It’s a Wednesday night in Bevo, just before showtime at Arkadin Cinema & Bar. There’s popcorn to pop, cocktails to shake up, and a pronunciation to gently set straight.
It’s Ar-kAH-din, after the 1955 Orson Welles movie Mr. Arkadin, husband-and-wife owners Keith Watson and Sarah Baraba explain. The indoor portion of the city’s first microcinema, which seats 50 people, has been open to moviegoers since March. It’s at 5228 Gravois Avenue.
People mispronounce the name all the time, the couple says. That’s one reason each screening begins with a montage of clips from Mr. Arkadin, its characters repeating the name.
The couple struggled with what to call the theater, Watson explains. They both liked Orson Welles. “He worked very independently and on his own, and I think he kind of embodies the idea of what we wanted: His films are very artistic, but they’re also very entertaining and approachable. That covers the full spectrum of what cinema can be.”
Here, cinema can be almost anything they dream up: like a VHS movie night, where moviegoers are invited to bring in an old tape and everyone votes on which one they watch. There’s “Hysteria Fest,” a horror movie festival in October; a silent film series; a cult film series; and a monthly “Drinkolas Cage” night, where they pick a random Nicolas Cage movie and audience members drink in reaction to certain lines or happenings on screen.
“It was literally just a stupid idea I came up with,” Baraba says. “We played drinking games when Keith was in law school. So I was like, hey, maybe we can do that here and see how people respond. And it’s our most popular event.”
On this night, it’s a screening of Vampire Hunter D, part of the Strange Brew film series programmed by Jon Scorfina. Baraba and Watson asked him to revive the cult film series, which originated at Webster University.
“It’s the perfect space for what I do,” Scorfina says. “It’s the closest you can get to tangibly feeling how the audience is responding to the movie.”
Michael Morlaine is also here for the film. He hosts the series Dark Dream Cinema, which he pegs as “arthouse adjacent.” He lives nearby and loves the Arkadin.
“Their programming is just out of this world. From the moment they opened their doors, they were just killing it,” he says. “I love how invested they are in the community, and how open they are to local programmers. They have really cultivated this great scene, and they have a very loyal audience already.”
The Arkadin shows films five nights a week, and guests are invited to lounge in the lobby bar before taking their seats in the theater, which is equipped with three rows of theater chairs, more rows of cozy plush chairs, and a bar table. At $9 a ticket, the couple tries to make the theater as affordable and comfortable as they can, but still keep things nice.
“Our vision was always to have it feel like a living room,” Baraba says.
The couple, who both grew up in south St. Louis County and met through friends in college, have built their relationship on their shared love of movies. They knew about microcinemas from times living in New York City and Washington D.C.
“Coming back from D.C. to St. Louis, having lived literally down the street from the American Film Institute and any number of film screenings you wanted to go to… you really had your pick of anything,” Baraba says. “We came back to St. Louis, and it really wasn’t the same.”
When they first started, the local repertory film scene included Cinema St. Louis, Webster University, and Late Nite Grindhouse.
“We had a strong feeling that it would work, as long as it was run properly,” Watson says. “And so we were like, well, might as well be us.”
Watson works in records management for the United States Department of Agriculture, and also writes film reviews for Slant Magazine. Baraba is a tutor. Neither had a business background.
The couple got married in October 2019 and bought the vacant building in the same week. Within days of getting their building permit, the 2020 global health crisis shut everything down.
The owners of the bar and concert venue next door, The Heavy Anchor, asked if they would like to use a shared brick building wall to show movies outside. People brought their own chairs, bought drinks at The Heavy Anchor, and watched films at a social distance. Everyone loved it.
“We moved pretty fast,” Watson says. “And (that) kind of forced us to slow down. I think it was good because it let us build up this audience over the course of a few seasons.”
The downtime also forced them to rethink their floor plan. The storefront, which had been vacant but otherwise maintained for about 15 years, had been home at various times to an aquarium store, a motorcycle showroom, and an ice cream parlor.
They see potential in Bevo: The support from The Heavy Anchor, and venues like the revamped Tim’s Chrome Bar and fellow newcomer The Little Bevo, and Das Bevo at the historic Bevo Mill add to an eclectic mix of restaurants and businesses along Gravois. The couple also bought a house in Bevo, and point to the neighborhood’s affordability.
“I feel like we’re really trying to make an investment in the neighborhood, to make this a destination place again, because the neighborhood really is iconic,” says Baraba, who sits on the board of the Bevo Community Improvement District. “Where else are you going to go where you’re coming up the hill, and all of a sudden there’s a giant windmill?”
Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer, who represents the Arkadin’s ward, loves the theater. It opens for meetings and nonprofit events, she notes, so the space is more than a gathering spot for movies.
“There’s so much energy in Bevo right now,” she says. “It’s an area of the city that has a really cool, rich history. And now it’s kind of seeing a revitalization that I think is only just going to continue to get better.”
There’s room in the growing local film community for the Arkadin, the couple says. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which opened in spring 2023, shows classic films, and Cinema St. Louis bought the Hi-Pointe Theatre in early 2023.
“I think we can all work together and still all exist,” Baraba says.
The couple points out the name Arkadin also evokes the type of moniker that graced movie houses across south city: the Granada, the Avalon, the Ritz, the Melba — all gone.
On this Wednesday night at the Arkadin, at the sold-out screening of Vampire Hunter D, Baraba and Watson chat with customers and serve drinks at the bar. Members of the audience talk excitedly as they settle in their seats, and watch previews of coming attractions, including Messiah of Evil, Basket Case, Basket Case 2, and Too Many Draculas, an event featuring a video mixtape.
Scorfina, the film series programmer, stands before the crowd. He explains Vampire Hunter D is considered the first animated horror film for adults, and he first saw it as a young adolescent in a friend’s basement.
“It was one of those movies that was an epiphany movie for me, like, oh, I didn’t know they were allowed to make movies like this.”
The lights go down, the crowd goes silent, and the opening scene of a moonlit castle appears on the screen.
At the Arkadin, a journey into a new world begins.