News Column

Efforts under way to save historic Melba Theatre in De Soto

September 14, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 14--DE SOTO --The 67-year-old Melba Theatre is where Jim Thomas and his friends saw "The Empire Strikes Back" more than 20 times as high-schoolers, slipping in to watch after church and baseball practices, reciting all the lines and humming along with the music.

Jenna Hoffee was a third-grader whose family had just moved to De Soto when she saw her first movie there. Her family struggled to make ends meet and she missed the friends she'd left behind when they moved.

She remembers sitting in the theater, drinking strawberry soda, and, for the first time in a long time, realizing that everything would be OK.

It was one of the most reassuring moments of her life, said Hoffee, now 30, and she wants other children to feel that escape.

"I want this to be a place where kids can sit and relax and forget their woes for a few hours," she said.

But the future of the 460-seat theater is in peril.

Movie companies will stop sending 35 mm film, used in older projectors, to theaters by year's end. Instead, they'll send small hard drives that require a digital projector -- a pricey piece of technology that the Melba, and many other small theaters and drive-ins, don't have.

The cost of a digital projector and the upgrades to the Melba's projection area is about $60,000.

It's a staggering sum for the volunteer-run theater with no paid employees, where admission on most days is $3. The theater has one screen.

A group of volunteers, including Thomas and Hoffee, is working to raise the money to keep the theater open. They are holding a jazz festival Thursday to Sept. 21 to benefit the theater.

So far, they've raised about $3,000.

Jerry and Carolyn Neece are taking over ownership of the theater from Carolyn's father, Herman Carnell Jr., who is 81.

Carnell once owned the Kingsland theater at 6601 Gravois Road, which was torn down and is now the site of an Aldi grocery, and the Melvin theater at 2912 Chippewa Street.

The De Soto theater was originally named the Collins Theater but renamed as the Melba in the 1960s when Wehrenberg Theatres bought it, Carolyn Neece said. It was built in 1946 with the first movie shown Feb. 27, 1947.

The Neeces have big plans. They want to keep the historic elements that make it special, such as the Art Deco sconces and a glass wall, while making it more comfortable -- a project expected to cost $400,000.

Those updates include replacing chairs, some of which are original, as well as a creating a larger concession area and renovating bathrooms. And they want to rent out the space for weddings and community events.

But the projector is at the top of their list. They hope the jazz festival will get them closer to their goal.

The festival is named for Mel Bay, a successful music publisher and musician who grew up in De Soto, where his parents owned a grocery. He went on to open the Mel Bay Music Center in Kirkwood and founded Mel Bay Publications, a series of music-instruction books that have sold millions of copies.

When the Eagles played at Riverport Amphitheater in 1994, they visited Mel Bay Music Center to pay homage to "the master teacher." Members of the Who also stopped by to meet him.

Organizers hope to make the festival an annual event -- the lineup this year features local performer Erin Bode and Lena Seikaly, a jazz singer from Washington, as well as performances by Larry Bay, Mel Bay's nephew.

And plans are in the works to name the theater to honor Mel Bay.

Said Thomas: "It worked out well that we only have to change one letter on the marquee."

Leah Thorsen covers Jefferson and south St. Louis counties. Follow her on Twitter.

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