The oldest family-owned and operated theatre circuit in the country, celebrating 100 years in 2006!

The Wehrenberg History

In 1904, Fred Wehrenberg explored the St. Louis World’s Fair and saw something that changed his life. The one-time blacksmith who ran a saloon/grocery/butcher shop saw a simple film clip of passengers riding a train while scenery rushed by in the background.

The film inspired Fred to rent the former bakery next to his saloon, buy a piano and 99 kitchen chairs and launch the Cherokee Theatre in 1906. As silent movies flickered on the screen, Fred’s nephew drummed in the background while his wife, Gertrude, played piano in the pit.

The saloon doubled as the theatre’s de-facto concession stand, and many customers frequented both buildings. Business boomed, inspiring the Wehrenbergs to open a second venue, the Airdome.

The Airdome was St. Louis’ first open-air venue, basically a drive-in without cars. A screen was erected at one end of a fenced-in lot while an elevated projection booth was built across from it. Guests sat on folding chairs and benches placed on the bare ground. In the winter, a canvas tarp trapped the heat from potbellied stoves to keep guests warm.

The Wehrenbergs survived the Great Depression as the movie industry was more stable than most. Fred paved the way for success by calling on help from his family, and coming into his own as a showman. Fred launched numerous promotions, including giveaways of china, glassware, flatware, turkeys and hams. These innovations ensured circuit success even during the city’s lean times.

Business boomed, and soon the Wehrenbergs expanded their theatre circuit. They sold their saloon so they could enter the movie industry full-time. They built St. Louis’ Best Theatre, the first building in the city constructed expressly for use as a motion-picture theatre.

The Wehrenbergs survived the Great Depression due in part to the stability of the movie industry. Of course, Fred’s creativity and mind for promotions helped tremendously. Years before “The Jazz Singer” premiered, Wehrenberg invented its own version of “talking pictures.” Local actors scripted dialogue for the silent films, then acted them out behind the screen. Early audiences were awestruck. Fred also launched numerous promotions, including giveaways of china, glassware, flatware, turkeys and hams. These innovations ensured circuit success during the city’s lean times.

Then, in 1948, Fred and his son-in-law, Paul Krueger, opened the first Wehrenberg Drive-In. The Drive-In was named “Ronnie’s” after six-year-old Ronald Paul Krueger, Paul’s son and Fred’s grandson. The Ronnie’s was the beginning of Ron’s lifelong association with the circuit. While still a boy, he ran the miniature train around the playground at Ronnie’s Drive-In, entertaining the small children in attendance. Fred debuted another family-friendly idea with pony rides at the 66 Drive-In. Grandson Ron was again in charge as he led the pony rides. Ron eventually worked as a carhop, usher and concessionaire before ultimately taking the helm as president of the company.

During the 50’s, the industry hit its first snag. Television and a post-war migration to the suburbs closed several indoor theatres. Fortunately, the Wehrenberg circuit could still ride the popularity of the drive-ins. Paul Krueger, who had taken over management of the circuit upon Fred Wehrenberg’s death in 1949, himself passed away in 1963. It was up to 23-year-old Ron Krueger was left to assume the circuit’s presidency and continue with his father’s plans. With the help of several loyal, long-time employees, Wehrenberg Theatres made it through the rough spots.

The 60’s and 70’s saw another surge in the industry. Multiplexes, theatres with two to six screens, became the popular choice of movie-goers. Wehrenberg’s Cinema Four Center in St. Charles was the first multiplex in the St. Louis area.

In the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the circuit started building megaplexes of ten or more screens.
The Arnold 14, the Jamestown 14 and the Mid Rivers 14 are prime examples of how Wehrenberg Theatres has changed with the times and kept up with the trends. Each new theatre continued the promise to its guests to provide the most advanced amenities available.

Wehrenberg also expanded outside the St. Louis area. New theatres opened their doors to guests in Springfield, MO, Osage Beach, MO and Cape Girardeau, MO.

The “Crown Jewel” of the circuit is the Ronnies 20. Located on the same site as the original Ronnies Drive-In, the huge megaplex pays homage to its roots with an “indoor drive-in theatre.” The “theatre” is a food court designed like a drive-in, complete with classic 50’s cars, a huge screen showing coming attractions and vintage drive-in shorts, and the pole speakers from the original Ronnies.

The Ronnies 20 also includes Max Flight, a virtual roller coaster and flight simulator. Other exciting activities fill Ronnies “Now Playing” Family Entertainment Center, including Bowlingo, smaller scaled bowling lanes, plus a variety of interactive video and redemption games.

Wehrenberg Theatres’ updates went beyond state-of-the-art buildings; they also upgraded the circuit by offering guests ticket purchasing via phone, web or theatre ATM machines.

In 2004, Wehrenberg again grew in size and vision with two new theatres. The first, named the Galaxy 16, introduced Iowa to the circuit with its Cedar Rapids location. The second, named the Galaxy 14, is in Chesterfield, MO and boasts St. Louis’ largest screen, the Mega Screen.

Both “Galaxy” locations also are home to “Freds Drive-In,” a food court designed like nostalgic 50’s diners, but with current favorites like pizza, chicken fingers and a St. Louis tradition – toasted ravioli. They also feature “Now Playing” Family Entertainment Centers and separate party rooms, perfect for children birthdays.

Over the years, Wehrenberg Theatres has remained family-owned and operated. Ron Krueger continues today as Co-CEO, cementing Wehrenberg’s standing as the oldest family-owned and operated theatre circuit in the nation.

With its long history of innovation and ongoing desire to deliver superior service to all guests, Wehrenberg Theatres continues to be a leader in motion picture exhibition and to provide “entertainment excellence.”

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