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Wehrenberg Theatres is the oldest and largest family-owned movie theater chain in America. It operates 15 movie theatres with 213 screens in the states of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, including nine theatres with 131 screens in the St. Louis Metropolitan area. It is a member of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
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In 1906, Fred Wehrenberg launched the Cherokee Theatre. His saloon doubled as the theatre's concession stand, and many customers frequented both. Business boomed, and he opened 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. 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. Fred also launched numerous promotions, including giveaways of china, glassware, flatware, turkeys and hams.
The Wehrenbergs built St. Louis' Best Theatre, the first building in the city constructed expressly for use as a motion-picture theatre.
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.
Television and a post-war migration to the suburbs in the '50s forced several indoor theates to close, though Wehrenberg's drive-ins remained popular. Paul Krueger, who had taken over management of the circuit upon Fred Wehrenberg's death in 1949, himself died in 1963. Ron Krueger assumed control.
The 1960s and 1970s 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 became the first multiplex in the St. Louis area. During this time, Wehrenberg's signature jingle was introduced. (A rerecording of the Wehrenberg jingle in the 1980s introduced Wehrenberg's slogan, "The Perfect Destination for Every Generation".)
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the circuit started building megaplexes of ten or more screens. Wehrenberg also expanded beyond St. Louis and into Missouri.
Over the years, Wehrenberg Theatres has remained family-owned-and-operated. Ron Krueger continues today as Chairman and CEO, cementing Wehrenberg's standing as the oldest family-owned-and-operated theatre circuit in the nation.