Monday, March 2, 2009

Cincinnati's Forgotten Theatres

Standing in the vast, empty parking lot the only cars you can now hear are the ones passing by, honking their horns on the nearby Norwood Lateral. In the center of the wide expanse of asphalt is a rectangular, one story building adorned with white tiles, locked doors, boarded up windows and the words "Showcase Cinemas" across the top.

Located right of Reading Rd., this closed cinema is a reminder of a type of movie theatre that has come and gone. At one point in time, Bond Hill and Norwood were two of the most prominent examples of only a few Cincinnati suburbs. Over the last few decades the suburbs surrounding Cincinnati have continued to expand and grow outward. The closed Showcase Cinemas in Bond Hill are a reminder of the suburban expanse we now see moving further and further out of the greater-Cincinnat area. The single story cinemas with sticky floors and aisles and aisles of seats once found in places like Bond Hill have become replaced by giant multiplexes with stadium seating and reclining chairs in the newer suburbs like West Chester.

- Entrance sign in the parking lot of the now closed Bond Hill Showcase Cinemas.

On April 28, 2008 Channel 9 WCPO ran a story about how the Bond Hill and Erlanger Showcase Cinemas had abruptly closed. Days later it was released that Showcase Cinemas had decided to close the locations due to declining attendance and the opening of a new, more modern "Cinema De Lux" in Florence, KY.

- Emergency exit door.

For many locals, the experience at the Bond Hill location seemed to decline in recent years. According to readers of the "Citizens for a Better Norwood" blog, the patrons at this location were often loud and talkative during the movie. Rude experiences seemed to be common and rules rarely enforced. Similar cinemas in Milford and Springdale experienced renovations with modern amenities, while the Bond Hill location stayed the same and eventually closed.

Wooden boards have been placed in the windows to keep out any would be explorers/photographers interested in seeing into the lobby where tickets and popcorn were sold, arcade games were played and patrons went about an American movie experience that has changed so rapidly in the last 20 years. I can remember as a kid going to the Springdale Showcase Cinemas before they were renovated, where you sat in a long row of seats hoping someone tall didn't sit in front of you. In just ten years that location has transformed into two story tall screens with digital picture, stadium seating and reclining seats. The move-going experience is changing and the now abandoned Bond Hill cinemas are a reminder of a cinema experience on it's way out.

- The sign for the Bond Hill Showcase Cinemas adjacent to the Norwood Lateral no longer advertises whats showing.

Just a few miles away in Colerain, a similar cinema sits abandoned in the parking lot of the Northgate Mall, connected to a T.G.I. Fridays. As far as I could tell, it seems the Northgate Theater closed sometime around March 2007 and used to show a mixture of first and second run films. This "older" theater probably had a hard time competing with the more modern multiplexes in it's closing days and according to locals it had been falling into disrepair.

"I took my kids to go see 'Bridge to Terabithia' and during the movie a piece of the ceiling just fell down, right into a section of seats. About a month later the theater closed for good." says Bill Ware, a resident of Colerain.

A temporary fence now erected around the theatre keeps patrons out for good. Following the theater's closure, the adjacent Northgate Mall announced plans to demolish their recently closed JCPenny store to put in a brand new RAVE theater. The plans eventually fell through leaving the Northgate area with a closed theater and space where a new theater was supposed to go.

- A broken lamp post in the parking lot of the now closed Northgate Theater.

In the Summer of 2007 a friend told me about an abandoned Drive-In Movie Theatre on the East side of the city. One evening a friend and I came upon the remains of the Oakley Drive-In Theatre in the process of being destroyed.

- Sign for the now closed Oakley Drive-In Theatre.

Once billed as Cincinnati's "last outdoor picture show", this drive in movie theatre was able to accomidate 900 cars and at one time featured 2 screens. In 1996 it was voted one of Cincinnati's best entertainment venues by City Beat Magazine.

- Construction taking place on the site of the former Oakley Drive-In Theatre seen at right, one of the screens (seen at left) still remained as of summer 2007.

The Oakley screened its last films in Sept. 2005. Today constructions is taking place to turn the property into something new. Only the ticket booths and main screen remained when I last visited the site during the summer of 2007.

- Speaker poles left behind during the destruction of the Oakley Drive-In Theatre.

Perhaps the most interesting forgotten theatre in the Cincinnati area though, is one right in the heart of downtown. One that until the summer of 2008 I didn't even know existed; The Emery Theatre.

- Stairs leading to the upper levels of the Emery Theatre

The Emery Theatre was completed in 1911, originally constructed as an auditorium for the adjacent Ohio College of Applied Sciences in the city's "Over-The-Rhine" neighborhood. It housed the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra until 1937 and ran silent films as well as a "classic film" series before falling into neglect in the mid 80's when several attempts were made to restore the theatre. In December 1999 the Emery closed.

- The Emery Theatre.

Since the theater's closure, attempts have been made to restore it. In 1997 the University of Cincinnati partnered with the Cincinnati Preservation Association to begin drawing plans to renovate the theatre the adjoining College of Applied Sciences building. In May of 2001, the Ohio College of Applied Sciences reopened as the Emery Center Apartments, while the renovation of the adjoining Emery Theatre was still being debated and planned.

In July of 2008, my good friend and fellow explorer Sherman Cahal, moved into the Emery Center Apartments and discovered that the Emery theater was adjoined to his building. After speaking with his landlord, we were able to gain access to photograph the first floor of the theatre. Larry Schwabb of Emery Center Apartments is currently involved in a project to get the theatre restored and was kind enough to allow us inside to take photographs.

- Mechanical levers used to control the curtains inside the Emery Theatre.

Peeling paint, burnt out light bulbs and plastic wrapped chairs fill the inside of the theatre, but despite nearly a decade of no use, the Emery Theatre still holds it's great charm. The backstage rooms are empty, old levers still control the curtain rods and work is being done on renovating the theatre's wooden stage by Give Back Cincinnati.

- Looking out from the backstage area onto the stage of the Emery Theatre.

The Emery is being restored in hopes that it's 1600 seats may eventually fill a mid sized venue role that the city is currently lacking. In November 2008, the Emery hosted it's first event in close to a decade, a sign of progress as suburban cinemas close and evolve into new levels of American entertainment, and as a historical relic downtown begins to breathe new life.

Update | Sept. 26, 2017:
  • The Showcase Cinemas in Bond Hill was eventually torn down, in its place now stands a brand new Mercy Health hospital campus. The Northgate Theatre was demolished and a more modern one opened up in its place, alongside a renovation of the Northgate Mall. The Oakley met the wrecking ball, but was featured once more on this site. The Emery was also covered again, but as of this update still has no firm future.


  1. The Emery Theatre is so darn beautiful. Thank goodness it's making a comeback and will hopefully return to its former glory. Other than the former Oakley Drive-In, the rest I could live without.

    1. Do you want too know what ruined all the theaters and drive inns in Cincinnati give you one guess ?

  2. Wow... what stunning photos of the Emery. I had no idea OTR had such a magnificent theatre. Would be wonderful if someone breathed new life into that special space. Thanks for giving us a look...

  3. such a great post. thanks for the great pics.

  4. Awesome post. I shot in the Emery for the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. It was great to see so many people dedicated to bringing the Emery back to its former glory. Seeing Stanley perform there as he did back in the day was AMAZING. Can't wait to see it open at MidPoint.

  5. I'm afraid the Emery Theatre pales when compared to all the ones torn down like the Shubert, Palace, and Albee to name a few.
    You youngins were left with crumbs.

  6. When the Emery was built it was for the Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI), sort of a blue-collar vocational ed college. OMI became the OCAS when UC took it over and is now located in the old Edgecliff College buildings on Victory Parkway. At that location there is a fabulous scale model of the old OMI building, complete with the schematics drawn up by Samuel Hannaford's architectural firm.

    No mention of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Emery? Is it no longer there?

  7. wow, that's the first time i've seen the emery. what awesome potential for a theatre venue! i wonder what would happen if some of the disparate theatre groups got togther with an entertainment promotions group and got something going?

    of course, secure parking would be a plus in any project.

    re: the albee. at least they saved the arch! last i knew, it had been incorporated into the convention center.

    and if we could just get the 3-C rail connector legislation through the state, and we could get some streetcars going . . .

    here's to core renewal, baby!

  8. re: mighty wurlitzer

    the kentucky theater in lexington has a fully-restored, functional mighty wurlitzer. an organist plays it in the summers -- the kentucky hosts a classic movie series on wednesday nights every summer.

    packs the house out!

  9. The Wurlitzer has been removed. It's being restored and placed in the Music Hall Ballroom, isn't it?

  10. Thanks for the great photos of the old Emery Theater. I have some great memories of that place:

  11. I remember going to the Emery Theatre in 1953 to see MARGE AND GOWER CHAMPION dance Along with this show HARRY BELAFONTE was featured as the second act. He was just great, in fact, he received a standing ovation.

  12. It is sad that there was no renovation, or progressive leadership in the Bond Hill Theater. Now there is one less thing for citizens in the area to do, and furthermore, Florence is in Kentucky and if you take the bus, or do not have the time or money for gas, it is truly sad to have your neighborhood theater left in shambles, and additionally it is ridiculous to have the lot up for sale for any business or person to make a profit out of the land, rather than having a City initiative to create another entertainment/educational venue that will truly help the area is upsetting. I do not know too many facts about the situations, and have struggles to find too many as most of the things I have read say that the spokesperson from National Amusements refrained from making a direct comment concerning the closing of the theater.
    I hope that my pessimism is for nothing, and that whatever replaces the cinema will be beneficial to the citizens around the area. Currently, there has been crime around the Avondale, Bond Hill, Corryville area (it is always a bad few, NEVER the majority, as if one looks at these crime rates, rumors have some truth, but never convey the entire story:


    and lack of community involvement, activities and employment will only increase these problems-the last thing needed is another chain shopping outlet in that space, unless it is incorporated with something else and has architecture that does not look like it was created a pre-cooked frozen dinner, treated with preservatives.
    Emery has the ability to bring some business back to Over-The-Rhine, but, although I do not believe the city had control over the Bond Hill Theater, beautiful buildings are not the only things that should be salvaged in neighborhoods headed in bad directions.

  13. Hello enjoyed the emery th. photos, one correction is the set of levers identified as controlling the curtains in fact were only used to control the above stage borner lights. The whole lever controol used to attach to a bank of dimmers in the basement. The original seating capacity was 2,200 in 1912. Today if counting the orchestra level and first balcony it would tpotal 1,300

  14. Wow....what a heartbreaker. I used to go to the Emery in the 80's. My favorite things to see there were the old silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer was an amazing accompaniment. I hope it ends up back in the Emery after restoration....

  15. Thank you for these wonderful photographs - at random I was hopping around the 'net, reading up on several of the movie palaces I've known... this is a real treat to see these photographs, bringing back many memories.

    I've always known that I was culturally spoiled as a kid - my father was a respected classical tenor in Cincinnati, and both parents were keen on making sure us kids grew up around the arts, theatre and classic film. This was the 1970s and 80s, when the Emery was in full swing - so my sense of humor was founded on silent comedies, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers. That theatre provided so much joy to families and film buffs alike... and of course there was the Mighty Wurlitzer. I recall very fondly as well, Harry Garrison bringing a band organ from his Player Piano Shop, on display in the lobby. The place was pure magic - thinking back on it, the Emery had immeasurable influence on me as a child.

    I hope so strongly that a solid restoration comes along in the near future. There was too much joy, laughter, music and emotion nurtured in that great theatre to simply let it fade into obscurity and disrepair - magic shouldn't be allowed to founder like that. And though I understand why the Wurlitzer was moved to the Music Hall ballroom, ultimately it belongs in a movie palace, no way around it.

    Again, thanks for bringing back so many wonderful memories - like reuniting with a dear old friend.

    - Danielle Bennignus

  16. Does anyone remember a movie theatre (besides the Times) located on Walnut between 6th and 7th on the west side of Walnut? I remember trying to see a movie there in the '60s. Pretty sure it wasn't Keith's or the Lyric because I remember going clockwise around the block to try for a parking space, and a right turn to 5th going past the theatre from southbound on Walnut would have put us going the wrong way on 5th!

  17. Showcsae Cinema Cincinnati lost attendance due to the weekend crowds (fights, car break ins , etc) I lived just a street over and only went there 5 times maybe . During that time I would prefer to go to Springdale or Tri County instead . ( Cincinnati had a 70mm screen that wasn't advertised, but i would prefer the other 2 i mentioned that especially Springdale ...Many people have forgotten that the The Twin-Drive-in was there long before they built Showcase on that site ...PG films on the Reading road Side & R rated films on the back side ...Great childhood memories of The Twin Drive In.