Marquee man: Esquire Theater developer has plans for more Broadway buildings

Thursday, December 29, 2011
John Buckner, owner of the newly formed Broadway Esquire Entertainment Group, stands along Broadway in Cape Girardeau on Wednesday morning. Buckner bought the Esquire Theater and hopes to buy three more buildings on Broadway, one of which will be a 24-hour diner. (Laura Simon)

John Buckner made a splash in October with his announcement that he was undertaking a $2.7 million project to rehabilitate the Esquire Theater into an independent film house.

Now, the Cape Girardeau art dealer and developer has his eye on at least three other Broadway buildings, including plans to turn one into an upscale diner that will be open around the clock.

"I noticed on a recent Sunday afternoon that Broadway had no people on it," said Buckner, 42. "There was nothing going on down here. So I began to think, 'How can I keep people downtown?'"

His idea? Do the same thing with other buildings that he is doing with the 67-year-old Esquire: buy them and transform them into something that will capture the imaginations -- and business -- of the public.

Buckner has a building in mind on the same block as the Esquire and is in negotiations with its owner to buy it, but he's not ready to go public with specifics about which building it is. Buckner hopes a deal will be finalized in February.

The inside of the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau sits empty Dec. 9. Renovations of the theater on Broadway are underway. (Laura Simon)

But he already imagines a 1950s-themed diner there with a menu that includes health-conscious pasta, gluten-free salads, gourmet soups and burgers. He intends for the kitchen to be in sight of the patrons.

For the other buildings that he'd like to buy through his company, Broadway Esquire Entertainment Group, he has a laundry list of ideas: yoga studio, art supply store and a dance studio. He also envisions what he describes as a "corks and canvas" business, a place where people can paint and drink wine.

"We need to start taking steps up on Broadway," Buckner said. "There are so many options that we're missing out on. We need something kind of trendy."

A building that isn't included in his plans, at least not yet, is the old Broadway Theater, which sits across the street from the Esquire. Buckner was considering it until this week, he said.

Architects and other city and economic development officials toured the Broadway Theater on Tuesday, and Buckner came away from the meeting wondering what he would do with it.

His ideas had been a place for concerts, similar to The Pageant in St. Louis, or perhaps a bowling alley, he said. But the size of the building -- not long enough or wide enough in spots -- made that impractical, he said. If he put in a live theater, it would compete with the River Campus, something he does not want to do.

"It is a gorgeous building, it is beautiful," Buckner said. "And I want to make sure it would benefit Cape. I'd still like to do something with it someday, I really would. But I cannot commit to buying it at this time."

Area economic development officials who have worked with Buckner in his quest to get the Esquire Theater plan going say he is passionate about Cape Girardeau and serves as a model for other building owners or would-be investors.

Buckner is excited about being here and loves the community, said Tim Arbeiter, the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of community development.

"He's a I'm-going-to-get-it-done kind of guy," Arbeiter said. "He has a true passion for art and what he does. He wanted to make a splash and do something on a big scale. He wanted to do something the community doesn't currently have. He wanted to fill a niche."

Old Town Cape executive director Marla Mills put the bug in Buckner's ear about the Esquire when he approached her with his idea of an independent film theater.

"I thought he and the Esquire would be a great match," Mills said. "John has been exposed to a lot of different communities and different projects in ways to express art in a community. He's the real deal, and he has huge energy. We're very fortunate that he's chosen to land here in Cape."

Buckner is a native of Farmington, Mo., but he had been away for 25 years working in a varied list of fields. At 24, he took a job working for the Federal Reserve Bank in Nashville, Tenn.

Always an art fan, he frequented a frame shop to get his rock 'n' roll memorabilia custom framed. He became interested in it and six months later, he quit his job at the bank and took a job at the shop for a pay cut -- $6.25 an hour.

"With me, crazy things happen all the time," Buckner said.

It wasn't long until he bought the shop. He became acquainted with local artists who came in to have their work framed. The artists then asked if they could hang their work in his shop. He agreed.

Then he began selling the artists' work. After "breaking out," he moved to Los Angeles, where he was an art dealer for 15 years.

Six years ago, he moved to New Orleans, where he would meet the renowned metal sculptor Dr. Arthur Silverman.

But then he decided to move to Cape Girardeau recently to be near his family, who live in Sedgewickville, Mo. He also is director of sales at Eustis Studios.

Now, he's started his company made up of himself and several "silent partner" investors that he declines to name. The money for the Esquire project is all cash, and the company isn't taking out any loans. None of the company's other investors are from the Cape Girardeau area.

In fact, he even recently reversed course and decided not to use tax credits for the Esquire construction, which he says will speed up the process by four to six months. His target date of opening the Esquire 55 years to the day it first opened is much more realistic now, he said -- Jan. 21, 2013.

He wants to keep the historic integrity of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but he wants to be able to do what he wants. The restrictions of the credits, for example, might have made his plans for the Starstruck Lounge more difficult, or his idea for a private box for himself.

"I just wanted to move forward with making the theater the way I want to do it," Buckner said.

Meanwhile, work is continuing on the Esquire. Twenty-seven truckloads of debris that cluttered the building -- 20 feet high in some places -- have been hauled away, leaving the interior basically empty except for what remains of the marquee, Buckner said.

"It was like 'Hoarders' gone wild," he said.

The architect is expected after the first of the year to take measurements, Buckner said. Plans should be ready within four to six months, he said, before construction can start.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

824 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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