Church brings old neighborhood theater back to life

DUTCHTOWN – For seventy years or so, people living around the Melvin Theatre could see the best in movies, from Charlie Chaplin to John Wayne.

Soon, the old theater at 2912 Chippewa St. will be open again, this time for occasional church services, and perhaps a regular family movie night.

This is made possible by a small religious group called the Novation Church. But the church’s pastor, David Godbout, promises the building will never be called Novation Church. It will always be the Melvin Theatre, Its marquee will always be out front for passing motorists on Chippewa Street to see.

Many of those motorists will think about the movies they saw at the long-closed theater.

“On I would say a weekly basis, I will bump into somebody who will say they grew up coming to the Melvin,” Godbout said. “Usually, it’s just people who will be walking up the street. We’ve had people driving up Chippewa.”

According to the Cinema Treasures website, the theater opened in 1914 and was independently-owned until it closed. Large rolls of tickets were above the cashier. There was no listing of movies now being shown outside, so customers had to trust they’d like anything being shown.

According to the website, Bill Miller bought the theatre in 1972 and renovated it. He put in a new screen, sound system, seats and concession stand. But the old box office stayed, along with the rolls of tickets. It closed in the 1980s.

The next step in the building’s history came about when Godbout, an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God who works with the denomination’s mission board, came here with his family in 1995 on a one-year missions assignment. About a year later, the Assemblies of God and an independent church organization acquired it for a ministry and outreach center in the mid-1990s.

Not long after that, the Southern District of the Assemblies of God took control of the building. “Over the course of 20 years, different churches tried to utilize the building,” Godbout said.

The latest church to work with the building – Novation – has most of its services in people’s homes. Major renovations at the church were delayed when a pickup truck went out of control on Thanksgiving Day 2017 and smashed into the building. Following repairs and further renovations, the church hopes to be done in time for community events scheduled for the weekend of June 7-9.

Plans are to have an evening of music with local worship bands on June 7, a community dinner on June 8 and an afternoon with activities and games for kids on June 9.

For the future, the church plans to have a once-a-month church service at the building and smaller home-based worship services other times.

Besides that, chances are good the Melvin will return as a movie theater. “I’m sure over the course of a month, we will do a family movie,” Godbout said.

Meanwhile, the church has organized a separate nonprofit group called the Melvin Theatre Community Center to offer visual and performing arts at the building. The church still would own it.

“We look for the day we see the sign redone,” Godbout said. “That would tell the neighborhood that something’s happening in this community.”

But money is a major holdup. A company said that it would cost $30,000 to remove the marquee from the building, bring it to its shop, make it like new and fix it up. Other neighborhood theaters are gone forever but not the Melvin.

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Jim Merkel

Author: Jim Merkel

Born and raised in St. Louis, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of four books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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