By Eric Dundon
Long before Powell Hall served as home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, women came to the St. Louis Theatre Building at Grand and Morgan (later renamed to Delmar) not for music, vaudeville shows, or films, but to shop.
The long-forgotten and short-lived Helen Mae Shoppe sold ladies’ hats, dresses, accessories, and other accoutrements in what is now Powell Hall’s Green Room. Back when no fashion ensemble was complete without a hat, Helen Mae’s displayed the latest in headwear fashions in bright store windows visible to the street north of the building. Now, the windows and doors are bricked over and the memory of Helen Mae’s has faded with the years.
Were it not for a happy accident, the memory of Helen Mae’s may have vanished completely.
About five or six years ago, Carolyn White, then Associate Principal Double Bassist with the SLSO, was remodeling a portion of the musicians’ lounge in the basement of Powell Hall—directly below the Green Room—when she came across something curious. As she took down some of the ceiling panels for renovation, she noticed brown paint that looked to be original to the 1925 building.
“I thought, ‘What did this used to be?’” she remembered thinking. “I thought it could be from the old theater.”
For the first 40 years of its existence, Powell Hall was a theater, first for live shows, then for films.
So White, who has an interest in researching historical information, went on the hunt to the Missouri Historical Society for information about what might have inhabited the Green Room space.
“I had to dig up quite a few things before I came up with anything meaningful,” White said.
Eventually, she learned more about the Helen Mae Shoppe. What is now the musicians’ lounge acted as a storeroom for the shop and serviced clients from across the region. The shop was presumably inaccessible from the building’s interior, instead serving clientele coming off the street.
Performers at downtown St. Louis’ Orpheum Theater on 9th Street in downtown St. Louis purchased their glamorous gowns from the shop for vaudeville shows.
Not a lot of information about the shop survives. It closed in 1932 after seven years in business—a casualty, White surmises, of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. White found a liquidation auction notice from July 1932. The retail space probably survived, its occupancy unknown, until the St. Louis Symphony Society purchased the property in 1966 and the $2 million renovation that transformed the theater into Powell Hall turned the space into its current use as the Green Room.
However, pedestrians walking along Delmar Blvd. north of Powell Hall might notice a gap in the masonry work that likely indicates where Helen Mae’s entry once stood.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.