Oct. 04, 2014

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The largest city in the southeast corner of Missouri is Cape Girardeau, a small city with regional influence. Situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, Cape Girardeau has evolved from a tiny trading post to a frontier settlement governed by a French-Canadian commandant to a thriving, culturally-rich community of 37,000 residents. A regional center for education, health care, and business, it is estimated that as many as 90,000 people come to Cape Girardeau daily to work, shop, go to school, or visit a doctor’s office. The city is home to Southeast Missouri State University, a United States Federal District Court, two regional health organizations, numerous industries, a river casino, as well as numerous other businesses and non-profit organizations.

Just a bit over a half a mile from the Mississippi, straight up Broadway Street sits the Broadway Theatre. Built as a Vaudeville theatre at a cost estimated at over $125,000, at its opening, the Broadway Theatre had almost 1300 seats. The “New Broadway Theatre Special Section” of the Southeast Missourian newspaper published upon the theatre’s opening on December 24, 1921, described building as “Simply Beautiful.”

The newspaper detailed the auditorium height as 38 feet high, with 61 feet high walls at the stage. The proscenium opening is 24' high x 37.8 feet wide. The building has a 61 feet of frontage and is 163 feet deep. The theatre has a full basement, an apartment for the manager, two commercial storefronts on each side of the main entrance and a loading dock in the rear. The structure was declared fireproof, equipped with a full stage, dressing rooms, offices, scenery, draperies, motion picture equipment and heat/air systems. On May 25, 1929, the Broadway Theatre sent its Vaudeville Orchestra home, and the theatre officially became a talking movie theatre. In the years between 1921 and 1946, the Broadway Theatre played host to musicians, actors, movies, political events and other community functions.

In 1946, the Broadway Theatre was renamed the Fox Midwest Theatre and celebrated its twenty-fifth year in business. The Fox installed a new air- conditioning system and renovated the building. By the time the theatre closed for the first time on October 18, 1960, the theatre had changed hands several times.

In 1970, the theatre reopened as a Kerasotes. It was at this time that the second marquee was removed and replaced with a lighted plastic sign. The theatre underwent extensive remodeling prior to reopening. Carpet was installed; new seats with cup holders were installed in the auditorium, along with new flooring and a new stage. The lobby was re-configured; restrooms updated and new lighting was installed. This run lasted another fourteen years before the movie theatre closing in 1984.

The theatre reopened again in 1992, but struggled and closed its doors in 1997. The Broadway Theatre has remained vacant ever since.

Currently listed on the City's Most Endangered Buildings list, the brick building that once served as a premiere entertainment venue, is now like many other old theatres, standing vacant and deteriorating. Most small town theatres were integral parts of the community's history. Less elaborate than theatres in large cities, they were stylish enough for their community, and held a greater purpose than theatres in larger cities. For a small town, the theater was the major source of entertainment, recreation, and a place to gather.

A community's theatre provided a sense of place, a reason to interact socially, and provided recreational activities for community members as well as visitors.

The Broadway Theatre building is at the point where something needs to be done, and soon. The white glazed brick on the front facade has vegetation growing in the remaining mortar and the roof is leaking in many places. On the east facade, brick shows obvious continuous water damage and brick has fallen out in places including near the parapet on the corner it once shared with the adjoining building; long gone. Water infiltration has destroyed some of the plaster on interior portions of the auditorium wall.

The area vandals have begun making the building their target. Abandoned cars decorate the side of the building. Across the street, a half a block to the east, is the Esquire, a much smaller film theatre with what is left of the deco-style metal facade deteriorating, also empty and abandoned. Immediately to the west of the Esquire, the University continues to creep into the old commercial district, demolishing history for parking.

A theatre rehabilitation project can have a major catalytic impact on downtown revitalization, and restore a sense of place. The Broadway Theatre is at the ideal location to spur the Upper Broadway Corridor Development. With the upsurge of area community theatre groups and live musical groups in the area, the lack of adequate performance space has become evident. There is an immediate need for a mid-size entertainment venue for a multitude of different performances (music, dance, comedians, etc.) Current performance spaces in the community are over-utilized and not available for performance bookings.

Preliminary discussions have started. As the city begins its 2014 downtown strategic planning, the objective is to have big development goals and the theatre area will be one of it’s top five priorities. This last year, a corridor improvement project that began on the block that the Broadway Theatre sits was completed, emphasizing the need for the theatre’s revival. The theatre has the major problem faced by all historic commercial redevelopments, parking.

Because of the size and scale of the Broadway Theatre, a community effort is a must, and there is community cenergy in the area. The Douglas C. Greene Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Southeast Missouri State University is located a little over a block away. The improved streetscape, along with a Facade Improvement Program, a partnership of the Old Town Cape, Inc. the local Main Street Program,, the Industrial Development Authority of Cape Girardeau County and the Cape Girardeau Area Community Development Corporation, have spurred businesses to spruce up, and have inspired new business on parts of the Broadway corridor.

Financing a theatre's rehabilitation will be expensive. But very few projects can have as catalytic an impact on a downtown as a vibrant, active theatre. In 2013, a leadership project sponsored by the Cape Area Chamber of Commerce chose the Broadway Theatre as their subject. Preliminary suggestions were made and possibilities suggested, but it stopped short of a plan for development.

This project is for the local community, and the effort needs to come from the community, not just the community leaders.

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    A postcard of the Broadway in it's glory days. I have heard from several former theatre patrons that the sidewalk would sparkle under the marquee lights.
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    The east side of the Broadway Theatre in 2009.
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    Looking southeast down on the Broadway.