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St. Louis' Film History: The Actors, Moguls, Movies And Theaters With Ties To The Region

This year marks two anniversaries from St. Louis’ film history: it is the 90th anniversary of the Tivoli Theater, and the 70th anniversary of Meet Me in St. Louis, which is perhaps the film that most often comes to mind when St. Louis is mentioned. Though Meet Me in St. Louis was shot entirely outside of the city, many pictures, both before and after the Judy Garland classic, were filmed here. Today on St. Louis on the Air we discussed a few of them, and the people who contributed to the films we love.

”We celebrate our natives … I think part of that is driven by the [Loop] Walk of Fame. We really do pay tribute to the people who come from St. Louis, and we’re much more aware, I think, of people from town that have gone on to success … both contemporary Hollywood and classical actors,” said Cliff Froehlich, the executive director of Cinema St. Louis. From Agnes Moorehead and Buddy Ebsen to Kevin Kline and Jon Hamm, a number of actors have called the St. Louis area home.

Spyros Skouras

In addition to actors, St. Louis can also lay claim to movie mogul Spyros Skouras, a Greek immigrant who made a name for himself building and acquiring movie theaters in the city. By 1926, Skouras and his two brothers owned 37 theaters in the St. Louis region, as well as theaters in Kansas City and Indianapolis, which they managed in an association with Paramount's Publix theater chain. 

In 1928, they sold their theaters to Warner Brothers and Skouras made his way to Hollywood. In California, he managed the first big film industry merger between Twentieth Century and Fox Studios and pushed for the development of the Cinemascope widescreen format that became the industry's standard for decades. He was also behind the development of such classics as Cleopatra and the King and I.

Filmed On Location

Over the years, St. Louis has been the filming location of many pictures, including White Palace, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, Up in the Air and King of the Hill.

Casting director Carrie Houk of Houk Casting selected the St. Louis actors for King of the Hill, and looks back on the project with great fondness.

“In my 34 year career that was my favorite project hands down,” she said. “[Director Steven Soderbergh] used a lot of local actors … he turned Taylor and Olive back in time, and we had hundreds and hundreds extras that were period perfect. We did not have one bad weather day – except for the day we needed rain, we got rain.”

The number of films shot in St. Louis has been on a downturn, however, since Missouri allowed its tax incentive legislation to sunset on Nov. 28, 2013.

“Right now there are 41 states that have tax incentives to lure production to their state … So officially we’re just not in the game anymore to land any large studio or maybe a television episodic,” said Joni Tackette of Joni Tackette Casting.

While independent film projects continue, the lack of tax incentives means projects with the potential to have a big economic impact are unlikely to choose Missouri as a film location, she added. Tackette is also the president of the Missouri Motion Media Association, the state’s primary film lobbying group

A big project like Up in the Air translates into millions of dollars of economic activity for the state. According to Tackette, Paramount spent $12 million in Missouri to produce the film, leaving a net positive of $7.9 million after the 35 percent tax incentive was returned to the production company.

Historic Movie Theaters

St. Louis is still home to a few of the ornate movie palaces that dominated early Hollywood – in particular the Tivoli, the Fox and the Hi-Pointe. The Tivoli is about five years older than the Fox Theatre, but only holds the second-oldest theater slot. The Hi-Pointe Theater opened two years earlier in 1922. 

From the Tivoli’s opening until the advent of talking pictures, it served as both a movie theater and a vaudeville venue. According to former Tivoli manager Dale Sweet, the dressing rooms, fly space and rigging left over from its vaudeville days remain behind the screen in their main theater.

“Any time you go to the Tivoli it is a treat to watch the film there … many of the other places … I think there is a big business feel to it, and those of us who really appreciate the form of filmmaking, it is an art, so to see it in a place like the Tivoli, it adds to the experience,” said Tackette.

The Tivoli will be celebrating its 90th anniversary with a screening of Meet Me in St. Louis on May 25th at 4 p.m. The Missouri History Museum hosted a screening and sing-a-long of the film earlier this month. We brought back an audio postcard and pictures of the event which you can findhere.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer with assistance from Amanda Honigfort. It is hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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