St. Louis, MO Black Theatres

African- American Only/Owned St. Louis Theatres
by James Grebe updated 9/29/14

The years before the mid to late 1950's were a different time than what has followed since. When the author was growing up during that time, “Blacks only” theatres were not even known by my age group and area (Soulard, St. Louis). Although many of my friends there were Black it did not even occur to me that it was strange that they did not attend the same school as me till 1954 or that they did not go to my nearby movie theatres, The Peerless and New Shenandoah. It simply never came up just as my Jewish friends from grade school never played outside with us when not in school. Later, I would learn that the facts I had grown up with were not the facts of the real world. One of my Black friends, Robert Ray, grew up and became “Artist in Residence” at UMSL, the University of St. Louis in Normandy.
Some of the theatres switched from 'whites only 'to integrated, to 'Blacks only' during the early to mid years of the 1900's. Most were smaller theatres seating less than 1,000 and virtually none had theatre pipe organs as the large mid town theatres did. They were content to have a piano banging out the soundtrack for the silents or very small bands. Some had white owners while others had Blacks as owners. During the early 1970's the “Blacksploitation movies came in to vogue which temporarily gave the Black theatre a boost, featuring Blacks as heroes and especially 'Black themed' soundtracks. By the late 1970's, most of the Blacks only theatres had fallen into low attendance due to the availability of Blacks being able to frequent the more fancy regular theatres. With available transportation, Blacks were no longer limited to neighborhoods but could venture out into all realms of the city. This meant that the usually small, cash strapped, theatres were closed and abandoned to be turned into churches or some other use and finally became blighted and the ultimate destruction, razed.

Amytis 4300 St Ferdinand 640 seats

This is a picture of the auditorium before conversion to the movie theatre when the college closed

The Amytis opened in 1934 after Poro Colleg closed and closed in 1960. It was then demolished for a neighborhood redevelopment plan that never materialized. It was operated for a time by Mort S. Silvers, a former vaudeville performer and Universal Pictures employee for 40 years. It never materialized. The auditorium was originally the auditorium for Poro College which had been founded by Annie Malone, one of the first Aftican-American millionaires due to her success at formulating womens hair care products.. In February of 1934 it became a commercial operation and presented films and occasional live performances. The last ad for this theatre was in July of 1960.
Bonanza Theatre 2917 Olive 602 seats

The picture previous to this what is left of the Bonanza Theatre. The building on the right is the remodeled Bonanza building and is empty and for lease as of 9/29/14.. It was and independent theatre closed to the Star Theatre. It had a small balcony and was well maintained and cleaned. No one ever figured out why it was called the Bonanza other than it was a bonanza to the neighborhood. It had beautiful red drapery around the screen and also presented local stage shows. It operated as a theatre from 1909 to 1916.
The building on the right is the remodeled Bonanza building. It was and independent theatre closed to the Star Theatre. It had a small balcony and was well maintained and cleaned. No one ever figured out why it was called the Bonanza other than it was a bonanza to the neighborhood. It had beautiful red drapery around the screen and also presented local stage shows. It operated as a theatre from 1909 to 1916.

Booker Washington Theatre 2248 Market, 506 to 909 seats

The theatre opened in 1913, just a block west of Union Station. It had no fancy ornamentation. It opened at 10 in the morning and remained open till after midnight. It was known for being boisterous and noisy from the servicemen waiting for their trains. The theatre closed in 1930 during the depression with re-development of the area and torn down.
The Booker Washington Theatre was owned by Charles H. Turpin, brother of Tom Turpin and co- owner. Tom Turpin was acknowledged to have published the first “rag” before the introduction of ragtime at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Tom Turpin was a very large man at 6' tall and 300 pounds. It is said his piano had to be lifted up on blocks so he could play standing up as his belly was too large, keeping him from reaching the keys if he sat down to play. He was called the “Father of St. Louis Ragtime” He also owned, with his brother Charles, gambling houses, a dance hall and sporting houses

Turpin also was a deputy constable and was one of the first politically powerful African -Americans in St. Louis. Turpin died in 1922 and was buried in St. Peters Cemetery in Normandy, Mo.
The theatre has been long gone for many years on the now widened Market Street.

Comet Theatre 4106 Finney 900 seats

There evidently were two theatres with the name Comet. The first was at 2110 Market and opened in 1911 and closed before the new one in 1931 on Finney. The 2nd opened in 1939 as built and operated by Tommy James. Its outstanding feature in the front was a neon across the top with a comet shooting across it. In 1940 it became an African-American theatre. It closed in 1972.

Criterion Theatre 2644 Franklin 892 Seats

Opened in 1924, by Greek owner George Pleakos. Another source says the first ad for the theatre was in 1917 differing from the 1924 date above. In 1934, publicity for the building came from “the colored cashiers society: picketing for better employment opportunities. It survived till 1966 as a movie theatre with its last ad. After that it became a church, and later boarded up with ply wood. Vandalism plagued the building til a police sub-station was built across the street. It was said it was the best shape of any old north St. Louis Black movie theatre, now demolished. Its vertical sign spelling Criterion in streamlined lettering was one of the most beautiful in town. It has been torn down

Douglas Theatre 4201 Finney 850 originally then 700 seats, and 650 in 1950

Opened in November, 1918 by Charles Pitman as the Jest-A-Mere theatre It was built as a just for Blacks type by the owner. In 1927 it was bought by Thomas James and renamed the Douglas after the abolitionist Frederick Douglas. When it opened it advertised as being built entirely by colored labor., and was a triumph for the race as there was continuous opposition from the white unions. It closed in April, 1962.

Laclede Theatre 3116 Laclede 500 Seats

Built by Alex Pappas and the architect was O.W. Stiegmeyer and opened on March 23, 1940 and had an Africa-American audience. It had a plain appearance but serve the are for 34 years until June 23, 1959 when the Mill Creek Development leveled the entire area. St. Louis University now occupies half the whole area.

Marquette Theatre 1806 Franklin 795 seats

Opened in 1913 to serve originally the Irish-Italian people. It became an African-American theatre in 1943. In the mid 1950's it went to weekend only and closed in 1961 when demolished for an industrial park.

Regal Theatre 3144 Easton

Roosevelt Theatre 810 N Leffingwell seats 646

Owner Christ Zolos opened the Roosevelt for African-Americans in 1927. It was a single floor building in the middle of a block, just 3 blocks from the Criterion theatre and outlasted the Criterion for many years. The front was a simple block front with a cream and orange mix with a large marquee with loads of neon lights. It closed in 1966 though it remained busy till it closed when the neighborhood was slated for redevelopment. Admission prices were 0.75c for adults and 0.25c for kids til the very end. . Torn down

Star Theatre 16 S Jefferson owner C. Eithen

Torn down
Venus Theatre 4264 Finney, 492 seats

The Venus was owned by A. Sanowski in September of 1915 as The Pendleton. In its opening publicity it was publicly stated as “the only house for colored west of Jefferson”. The name change to Venus was in February of 1924. It closed in 1933 and long since demolished

Credits: Afro-American Registry, Gerald Alexander, Charles Von Bibber, James Grebe Archives, Wikopedia, Ken McIntyre, Chris Utley,

© Copyright 2017 James Grebe. All rights reserved.