Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center
The Esquire Theatre. A Historic, 101-Year Old Treasure.
Saved and Resurrected by the Residents of Clifton
Many people visiting the Esquire aren’t aware how historic the theater really is—or just how close it came to becoming a fast-food chain restaurant.
The Esquire Theatre originally opened in 1911, showing silent films and featuring live events on stage. After surviving the Great Depression, the introduction of television, the birth and rise of home videos and competition from suburban megaplex cinemas, neighborhood residents beat back efforts to have the theater converted into a Wendy’s. Had the restaurant opened, it would have meant more than the loss of a movie theater; it would have changed the character of the entire Clifton Gaslight neighborhood.
The struggle took place in the 1980s, when the theater closed and attempts to save it failed. Then, restaurant developers came to Clifton, armed with money, lawyers, and a track-record of expansion. Clifton residents quickly opposed their plan.
“It’s us against the big boys,” said Dorothy Meunier, who was President of the newly formed Clifton Theatre Corp. Residents knew they were not only saving a theater, they were also saving the Clifton Gaslight District from proliferation of fast-food chains.
A series of legal battles ensued: Clifton Town Meeting (CTM), a newly formed Clifton Theatre Corp., and resident advocates versus the developers. Ultimately (and some would say, surprisingly), the tenacity of the Cliftonites paid off. After three years of litigation, they won the case and the theater was saved.
At that point, the Clifton Theatre Corp., new owners of the Esquire, realized their work had just begun. The theater seats had been removed, the roof was leaking, and the walls were in disrepair. They needed to raise money. Finding people to support the idea of an art house movie theater was one thing, getting people to invest in it another.
John Morrison, then President of the Clifton Theatre Corp, approached anyone and everyone who might have been interested in investing to reopen the Esquire. All expressed interest, few invested. Reflecting the risk involved, John even heard, “I hope you don’t bet your kids’ college fund on this.” Slowly, however, they raised enough money to proceed.
“We reopened the Esquire with ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ an Italian comedy drama about a movie house reopening,” John said. “It had just won the Academy Award and was a big success. So was the next film, ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.’”
Then the film spigot went dry. For the next six months, there were almost no new films at the Esquire. Things were bleak. “Theatres were closing across the Midwest,” John said, “and we were losing money.”
The Clifton Theatre Corp. members began to staff the theater themselves, in addition to their full-time jobs. Keeping only the projectionist as an employee, members took turns manning the ticket booth/concession stand and cleaning the theater. Their efforts eventually paid off when they hired Gary Goldman to oversee management. Gary then enlisted Dan Heilbrunn to book the films; between them, they had decades of experience in the business.
The Esquire has come a long way since then. It will never be a multiplex like its suburban counterparts. That was never the intention. Rather, the owners are committed to showing independent, foreign, low-budget and commercial films – movies they believe interested Cincinnati moviegoers should be given an opportunity to see.
Today, the Esquire is solidly entrenched in the Clifton community and is a leading independent theater in its field. “It’s a precious jewel.”
1911 – Opened as a neighborhood box theater with a single 500-seat auditorium and small stage. Hosted live performances and showed silent motion pictures with live organist.
1927 – Began playing first movies with sound.
1940s – Added a concession stand.
1950s – Changed from showing second-run Hollywood movies to an art theater concept. Was the leading art house in Ohio.
1983 – Theater closed.
1984 – Wendy’s proposed a fast-food restaurant for the location.
1984 – 1987 – Clifton residents banded together. Clifton Town Meeting and Clifton Theatre Corp. contested the restaurant, eventually leading to the Ohio Supreme Court.
1987 – Clifton Theatre Corp. successfully won the final court battle and began fundraising to reopen. Clifton had based its opposition to fast food restaurants on guidelines written by CTM for a Ludlow Ave “Environment Quality District”, which stated that fast food restaurants on Ludlow are inappropriate. The City had accepted the guidelines and put them in its Zoning Code a few years earlier. The Ohio Supreme Court stated in its decision that CTM EQD guidelines were a model of land use planning.
1990 – Theater reopened with three-screens/400-seats.
1999 – Remodeled to incorporate six screens/730-seats.
2008 – Cincinnati Enquirer contributor David Lyman’s feature article called the Esquire a “film industry rarity” -- an independent theater that shows first-run feature films.
2012 – Named “One of the Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cincinnati.” – USA Today.
Today – Launching its second century, successfully draws patrons from throughout the region.
City Beat, Best of Cincinnati – Named “Best Movie Theater”: 1997 -- 2015.
Miami Purchase Association – “Historic Preservation Recognition” – 1990.
Cincinnati Chapter of the American Institute of Architects - Honor Award - Presented to Muller Associates: 1995.
The Esquire has the best popcorn in town!