Maplewood History: Route 66 and the Myth Worthy Maplewood Theater

Since many folks will not have the time to read this post or the one prior here is the point I’m trying to make. The Maplewood Theater building should be restored (hopefully to its original use as a theater). Phase One should include the restoration of the marquee.

The theater building is unique amongst our commercial buildings in that it was constructed the same year Route 66 was inaugurated. The original letters spelling MAPLEWOOD from the marquee survive and are in possession of the City of Maplewood. The building is already within the mythical aura of Route 66.

Several years ago, a group from Czechoslovakia flew to Chicago to begin an interesting vacation/roadtrip filming as they went. Similar groups from Germany and elsewhere have begun their trips outfitted with rented cycles from Doc’s Harley-Davidson dealership in Kirkwood. The object of the affection and fascination of these groups and many others is to travel the as-close-to-the-original-as-possible route of the now legendary and mythological Route 66.

Subject of a television series, a hit song, countless books and articles, Route 66 has come to symbolize much more to its fans than the narrow strips of concrete it once was. Beginning in cold, windy Chicago and culminating in sunny Santa Monica, Route 66 has become a metaphorical backwards journey from death to life.

It has been identified with the car culture in the US perhaps more than any other road, carrying everyone from the dust bowl refugees of Steinbeck to the hot rodders of Jan and Dean. Not-so-prescient highway planners tried for many decades to make it disappear only to have it willed back to life by its many fans.

The various paths 66 followed over the years are known as alignments. 66 fans take note. We in Maplewood are fortunate to have had the very first alignment of Route 66 run straight through the heart of our town (following Manchester Road) from its inception in 1926 until 1932 (or 33 depending on which source you consult).

In 1926 a theater building was constructed in Maplewood directly on Route 66. The building still exists in the 7100 block of Manchester. Shorn of its marquee it looks like little more than an average building of the period with storefronts at street level and apartments above. There is a pass-through in the center that was once the entrance to the lobby and auditorium. A careful observer can spot the cast iron lion’s heads that once anchored the diagonal supports of the marquee.

No other building in our city is as easily adapted to myth as this one. (see my previous post for an example of the importance of myth). Its birth coincided with the birth of Route 66. The story of the original letters from the original marquee returned to their exact spots in space after being saved from destruction and preserved for decades by a small band of zealots will be a clincher. The newspaper archives contain the seeds of myth. Knowledge of historic events on site especially with movie stars present will regenerate interest in the building. If the 66ers will drive miles out of the way to see a few deteriorated pieces of pavement from the original road, tell me they wouldn’t be interested in our theater. Just as the Alamo has become a historic touchstone for San Antonio, the Maplewood Theater could easily become a touchstone (touchbrick might be more accurate) for the City of Maplewood.

If phase one of the restoration restores the marquee, that alone should be enough to increase interest in and revenue from the storefronts and apartments. Hopefully phase two could include the reconstruction of the theater auditorium perhaps using The Pageant on Delmar as a construction model.

Joe Edwards has provided model after successful model in the Delmar Loop. Hopefully someone will see our Maplewood Theater could be as valuable to our area as the Tivoli or Moolah are to theirs.

The Maplewood Theater building in 2010.  Photo by Doug Houser

The Maplewood Theater building in 2010. Photo by Doug Houser

From the internet, of course.  someone gave me some information once that made me suspect the closing and demolition dates are wrong.

From the internet, of course. Someone gave me some information once that made me suspect the closing and demolition dates are wrong.

Showing Wichita in 1955.  Courtesy of Wanda Kennedy Kuntz

Showing Wichita in 1955. Courtesy of Wanda Kennedy Kuntz

Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Undated.  Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Undated. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Undated advertisement.  Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Undated newspaper advertisement. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.

Probably from the internet.  Undated.

Probably from the internet. Undated.

Similar to other undated photo.  This one is sans utility pole.  Courtesy of Matt Irwin.

Similar to other undated photo. This one is sans utility pole. Courtesy of Matt Irwin.

Cast iron lion's head wall anchor for marquee support.

Cast iron lion’s head wall anchor for marquee support.  Doug Houser

From the internet by way of Rachelle L'ecuyer.  charles Hutson who is no longer with us was my neighbor.

From the internet by way of Rachelle L’ecuyer. Charles Hutson who is no longer with us was my neighbor.

13 thoughts on “Maplewood History: Route 66 and the Myth Worthy Maplewood Theater

  1. I was just talking to a couple of my children. One of them remembers seeing the movie The Birds at the Maplewood Theatre…..she was born in 1964, so if it closed in 1969, she would have been just five…..she doesn’t think she was five, because she can remember some of the “bird” scary scenes. She says it had to have closed later than 1969. I also was talking with another daughter, and she remembers going to the Maplewood with some of her cousins…..and seeing Grease, which came out in 1978…..So that was way after 1969. I’m thinking it maybe closed for good in 1979 or 1980. My oldest daughter thinks maybe it closed, then re-opened a little later, for a while, before it closed permanently. Anyway….my children remember going there after 1969.

    • Thanks, Pat. Someone else in my dim memory told me a story such as yours. I moved to Maplewood in 1975 and seem to remember it still being open then. I think your dates are closer to being accurate than the ones listed in the Cinema Treasures article.

    • Good question. I’d love to see this happen, maybe even get a crowd-fund going, but we would need to figure out who owns it first.

  2. One of my joys of summer in the 50s and early 60s was the Wednesday matinee at the Maplewood Theater. At some point the cost was a quarter. The theater was air conditioned when our homes were not. The features and cartoons were never first run but we loved being with our friends and our parents gave us an extra 10 cents to spend on candy or popcorn. My favorite was the Boston Baked Beans candy coated peanuts. The Maplewood was an important part of my childhood. The annual Christmas Party was a highly anticipated event. You received a ticket for a drawing along with the candy canes and the coveted prize was a shiny new bicycle. There was so much excitement among all those kids. It was nice to see the photos and relive the memories.

  3. I think that a big deterrent to restoring it as a movie house might be the cost of digital projection equipment. I have read a couple of times about movie houses that just had to give up and go dark because the equipment cost is so high. I suspect that movies projected from film are or soon will be a thing of the past.

    • Tom, I believe you’re right on both counts. Perhaps like everything else the price will come down on the digital equipment. I wonder if there are any theaters still showing film. Having apartments in the building was part of the key to the success of the Moolah theater. The apartments are right behind the screen. The Maplewood theater building already contains apartments. There are clever folks in town who have pulled off some amazing feats of restoration such as the Moolah. I’m trying to make sure they know the details on our theater. I t could be a key building to the revitalization of that end of the business district.