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The Lens: The demise of the Shady Oak marks end of a movie era

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 18, 2008 - The Shady Oak theater has bowed to the wrecking ball. While some may see this as a time for goodbyes, I suspect that those who actually patronized the theater paid their last respects long ago.

About 10 years ago, I went to the Shady Oak and saw the forgettable "Pleasantville." It closed not long after. A poster for "The Little Vampire," a family film starring the kid from "Jerry Maguire," remained in the display case for many years.

Some in Clayton had apparently hoped to save the theater from its fate. That's frequently the case when an old neighborhood theater faces destruction. But like the Granada, the Shenandoah, the Maplewood, the Ritz, the Norside, the Fine Arts, the Apollo Art, the Varsity, the Avalon, the Melvin, the Pageant, the Trans-Lux and so many that closed, the Shady Oak needed help long before plans for its demolition were drafted.

I don't mean to sound cynical, but the single-screen neighborhood theater and the tiny independent art-house are things of the past, as forgotten as the double feature (and the triple feature), the Saturday matinee and newsreels (a few hold-outs aside, I'd also include drive-ins). While a few have held on, they are an anomaly and have been for nearly 30 years.

Allow me a digression: Twenty years ago, I was a manager for a good-size (750 seats, if I remember correctly) theater. Single screen houses were already rare, but the average multi-plex was a mere 6 or 8 screens, not the 24 or 40 auditorium megaplexes one sees nowadays. Our theater was known as much for its selective programs and informed patrons as for its large but decaying interior. Yet customers would come in and react in confusion that more than one door led into the auditorium. The multiplex state of mind had already colonized the moviegoing consciousness two decades ago.

None of this says that I don't miss the Shady Oak. I miss it, the other darkened marquees I listed earlier and the more upscale downtown venues like the Ambassador, the Loew's State, the Fox or its slightly smaller neighbor up the street, the St. Louis. In 1964, I saw "Hey There, it's Yogi Bear!" at the St. Louis; a few weeks ago I saw David Robertson conduct works by Rachmaninoff and Adams in the same auditorium. Things change.

If you visited the Shady Oak any time after, say, 1990, you almost certainly noticed how little it had in common with the fluorescent-lit, mall-based multiplex theaters of today. Parking was minimal, so you probably parked on a side street and took your chances crossing Forsyth. Then, there was the theater itself, which was tiny and quaint, with its small outdoor window serving as a ticket booth.

Compared to any sterile multi-screen experience, you had to know you were participating in a movie-going experience that echoed those of audiences from 40 years earlier, when movie going was simpler and more common. The Shady Oak was a small, intimate building tucked away in the middle of Clayton, not a mammoth, publicity-strewn glass lobby offering 16 choices. A room, not a cubicle.

My fondest Shady Oak memory? Probably a standing-room-only preview of Robert Altman's "Nashville" in 1975.

Because of its proximity to Washington University, the Shady Oak flirted with arthouse or upscale American films for most of the '70s. I recall Carlos Saura's "Cria," Fassbinder's "Despair," Altman's "Three Women," Blier's "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" - but there were also lots of forgettable mainstream films to pay the rent.

Tastes and audiences have changed. I'm still surprised when I see ticket-buyers standing in line at your typical multiplex, not even sure yet of what they want to see. That kind of indecisive filmgoing was simply impossible at one time, in the hey day of places like the Shady Oak. Moviegoers today don't even realize what they've missed. 

Robert Hunt has been writing about film and the arts -- mostly film for more than 25 years.