I ate lunch at the new Mainstreet Theatre with "Miss Cinerama." Trust me, it wasn't planned. For a meal at the sleek Marquee Bar & Grill in AMC's new downtown movie palace, I invited my longtime friend Carol Jean, who apparently owns more crowns than Queen Elizabeth II. The year after Carol Jean was voted Miss Prairie Village of 1956, a big publicity blitz accompanied an exciting announcement about the movie house at 14th Street and Main. As we sat down to lunch, she pulled out a glossy photo of herself from 1957: a shapely little dish wearing a swimsuit and a sparkly "Miss Cinerama" banner.
Few remember Cinerama now, but it was a big deal in the late 1950s, when television was stealing so much business from movie studios that Hollywood introduced all kinds of gimmicks: 3-D, stereophonic sound, Todd-AO. Cinerama was a widescreen novelty: Three synchronized 35 mm projectors presented a dazzlingly large image onto a gigantic, curved movie screen. The former RKO Missouri Theater, built as a vaudeville house in 1921, was retrofitted for Cinerama. Its debut was such an event that patrons stood for blocks waiting to get a seat to see This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World.
"Did you get any prizes?" asked my friend Truman, who had joined us. "A couple of movie tickets," Carol Jean said, "and I got to sit on the Cinerama float in the American Royal Parade."
Cinerama had lost some of its novelty value by 1960, when theater owner Stan Durwood changed the name of the French Baroque-style theater to the Empire.
It was fitting that Truman and I had returned with a woman who had so many memories of the place, dating all the way back to her childhood. "My mother used to come here, before I was born, to see vaudeville!" she said.
And that made me wonder about the underground tunnel — much used by bootleggers during Prohibition — that supposedly runs between the basement of the theater and the President Hotel across the street. "It's still down there but not safe to enter anymore," the Marquee chef, Richard O'Brien, told me later. "We finally walled it up from this side."
Even after the multimillion-dollar renovation (which involved moving the grand staircase from the south side of the L-shaped building to the west), O'Brien said there are all kinds of mysterious nooks and crannies in the building, including shafts once used to blow ice-cooled air up into the auditorium.
The theater had been abandoned for more than two decades, so it had to be gutted. None of the French Baroque glamour is evident anywhere. But the Marquee Room is striking, with red draperies hanging from the high ceilings down to the original terrazzo floors. The first-class bar is as swanky as anything you'll find in the Power & Light District across the street.
And O'Brien performs culinary miracles in a shockingly tiny kitchen. Not everything is a box-office hit, but the place is so endearing, and most of the comfort-style dishes are so satisfying, that I find the experience enchanting.
This despite plenty of little annoyances. Not all of the servers are well-trained — we were lucky that we had pros waiting on us. There's a distinct communication issue between the kitchen staff and the waitstaff. And I could live happily if I never again heard "Shake Your Booty" played at full volume at 11:30 a.m., especially while trying to concentrate on lunch. What the hell — I ordered breakfast, which is served all day at the Marquee and well into the wee hours on weekends; the "Late Nite Menu," served until 5 a.m., is primarily breakfast fare, including pancakes and biscuits and gravy (which aren't on the regular menu).