On December 11, 1909, St. Louis was facing its sixth straight day of below freezing weather with a threat of snow that night. In Washington DC, a dinner attended by President Howard Taft with members of his cabinet, senators, judges and men of high esteem was interrupted by suffragists demanding votes for women. Across the Atlantic in France, two men claimed to have invented “sight telephones,” an apparatus enabling people to see each other while talking on the telephone. On the same day, Joseph Van Raalte, a jeweler and prominent member of the Jewish community in St. Louis, was issued a building permit for a one story Odeon at 2635 Cherokee Street.
The previous month, Van Raalte purchased the vacant property where the future 2635 Cherokee and adjacent building housing Black Bear Bakery would be constructed. Existing on the property where Black Bear currently stands was a large tent movie theater. These makeshift theaters consisted of a frame structure covered with black cloth to block natural light. The craze of picture shows first began in 1896 in New York City and reached St. Louis ten years later when Fred Wehrenberg began showing silent films in his grocery store at the northeast corner of Cherokee and Jefferson. Tent theaters were cheap to construct, easy to run and attracted the public who paid a nickel to see the show. Van Raalte likely sought to expand his profits by constructing a permanent structure where films could be comfortably viewed year-round.
The information conveyed on the century old building permit is slightly confusing. The permit allows the construction of “a one story brick store and Odeon” at 2635 Cherokee. However, it is for a building measuring 85 x 122 feet, roughly the size of the combined lots where 2635-37 Cherokee and the present Black Bear Bakery stand. It is likely that both buildings, 2635-37 and 2639 Cherokee, were constructed at the same time. This is a possibility, because the address for the Vandora Theater switches between 2635 and 2639 Cherokee for several years in the city directories. This theory is further enforced by the lack of a building permit specifically for 2639 Cherokee. Yet, each building has distinctively different architectural influences.
Van Raalte called his new venture The Vandora Amusement Company, created from the prefix of his surname and his wife’s first name. He hired local architect Otto J. Boehmer to design his new building. Boehmer specialty was designing high end residences and commercial buildings, however he also created plans for several churches across the city. His designs included several homes in Parkview and the Friedens United Church of Chirist. 2635 Cherokee was likely not completed until the Spring of 1910. That April, Van Raalte became indebted $16,000 to a third party for the construction of the theater and the purchase of moving picture machinery, films, opera chairs, etc.
The Vandora Theater was in operation less than a decade. The advent of the feature length film brought the demise of the Odeon craze. The neighborhood theater shows consisting of several 10-15 minute silent films interspersed with vaudeville acts, sing-alongs and piano playing, appeared old fashioned in comparison to the nearly hour long melodramas. In 1919, Van Raalte sold both 2635-37 and 2639 Cherokee to the Audrey Realty Company. The company was owned by Harry Freund who had several business ventures on Cherokee including the construction of the Cinderella Building. Prior to selling both buildings, Van Raalte had entered into a ten year lease with Nicholas Kiriakos at 2635 Cherokee Street in 1917.
Nicholas Kiriakos was a native of Argos, Greece and was a confectioner by trade. The lease agreement stated Kiriakos would operate a “candy shop and ice cream parlor” at 2635 Cherokee. Kiriakos named his store after the stadiums used in ancient Greece for horse and chariot racing; The Hippodrome. Kiriakos eventually purchased the building from the Audrey Realty Company in 1922 and his candy store remained in operation until his death in 1943. During that time, Kiriakos and his small store faced a few challenges. On New Year’s Eve in 1917, two men broke into The Hippodrome through a rear door and stole a 125 lbs safe containing $235. Four years later, the candy store was broken into again and $63 was stolen from a safe.
After Kiriakos’ death, his family continued to own 2635-37 Cherokee Street. The location was used as a bar and a barber shop for several years. In 1976, Kiriakos’ family entered into a lease with Chen-Jer Hsu and his wife Hso-Hwi to operate a cocktail lounge and restaurant. This is likely the beginning of the original Fortune Teller Bar which has had a rebirth at 2635 Cherokee Street. Hsu purchased the building from the Kiriakos Family in 1983. Twenty years later, the building was sold and housed the Zapateria La Moda.
If you find yourself at 2635-37 Cherokee today, buy a beer and raise a glass to its storied history.