the City of St. Louis. The street named for him, now known as Koeln, runs from Water Street to Field Street in the Carondolet area.
The second man was Theodore Rassieur, a graduate of Washington University in law in 1887 who was a prominent attorney, and had been a personal lawyer for John Queeny of Monsanto, and other powerful men in that era of St. Louis history. He was born July 26, 1866 and was married Carrie Miller in 1896 and resided at 3663 Flora Blvd in St. Louis.
Shown next is the stately home of Theodore Rassieur where he lived on Flora Place in the early 1920’s

The third man was William Siever, who had a history in the film distributorship and entertainment business. In the year 1914, Sievers had taken over the Alco Film Distributorship in New York and was involved in a lawsuit when he bought Alco Film Company. He allegedly was defrauded as the company was not worth as much as he paid for it. When Sievers bought it, Alco was a company and later, under his control, the name was changed to Alco Film Corporation.
These three men formed the Rex Amusement Company and built the New Grand Central Theatre.

The New Grand Central originally had a seating capacity of 1,750 persons. The building cost $150,000.00 to build. The New Grand Central was built at the northeast corner of Grand at Lucas, now the parking lot of what is now, Powell Hall, formerly the St. Louis Theatre. The architects were Hirsch and Watson.
The first pipe organ installed in the theatre was a Kilgen 2m/10r, installed in 1913 and had a tubular pneumatic action. This action pre-dated electro-pneumatic action and was the first of 3 Kilgen organs installed in the theatre but the original Opus number is unknown. This could mean that it was a transplanted church organ.
The names Old and New seemed to be mixed up in the early days of the theatre. The New Grand Central came first as there was a “grand” Central Theatre in downtown St. Louis at 6th & Market.. The “grand” in that sense meant it was “grand” as compared to ordinary. The theatre on Grand remained the New Grand Central, until the Skouras Brothers bought it in 1920 and they removed the “New” from the name. In the year 1920, the Skouras Brothers, George, Charles and Spyros, bought the Central and New Grand Central for $350.000.00. The New Grand Central name stayed with Grand Avenue theatre in spite of the Skouras Brothers dropping the “New”. The New Grand Central was the first theatre in St. Louis devoted to showing motion pictures, although, it did succumb to having some vaudeville. The brothers were anxious to gain control of these theatres since, along with the theatres, came the lucrative First National Films Franchise
. The proscenium of the New Grand Central was 45’ wide though the stage was only 20’ deep as it was built for film, not live theatre. In 1921, the building was remodeled and the seating capacity was increased to 2,500. The replacement seats were smaller and were closer together. The new orchestra pit could house a 21 piece orchestra for film and the organ console.. The interior was decorated with gargoyles looking down at the audience. It is reported that they were not the threatening type. Ornate plasterwork dominated the whole interior of the New Grand Central shown below one of only two pictures known showing inside the auditorium
In 1920, Opus #3066, in the New Grand Central, a rebuild was done and many additions were added to the earlier installed Kilgen.

In 1923, the theatre became the NEW Grand Central again with the organ enlarged once more and it became to be the largest Kilgen Theatre Organ in St. Louis. Kilgen called it one of their “Wonder Organs” and moved the console to the pit area from its’ former place under a special arch on the south side of the theatre. The pipe chambers were also moved and enlarged to accommodate the enlargement of the specification.
The organ now became Opus #3204
. The specifications for this “Wonder Organ”, 3M/20R, follows.
The disposition of ranks are:

16’ Diaphonic Diapason 1-97 pipes right side
16’ Tibia 1-85 Pipes right side
16’ Bourdon 1-97 pipes left side
8’ String (Gamba) 1-80 pipes right side
8’ VDO 1-61 pipes right side
8’ String Celeste 13-73 pipes right side
8’ Quintadena 1-55 pipes left side
8’ Gemshorn 1-85 pipes left side
8’ Gemshorn Celeste 13-73 pipes left side
8’ Solo String (unison) 1-73 pipes roof
8’ Solo String (flat) 13-73 pipes roof
8’ Solo String (sharp) 1-73 pipes roof
16’ Tuba 1-73 pipes right side
8’ Trumpet 1-73 pipes left side
8’ Oboe Horn 1-73 pipes left side
8’ Clarinet 1-61 pipes right side
8’ Saxaphone 1-61 pipes left side
8’ Orchestral Oboe 1-61 pipes right side
8’ Kinura 1-61 pipes right side
8’ Vox Humana 1-73 pipes right side
Marimba Harp 1-49 bars left side
Chrysoglott (Glockenspiel) 1-37 bars roof
Xylophone 1-37 bars left side
Orchestra Bells 1-37 bars left side
Tuned Sleigh Bells 1-25 notes left side
Chimes 1-20 tubes roof
All of these percussions on the left side:
Bass Drum (Kettle Drum), Cymbal (Crash Cymball), Snare Drum (Tap), Tamborine, Castanets, Chinese Block, Tom tom, Triangle, Auto Horn, Fire Gong, Steamboat whistle, Horse hoofs, Two birds, one in each chamber, Door bell, Siren
The console had 3 expression pedals , including a Master and a Crescendo pedal. Double Touch was offered on the Great ansd Acc. Manuals as well as Pizzacato Solo to Great coupler. There were a total of 10 double acting Combonation pistons under each manual.. The entire organ was on unit chests.
There was also a 2nd Touch grouping of ranks.
There were 2 genaeral Tremolos, one for each side as well as a
Tremolo for Tibia, Tuba, and Vox Humana, and Solo Strings
.
This was a groundbreaking part of history as it was the largest fully unified theatre organ Kilgen ever built, though not the largest console. The Piccadilly Theatre in Chicago had a larger console but 1 less rank of pipes being a 4m/19r. There were two larger Kilgen organs in theatres, one in the State in Minneapolis, MN and the Capital in St. Paul, MN being 4m/31r each. The difference is that they were straight, not unified organs. Below, this is an the actual picture of the New Grand Centrals’ console with Dr. Alfred G. Robyn seated at the organ in the pit. Dr. Robyn, a noted musician in St. Louis, was also the brother of Charles Kilgen’s wife, Louise

Unique also on this organ, was the fact it is only one of several larger theatre organs known to have the 3 rank string chorus with one rank at unison, the 2nd slightly flat, and the 3rd slightly sharp. Two of the other organs are the Atlanta, GA Fox Moller and Macy’s “Wanamakers” Grand Court organ in Philadelphia, PA. Apparently, WurliTzer, Barton, and Morton did not see fit to do this. Those 3 ranks combined with the other 3 string ranks would have made this a very lush sounding organ. In its specification, almost a third of the organ is in string tone and even more is the reed tone comprising 8 of the 20 ranks.
By 1930, the Skouras Brothers also owned the St. Louis, the Missouri and the Ambassador, the Pageant, West End Lyric, the Shaw, and Arsenal.
The ‘Talkies’ began here with a 13-week run of “The Jazz Singer”. The New Grand Central also had the distinction of showing the first all color, all talking and singing movie in June of 1929 with the Warner Bros movie, “On With The Show”. In 1930, the New Grand Central, as well as the other theatres above were sold to Fanchon & Marco.
After leaving St. Louis for California, the Skouras Brothers would go into major film distribution and owning movie studios after selling their theatre building holdings in St. Louis and became very wealthy and famous in the motion picture industry in America.

In the Missouri Historical Society files there is a picture of the New Grand Central with the St. Louis Theatre steelwork going up. The St. Louis Theatre’s 4m/19r Kimball was 1 rank smaller but had larger scale pipework and the competition right next door to the New Grand Central did it in. When the St. Louis opened, along with the competition of the Missouri with an even larger organ, and a little later the Fox, with the largest theatre organ in town, the New Grand Central could not compete with the opulence these new theatres boasted. By the year 1930, the theaters on Grand Avenue consisted of the St. Louis Theatre, Grand Central, Missouri, Fox, Schubert Rialto and the Empress just down the street on Olive and the Lyn on Grandell Square and the New Grand Central closed.

Shown next is what the Kilgen console New Grand Central console looked like in their sales brochures. Note there is no decoration or gilding on the plain paneled ebony colored console.

By 1931 the front of, the once proud, New Grand Central, was boarded up due to declining attendance. Shortly after, it became used for warehouse space only.
Finally, by 1948, if you looked inside you would have found the stage and orchestra pit were filled with seats and debris from the auditorium, the stage curtain was torn and hanging down over the seats. Remember, the seats would have been removed from the auditorium to use the floor space as warehouse space The marquee, with the name of the theatre, had gradually lost it’s letters and merchants had moved into either side of the front opening. At the one side was White Mills Restaurant; a kind of clone to White Castle, and the other side advertised free parking for the Missouri, St. Louis, and Fox Theatres.
By the year 1931, the theatre was boarded up already, due to declining attendance. The new St. Louis Theatre had now come the scene and captured most audiences by then next door. In 1936, Fanchon & Marco made plans to open the theatre once more as an Art house and cinema but when the costs were calculated they decided against it. Remember, that the Great Depression was still having its effect on people spending money for entertainment. In December of 1948, the building was torn down to become the parking lot of The St. Louis Theatre. Fanchon & Marco had leases on the building, as well as the Ambassador Theatre, until 1946 and the building could not be razed till then.

The previous picture was taken after the New Grand Central closed and after the marquee was removed for safety reasons.

And to end it all the New Grand Central being torn down. The balcony is left holding forth. It was torn down from the stage area towards the Grand Avenue entrance and the St. Louis Theatre is shown looking sadly to its left quickly becoming ruins.

There is no record of the disposal their largest, the Kilgen Wonder Pipe Organ. Hopefully, the pipework found its way into various other organs around the area. The fate of the pipework still remains unknown.

And finally, from a correspondent, Darren Snow:
The following is certainly "fuzzy" information, but it's the kind of thing that often jogs people's memories and brings certifiable facts out of the woodwork, so here goes. The old Arcade Lanes bowling alley on Olive Street in University City, MO had a "party room" that contained at least two rows of old wooden theater seats, and I asked the owner of the Arcade where they had come from. He said they were from an old theater on Grand that had been "near the Fox" and was torn down in the '40s or '50s. The "Grand Central" name didn't ring a bell with him, but it's the only theater that fits the description. I was hoping to acquire some of these seats--or at least direct them to a good home such as the City Museum--when and if the Arcade closed, but unfortunately the bowling alley and (presumably) the theater seats were destroyed by fire a couple of years later.

Sources of information, Gerald Alexander, Mary Bagley, Darren Snow, Frank Rassieur, James Grebe Archives, Max Nagel’s Kilgen Ledgers, Dave Junchen, Bernard McGorrey,III, Steve Koeln Charles Von Bibber
Copyright, 2008, Yesterday Once More Publications, James Grebe

© Copyright 2017 James Grebe. All rights reserved.