Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center
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.
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.
City Beat, Best of Cincinnati – Named “Best Movie Theater”: 1997 -- 2015.