The Esquire Theatre: Saving the heart of a community

CINCINNATI -- A movement by Clifton residents to revive a local grocery store has strong connections to another neighborhood institution saved on Ludlow Avenue 30 years ago.

A group calling themselves the Clifton Market Cooperative plans to raise $1.5 million to purchase the neighborhood's shuttered Keller’s IGA. The plan, and market's situation, harkens back to 1983, when Clifton residents tried to save a shuttered Esquire theater.

“So the Kroger wants its market share, Walmart wants its share of the market and when they start fighting with each other and competing very aggressively with each other, the little guys are always the ones that get caught in the crossfire,” said Steve Goessling, who tried for three years to muster the capital to re-open a grocery store at the old IGA location, but never could.

For John Morrison, the story of Keller's IGA sounds all too familiar.

In April 1984, Morrison and other Clifton residents that were part of the neighborhood Clifton Town Meeting group rallied against cultural changes to save another Ludlow Avenue institution in peril.

The Esquire, a movie theater that began as a Vaudeville stage called the Clifton Opera House in 1919, was shuttered in 1983 after competition reduced it from an art house theater to a second-rate movie venue.

Headlines in the Cincinnati Post reflected the changing times for consumers, neighborhoods and businesses in the mid-1980s that resulted in the Esquire's death.

At the time, suburban shopping malls in driving distance were stamping out stand-alone neighborhood stores downtown. Cinemas with 12 screens and state-of-the-art sound sprouted up in Springdale and Erlanger. VCRs and cable television were making their way into more homes.

Fast food culture was also intensifying with the hamburger chain battles.

Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” was the most popular advertising slogan of 1984.

Many small theaters like the Esquire could not compete as people stopped eating and seeking entertainment in the communities where they lived.

The Esquire's closure was particularly personal for Morrison, who lived most of his life in the neighborhood and has deep theater ties.

Morrison's grandfather ran three Vaudeville houses that hosted live variety acts in Cincinnati at the turn of the century when The Esquire was born.

“He ran a theater on Vine Street,” Morrison shared while sitting in his Clifton apartment. “He ran on Sunday, and we love this story, the police would come and arrest him and all the cast for running against the blue laws.  And he fought it and was found not guilty. It’s part of the family lore we all love.” 

 
 

 

A result of that theater history, Morrison grew up with a love of intimate neighborhood theater settings that grew directly out of vaudeville across the country.

“The first art house in Cincinnati was the Guild over on People’s Court on McMillian,” Morrison said. “I would go over there and see ‘The Sheep Has Five Legs' by Fernandel and 'The Green Man' and Alec Guiness films. I love films.  I would go to the Hollywood in College Hill and the Alpha in Northside. That’s where I saw 'Bambi Meets Godzilla' and ‘Thank You Masked Man.’” 

 
 

 

It was this mix of love for film, a neighborhood he lived in most of his life, and a general disdain for fast food that propelled Morrison, president of the Clifton Town Meeting (CTM) group in 1984, to fight to save the Esquire when a developer group announced they were converting the beloved theater-house into a Wendy’s.

If CTM had not fought the development, Morrison has no doubt quaint Ludlow “would have been Calhoun at its worst," referring to the row of fast food restaurants near the University of Cincinnati's campus that has since been demolished.

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