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 Peebles Corner on McMillan,” 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.

'BURGERS OR POPCORN?'

Kentucky Post article courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

That was the headline that ran in the Metro section of the Cincinnati Post on Saturday, April 28, 1984 to save what is now one of the few remaining locally owned and operated movie theaters in Greater Cincinnati.

The brief story previewed a Monday, April 30, 1984 meeting to take place between Clifton residents and an owners' group looking to redevelop the Esquire building on Ludlow Avenue.

A former owner of the Esquire had closed shop in May 1983 and the group purchased the building. Initially there were talks with another theater operator who wanted to open the Esquire back up to show second-run films.

What people didn’t know initially was a deal with that perspective buyer fell through and the deal to bring in Wendy's was already signed.

“Ludlow Avenue business district is a small one, which is struggling to maintain the special village character which is so important to the vitality of the surrounding residential community,” read part of a letter addressed to those developers from Clifton residents begging the Wendy's deal be rescinded.

An eleventh restaurant, and a fast food one at that, was the last thing the 200 to 300 Clifton residents attending the meeting wanted.

After the initial April 30 meeting, hopes were not high for saving the Esquire.

Morrison is quoted as saying to the community, and Clifton Town Meeting in particular, that they had little more than the “power of moral persuasion” to stop the already inked deal from going through. 

THE FIGHT

That would change, Morrison said, when a friend gave an impassioned speech stating, “We don’t want a Wendy’s and we’re not going to have a Wendy’s.”

After hearing the speech Morrison responded with, “And so, dear friends, let’s fight it.”

Morrison’s wife, Pat, was an attorney who once worked for Cincinnati’s legal department and Warner Cable’s legal affairs. She and other Clifton residents suggested the group stop the redevelopment under the city’s own Environment Quality District standards for Ludlow Avenue.

Those standards were adopted when an earlier potential fast food intrusion in the neighborhood was rebuffed.

“It said essentially that fast food restaurants are not appropriate on Ludlow Avenue,” Morrison said.

Unlike residents needing to raise large sums of money to purchase and reopen the Keller’s IGA, Clifton residents of 1984 faced the barrier of an owner opposed to the idea, a deal signed and, as Morrison alluded to at the time, establishing the legal grounds to bar the Wendy’s.

“I’ve done all I could to give local residents a chance to have some input,” said Doris Rankin Sells, president of Franchise Developers, Inc. at the time. “I understand the desire for a theater, but legally I’m bound to put a restaurant in.”

As Morrison remembers it, a city planning commission would not support the Clifton Town Meeting’s initial request to protect the Esquire under its own environmental quality control ordinances.

“You know, you’ve got to face it, community councils are a pain in the butt to city hall,” Morrison said.  “(The city councils) want to run things and they have all the best intentions in many ways,  but they don’t look at it from the point of view of passion.”

The group hired an attorney, Sid Weil, who argued against critics who felt the Environmental Quality Code didn’t apply to Ludlow Avenue because the street had a Skyline, and that the code's term of "desired mix" for businesses was too vague in general.

“And we argued that 'no, no it’s not too vague,'” Morrison said. “What do you do when you walk into a fast-food restaurant? You walk up to a counter, wait, get a paper bag, sit, and then clean up yourself.  What do you do at Skyline? You sit down, a waiter comes up and takes your order. They clean your table. You tip. Those are very different," Sid argued.

Clifton's lawyer argued on the grounds that a fast food joint was not desired on Ludlow.

It took almost three years for the legal drama to play out.

Eventually, after victories, defeats and appeals, those who owned the Esquire relented. They agreed to turn the building over to the city, in part for tax write-off purposes, and to avoid additional legal costs before the case went before the Ohio Supreme Court.

By that point, residents, including Morrison, formed the non-profit Clifton Theater Corporation to purchase and rehab the Esquire.

“The city said, 'it’s yours. If you sell it within 5 to 10 years, you pay us for it. And you have to raise the money (to rehabilitate the theater) and follow city guidelines,'” Morrison said.

The battle in turn strengthened neighborhood groups’ abilities to engage and decide what developments went into their communities not just in Cincinnati, but across Ohio.

Though the task of reopening the Esquire was easier said than done.

REBIRTH

A small blurb in the October 1986 issue of Cincinnati Magazine mocked the neighborhood association for its victory over stopping the fast food restaurant.

Under the banner of WORST, the magazine wrote, ”The residents of Clifton successfully squelched an attempt by Wendy’s to locate in the old Esquire theater. So, instead of a reputable fast-food joint, they’ve got a boarded up firetrap. Congratulations.”

“We had the theater in 1987 and we didn’t open until 1990,” Morrison said. “People started saying, ‘Well, John are you going to do it?’ And I said 'yes, we are going to do it.'”

Morrison said he led the charge to raise money, more than $500,000, to renovate and reopen the theater. The Clifton Theater Group non-profit at first tried to sell 35 shares that local residents could buy in order to to own a piece of the theater and fund its reopening.

That push came up short and eventually the funding gap was closed with bank loans co-signed by Morrison.

On Saturday, April 21, 1990 the Esquire was reintroduced to the community with three screens versus its original one with much pomp and fanfare.

RELATED: Then and Now: Tri-State neighborhood theaters

A Cincinnati Post article chronicled the whole affair.

One after another, limousines disgorged local celebrities. Five powerful spotlights fired their weaving beams into the air; as a dance band and musical revue were performing for the several hundred people who crowded onto the busy thoroughfare.

Indeed, in her 10 or so years, it is unlikely that the little girl had ever seen anything quite so spectacular in Clifton.

The occasion of this festive outpouring of community spirit was the reopening of the Esquire Theatre.”

The night, as Morrison remembers it 24 years later, was fantastic, even if the theater was operating on a shoestring budget.

“I think we ended up with about $47.50 when we opened the thing,” Morrison joked.

The new theater premiered with "Cinema Paradiso," an Italian film about a filmmaker who retells falling in love with movies at his small, hometown theater in Italy -- a perfect fit for the Esquire.

With any business though, even one so passionately fought for, there was no guarantee of the Esquire's success past opening night. By December, the theater was floundering and making headlines with stories of financial restructuring.

“There were no new films,” Morrison said. “The movies, which had three owners or three partners, had to pay for their stuff. We let people go. We kept the projectionist. We went in there ourselves throughout the week. We sold the popcorn, cleaned the machines, etc. I am waking up in the middle of the night. I’m having massive depression. I talked all my friends into doing this and we are going under.”

Morrison and company managed to eek through that first year. In its second year, the group hired Gary Goldman, a man with proven movie theater operation experience.

“He (Goldman) said to me having dinner, 'What do you want?' I said 'I want to be in business five years from now.' He said, ‘That’s a great answer. I can’t guarantee you’ll get every big film, but I’ll guarantee you’ll be in business five years from now.’  And it is now what, 24 years?” Morrison said.

Goldman helped the Esquire break even in its second year and profit by its third through acquiring the right mix of films.

“We had this film, ‘The Crying Game,’ and we got a 12 week exclusive on it,” Morrison said. “Well, it was boffo city. It was sell-out time. Every other month or so we would get a new good film and people would come to see the film. The heck with the Esquire, they wanted to see that film. But they come to the Esquire and they say, ‘wow, this is the way I remember neighborhood theaters.'”

A SINGULAR PASSION

By 1995, the Esquire added three more screens by building an addition behind the original building. Then the group purchased the Mariemont Theater, eventually adding screens there too in 2012. The group also opened a new Kenwood Theater near the Kenwood Towne Center to fill a niche market there.

Ultimately, the little Clifton Theater Group expanded to own and manage 20 screens between the three locations.

Kathy Planko, the current media relations spokesperson for the Esquire, said that expansion is really no small feat when looking back over the past few years.

“What’s really sad is a lot of these small, independently owned theaters have closed around the country.  And closing because they are forced to go digital because of the distributors and it is such a large investment,” she said.

Goldman and Morrison and a host of other players have guided the Esquire through a shrinking market share for movie theaters and made the conversion to digital projectors over the last 25 years of operation.

The theater’s success also added to the success of other businesses on Ludlow Avenue, Morrison believes.

“You park and you walk to the theater and after you come out of the theater you turn left and go to this restaurant, you turn right and you go to that ice cream parlor,” Morrison said. “And the stores on the street began to say, 'you know, when you have a really good film in the summertime people are coming in at 9 o’clock, people are coming and we are staying open.'"

Planko attributes the immense talent of those who saved the Esquire, combined with one other key ingredient, for its vitality.

“What saved the Esquire? Passion,” she said. “I live nearby and just got involved two years ago, especially the historical part of it.  It’s where my heart is. It’s such a community. When people gather at the Esquire, they are at the Esquire. No matter who is there, it is a community.”

For Morrison, the theater's history is a tale as endearing as any film he's seen.

“It’s a great a story. I like it. I really like that,” he said.  “I was born in Clifton.  My grandfather moved on Edmondson Place. My father moved down the street from my grandfather. I bought a house on Clifton Avenue, went to Hughes High School, went to UC. I am Clifton. And I say it is my community and I want to share it. It's the same thing my mother used to say.”

And today, organizers such as Andy Hyland hopes to tell a similar story about Clifton’s little neighborhood grocer that closed in 2011.

"We're really excited about this. This is a great day for Clifton," Hyland said. "We can't wait to get this store open again."

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