Inside St. Louis
An original watercolor of Blueberry Hill by local artist Marilynne Bradley.
Joe Edward’s Blueberry Hill, which opened September 8th, 1972 is as much about yesterday as it is about today and about tomorrow; it’s as much about music, American food and people as any place, anywhere, and no matter who you are or where you’re from, Blueberry Hill befriends you and makes you feel at home even before you walk in the door. Joe is a lot of things; entrepreneur, businessman, promoter, developer, risk taker, man of action, musicologist and darn nice guy, who likes his French fries well done and his dreams to become reality. He has a vision beyond the scope of most mortal men and if can be argued that if it weren’t for Joe the U City loop would likely have met the same fate as the Wellston Loop. Not a pretty picture. We’ll clue you in on Joe and Blueberry Hill later in this article, but let’s start with some tales of times long past; long before Blueberry Hill, Joe Edwards or any of us.
With certainty there have been thrills galore over the past 115 or so years in the West End of St. Louis and at some communities immediately adjacent to St. Louis such as U City. The person who gave birth to and named University City was a man who in many respects was very much like Joe Edwards. He was the entrepreneur, businessman, promoter and developer Edward Gardner Lewis who planned the “City Beautiful” - University City, as a model city.
Lewis snapped up 85 acres of land two years before the World’s Fair in part to house his publishing empire that included Womans’ Magazine and Woman’s Farm Journal which were then in downtown St. Louis. He also envisioned the creation of a district that encompassed fine art, architecture and sculpture as well as high end residential and commercial development. His offices were housed in the circa 1903 octagonal edifice that’s now City Hall which has an 80 ton beacon just under its roof which is on rare occasion raised and lit. It’s said that on a clear night the light can be seen in Chicago. At the onset of the Fair, the clever Lewis created a tent city that was called “Camp Lewis” to help house the hordes coming from everywhere to be razzle-dazzled by the wonders of the great Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Unlike the recent tent city called “Hopeville” north of Laclede’s landing at First St. and Florida Ave., Lewis’ tent city was upscale with many amenities including catering. With the much lamented closing of The Fair, Lewis concentrated on and succeeded in realizing his first-class development called University Heights One.
In 1909 he created the impressive entrance he named the Gates of Opportunity with two feline creatures sculpted by the noted George Julius Zolnay. The sculpted animals are said to be a lion and a lioness though some say one is a tiger. I can’t say for sure. The animals on top of the pillars or pylons are not the originals as those are in the care of Bob Archibald and his kindly curators at the Missouri History Museum.
Moving east from the columned cats is the section best known for many decades as the Delmar or U City Loop. In the very earliest of those far away times this section of University City and the western edge of St. Louis City along Delmar housed many significant and some insignificant entertainment venues that no one living today knows about first-hand as that period was on the other side of the last century. These early commercial endeavors were designed to keep the populace enthralled, edified and entertained as did other such area entities of the period such as Uhrig’s Cave, Schnaider’s Beer Garden, the original Mercantile Library Hall, Tony Faust’s Beer Garden, the Grand Opera House, the St. Louis Fairgrounds, Meramec Highlands, the Olympic theater, Robison Field, etc.
In those halcyon days when St. Louis was the fourth most populous city in the nation, we had a series of spots that were designed to respectively please every family member. In the musty books, crumbling periodicals and yellowing photographs in our “way back” machine we can see and read the silent stories and images of our town’s predecessors to Six Flags, Holiday Hill, Chain of Rocks (Fun Fair) Park, Triangle Park, Creve Coeur Amusement Park (which dated to the late 19th century when it was accessed by train), Down’s Park, Westlake Park and later adult oases like the De Baliviere Strip and Gaslight Square. Back then, when our water was tinged with brown and air-conditioning was the stuff of science fiction, we had some creative entertainment and amusement areas at The Loop and near The Loop, though they were not so easily connected as that was in the hard to fathom days before the motorcar pulled everything closer together. Incidentally the city of St. Louis is sadly now 58th in population on the scorecard of the census…even behind Aurora, Colorado. In Missouri, Kansas City is ahead of us by some 140,000 people. But we are #1 according to some demographic studies. Unfortunately that’s #1 in the category of the most dangerous city in the U.S.A.. And just in case you’re keeping score, University City is the 16th most populated city in the state.
Let’s stop off in 1896 when that hallowed place on Oakland Ave. that would become Forest Park Highlands, was created by the Rice Brothers on the site known as the Johnson Estate. The idea was to create an entertainment venue in the (take a deep breath) clear air far that was far from the polluted environs of the densely populated center of St. Louis. The Highlands, backed with bucks from the Home Brewing Company, started as a beer garden called the Highlands Cottage Restaurant with their first ride was a horse-powered carousel. A year later, a new owner, Tony Stuever, had bigger ideas as he named the place Forest Park Highlands and proclaimed it to be “The finest and largest open-air enterprise in the West”. Suburban Garden was another amusement park farther northwest along the Hodiamont tracks at Kienlen Ave.
Coming a bit closer to Blueberry Hill, that mecca for merriment, music and meals is located, was the West End Heights amusement park just south of Oakland at McCausland and Clayton Avenues. This park, which had its funding from the resources of the Obert Brewing Co., brewers of Louis Obert’s Famous Lager Beer, was created to take advantage of the immense crowds coming to the World’s Fair which was adjacent to the southwest section of The Fairgrounds and also the many who visited Forest Park Highlands a few blocks to the east. By 1912 West End Heights was no more. The World’s Fair, which went as far west to Pennsylvania Ave., now Big Bend Blvd., and north to Lindell and what was Millbrook, was near to where Blueberry Hill would one day come to be, but at that time much of this area had somewhat limited commercial and residential developments which would change dramatically in the 20 years following The Fair.
Even prior to The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, those in the West End of St. Louis City and in the community that in 1906 would become University City had a wonderful place of which they could boast. It was where they could play, picnic, see theatrical productions, dine, indulge in games and enjoy rides, such as three roller coasters. This all happened at the extensive Delmar Garden Amusement Park that attracted people from all of greater St. Louis as the streetcar took folks right to the park since the attraction itself was at the site of the Delmar Streetcar Loop at the west end of the developing commercial district. The name lives on today with the Delmar Gardens Retirement and Nursing Homes.
Just a bit to the east of Delmar Garden was the Delmar Race Track that featured greyhounds rather than horses or automobiles. It lay north of Delmar between what’s now Eastgate and Westgate Avenues. At the time these were the respective sites of the east and west gates of the Track. Soon the south side of Delmar west of Skinker Blvd., which was named for Thomas Skinker who had owned property west of Forest Park, had a swimming pool, billiard hall, roller rink, penny arcade, photographers, nickelodeons, taverns, and restaurants. It was somewhat like a smaller version of The Pike at The Fair. The name Delmar, which in the county was once called Bonhomme Road, and in the city had been Oak then Morgan, was named by two real estate developers using the first 3 letters of their home states Delaware and Maryland.
As the 20th century accelerated and the halcyon days of The Fair and the subsequent 1914 Pageant and Masque of St. Louis slipped into the past the U City Loop became even more vital. That 1914 Pageant, designed to honor the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, was basically a big, really big, as Ed Sullivan would have said, stage presentation, in which thousands of people participated in most every type of entertainment one could concoct. It was all created to honor the heritage of the area and it ran for 4 hours a night from May 28th to June 1st 1914 from a behemoth stage at the foot of Art Hill. During these four days the event drew upwards of 400,000 people to view this spectacle that also included plenty of self congratulatory back-slapping with patriotic and political speeches and programs. It was a big deal, but to put it in perspective, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 10 years earlier ran for 216 days with a total attendance of around 20,000,000. The Pageant and Masque lives on as the inspiration for the creation of the Municipal Opera Association of St. Louis, “The Muny,” which had its 94th season in 2012.
By the teens Thomas Edison would be the influence for much of The Loop’s entertainment as movie theaters would play a prominent role in the amusement of those habitués of the area, which today stretches to De Baliviere. During the same year of The Pageant and Masque, the Park theatre would open at 5917 Delmar and as a result of the patriotic fervor of The Great War (it was not yet called WWI) the Park’s name was changed to Pershing for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing who was born in Laclede MO. In addition to the theater building the Pershing offered an airdome to allow summertime movie fans to watch the stars of the silver screen outdoors rather than in the stifling, non air-conditioned theater. By 1940 the airdome “walk-in theaters” were soon replaced by the start of the drive-in theater craze. The Great Depression did the Pershing in, and it shuttered in ’35. Incidentally starting in the 1920s the lucky customers attending airdomes usually were treated to an usher walking down the aisles busily spraying them with a Flit hand-pumped bug sprayer which by the mid-1940s was laden with DDT.
There was the 1,000 seat circa 1915 Pageant theater at 5851 Delmar just east of Hamilton, so named for the Pageant of the year before in Forest Park. It would have a solid half century lifespan as a second and third run house though there were some first run exceptions such as with Cecil B. De Mille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments.” An oddity of the theater was that you entered from the lobby in the middle of the auditorium. It was a neighbor of the famous and much lamented long-closed Golden Fried Chicken Loaf restaurant that was at 5865 Delmar.
Then there’s the Tivoli, the biggest and best of the West End and Loop theaters which is now owned by Joe Edwards who saved both it and the 4 story building in which the theater is housed from certain demolition. The Tivoli at 6350 Delmar, which is now a triplex operated by Landmark Theaters, originally held 1,440 attendees in a single auditorium. The size and interior décor of the Tivoli was superior to most neighborhood houses and nearly rivaled the Midtown and Downtown movie palaces. It opened in May, 1924 as a St. Louis Amusements operation. In the latter part of the 1920s it was part of the Fred Wehrenberg Theater Circuit, then in the late ‘30s it became part of the nationwide Fanchon & Marco chain. The local Arthur family’s St. Louis Amusement Co. took over in the mid-‘50s when they gained control of the area’s various Fanchon & Marco operations.
By the mid-‘60s the theater was in increasingly bad shape and in the ‘70s they changed the name to the Magic Lantern and made the auditorium into a box in which the deteriorating original ornate walls and ceiling were hidden from view. The place would close in ’94, but with the guidance of Joe and Linda Edwards along with a couple million bucks, the Tivoli was lovingly restored and brought back to life on May 19th, 1995. The Kilgen Wonder Organ and the vaudevillians are gone but the extensive movie memorabilia and posters of many St. Louis related movies make catching a flick at the Tivoli extra special.
Another near-by picture show was the University City (or U City) at 6324 Bartmer, a little 422 seater that filled the needs of the neighborhood in the days before the boob tube. It opened in 1936 and went out of business in 1958. There was the Delmonte at 5634 Delmar just east of De Baliviere and across from Delmonte Way. It was a sizeable house holding 1,588 movie fans that opened in September 1920 and closed when movies started talking in ’27. The place would become a night club then a bowling alley under various names such as Burton-Gillett and Burton Nelson’s.
The 635 seat Apollo was just south of Delmar at 323 DeBaliviere, which would put it on the route of Joe Edward’s planned Loop Trolley line. The 635 seat Apollo opened in August of ’36 and went out of business in ’75. From the early 1950s when the DeBaliviere Strip was the hot night spot area of our town, the Apollo had a connected watering hole called “Flicks and Pub.” The movie-house was called the Apollo Art theatre for the last 15 years of its life during which time it was owned by Grace Peccione. In 1980 Leon and Mary Strauss’ Pantheon Corporation planned to buy the building and reopen it in part as a theater, but they opted for the Fox theatre instead, which was a great decision for St. Louis. The Apollo, rather than the Fabulous Fox, gave way to the wrecking ball in ’82.
One final theater on our Loop list was the only one actually at the original Loop and that’s the Varsity at 6610 Delmar. It made its bow in December 1935 and lasted until ‘82 when it was redone as one of the drug stores in the now defunct PharMor chain. For most of its early years The Varsity was operated by the Ansell Brothers who also ran the Ritz, Norside and other neighborhood houses with their premier theater being the very large Empress at 3616 Olive. The Peccione Family, of Apollo theater fame, then took over the Varsity. Later, Tom “Cool Papa” Ray and Lew Prince put the Varsity building into good entertainment use as the home of the Vintage Vinyl record store that’s now been around for nearly three decades.
Another “theater,” at least by name, was The Magic Theatre, which was actually a “head” shop themed business of the late 1960s on Eastgate just around the corner from Delmar. It was owned by Joel Pesapane who would later open an eclectic shop specializing in records called Pseudonym in the former Herb Balaban’s Gypsy Cowboy location at Euclid and McPherson. Joel now runs a commercial plant place called Growing Green.
The Loop is a district where memories mesh nicely with the present and the future, as times past are not forgotten and that history is ever present, it’s where people of all walks come to enjoy life and, in more than a few cases it’s where dreams can be realized. Such as when Jack Brozman and a couple other Wash U students, as a class project, started a little record shop on the north side of Delmar called Streetside. It grew like topsy and had quite a run.
For a while comedian and comic singer Davey “Nose” Bold had some success in his “Celebrity Club” nightspot on the northwest corner of Skinker and Delmar, the site of the old Jazz Central cocktail and music lounge. For a time in the 1960s the place, which is now the site of a gas station, would become one of the three St. Louis’ versions of NYC’s Peppermint Lounge until the mob in The Big Apple convinced all three operators to drop the name, which one of the crime families owned. The Coffee Pot restaurant on the SW corner of this intersection was there for years before it was replaced in about 1969 by The Lantern House restaurant which was the first Szcehuan style Chinese restaurant to hit town. In not too many years that style of Chinese cooking almost completely wiped out the Cantonese cuisine that we all grew up with…and I, for one, miss. Another ‘60s place on Delmar in The Loop was Billy’s Boutique, purveyors of “hippie” clothes. Some time I’ll need to offer a longer list of places that have made The Loop special for over a century, but for now here’s a sampling: Baton Music, Schenberg’s 20th Century Market, Gus Jacobs service station, Fishman’s Kosher Delicatessen, O’Hara’s Loop Market, Glaser Drugs, Club Varsity, Rinaldi’s Italian restaurant, Toddle House, S. S. Kresge, Louis Carl’s deli, and the list goes on.
Even Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 creation, Sam Spade, who he introduced in his novel “The Maltese Falcon,” once upon a yesteryear had an office on Delmar above Blueberry Hill. Well at least Sam Spade was the name painted on the opaque glass door under the skylight, but when you opened the door, half expecting to see Humphrey Bogart, there was a bearded character with a pony tail and a friendly smile, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and looking more like a character from a John Lutz mystery novel than the late Miles Archer’s partner. Yep, you guessed it; it was the famous Joe Edwards, the guiding light and savior of the U City Loop, and I mean that literally. Imagine, if you dare, that there’d never had been a Joe Edwards. If that were the case, we’d probably have a parking lot where the Tivoli theater is today, there’d be no such place as Blueberry Hill with its Duck Room and Elvis Room, Chuck Berry wouldn’t be playing in U City once a month, there’d be no Chuck Berry statue, no Walk of Fame, no Pin Up bowl, no Moonrise Hotel, no dream – about to be reality – of a streetcar line coming back. If you want to see what very likely might have happened to the U City Loop sans Joe Edwards just visit the Wellston Loop on Dr. M. L. King at Hodiamont, which is just about 20 blocks north. We are very fortunate that there really is a Joe Edwards and I wish that after he gets that Loop Trolley on track we could lure him to sprinkle some more of his magic dust on downtown St. Louis. He has a good start with his Flamingo Bowl in the 1100 block of Washington Avenue.
Joe and I recently sat down to chew the fat over his life and times and I recalled when we first met about 42 years ago when I was VP of Programming for Communications Fund, the company headed by Richard J. Miller, late of Truman Bank, that owned the KADI and KXLW radio stations. Joe, who knows rock and roll and rhythm and blues better than most anyone, anywhere, was hosting the Sunday night KADI Original Oldies Show and did so until he just had to spend more time on his business conceptualizations. I wonder if anyone has any of those shows on tape? You do remember magnetic recording tape? That show by the way was once DJed by Larry Miller and then for several years by the late Gary “Records” Brown.
When Joe said he was going to open a restaurant and bar on Delmar, more than a few people suggested he ought to have his head examined. He didn’t heed the warnings of the naysayers and in true Missouri fashion he showed ‘em all. In its 40 years Blueberry Hill has grown to take up a whole block and has long ago truly reached the status of being a legendary destination on a par with The Arch, Ted Drewes, Crown Candy, the Zoo, the Missouri History Museum and the City Museum. It’s a great place to hangout, play darts, pinball or video games, listen to the rockin’ juke box (on which Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill has been on since day one), hear live music, create a souvenir in the photo booth, look at some of Joe’s incredible collection of Americana memorabilia ranging from Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy to the Simpsons and Star Wars, and enjoy the most eclectic décor in town. Joe even started his own brand of beer. It was Rock ‘n’ Roll Beer with the slogan “I sold my soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He had me produce a commercial jingle for the beer that is probably a valuable collector’s item today. Let us know if you have a copy.
I’ve got to warn you, Blueberry Hill is addictive as it seems to have just about everything anyone could want in a casual restaurant. Is their burger the best? I don’t know where you can get better, even if you hit one of those places that charge $12-$15-$20 or more. It’s $5.95 at Blueberry Hill, made of 100% chuck and always cooked to order. The French onion soup is a tasty treat as is the chicken noodle. French fries are done the way you want ‘em, Joe likes “well-done.” Their quarter pound all beef frank on a bakery bun is yummy, I’d suggest on the burnt, crispy side. I’m partial to their chili mac (a dish created at McTague’s restaurant in the Century building – about a century ago). The Rainbow trout almondine with wild rice is nice and so’s the mac ‘n’ cheese. There are several items for veggie fans, I counted 26 such entries on the menu, and there’s always a daily special. Last time I was there it was tuna-noodle casserole and it was as good as home-made without the fuss. The highest priced items on the menu last I checked are $8.75 and that’s for the trout and the veggie lasagna. The menu lists 79 different beers and 22 non-alcoholic drinks.
If you’ve never been to Blueberry Hill, you my friend are missing one of the best places for food and fun in the whole USA and it’s only about 25 minutes away from where you are right now. So go for the halibut. And, yes, their fish and chips is made with halibut strips.
Tell ‘em Johnny Rabbitt of KMOX sent you.
Written by: Ron (Johnny Rabbitt) Elz – Host of Route 66 Saturday nights on News Radio 1120 KMOX & KMOX.com, September 2012.
They take reservations
Full bar with an award winning selection of beers
Three rooms for private parties, meetings events
One of only two smoking rooms in St. Louis with 14 brands of cigars and 3 of cigarettes
BlueberryHill.com (great, easy to navigate website)
On Facebook and Twitter
Stick to your ribs home style and old time café eats
Down to Earth prices
Live music by local and touring bands including Chuck Berry doing a show a month
Very creative window displays
Chess, checkers, dominoes, Monopoly, Parcheesi, Clue, Scrabble, Ouija, darts
Recommended by Newsweek, Bob Costas, St. Louis magazine, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Riverfront Times, Bob Costas, Chicago Tribune, Chuck Berry, New York Times, Southern Living, Globe-Democrat, John Goodman, Post-Dispatch….Duncan Hines would likely have given his approval to Blueberry Hill, but he passed away before it opened.
Blueberry Hill is where the elite meet to eat