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John Thompson: Legendary Tivoli Theatre Ticket-Taker Dies At 74

Family photo

People who attend the Tivoli Theatre, the majestic edifice that has graced the University City Loop since 1924, expect certain things. They expect nostalgic surroundings. They expect to see movies with purpose. They expect to be greeted by John Thompson.

For the past 35 years, Mr. Thompson did not disappoint. He died Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. He was 74.

“It will be very sad the first time we walk through the doors (of the Tivoli) and John’s not there,” said Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis. “His absence will be very seriously felt.”

Diabetes put Mr. Thompson in the hospital about six months ago said his brother Joseph Thompson of Kirkwood. He was diagnosed at that time with what family believed was a non-life-threatening heart problem. However, he suffered a heart attack after lunching with his wife at Jennifer’s Pharmacy and Soda Shoppe in Clayton. He was pronounced dead at St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights.

A memorial Mass will be celebrated Feb. 22 at St. Roch Catholic Church.

Kindest person

Mr. Thompson lobbied assiduously for his job at the Tivoli.

In 1977, he was living in the apartments above the theater and attending regularly. For two years, he waylaid Alan Resnick, then manager of Landmark Theatres, owner of the Tivoli, to ask if there were any openings. Laura Resnick, senior regional publicist for Landmark Theatres, said Mr. Thompson wore her brother down.

“He asked so many times and Alan would say, ‘I only hire young, pretty girls,’ but he finally gave up and hired John,” Resnick recalled laughing. That was Aug. 28, 1979. There have been no regrets.

Mr. Thompson hoisted the letters up to change the marquee, sometimes sold tickets and theater treats and greeted the throng. He was the resident theater expert who would take your movie ticket and and maybe even keep you from getting a parking ticket by feeding your meter during long matinees. He provided escort or umbrellas as the need arose; and if you were a regular, he knew your name and movie preferences.

“He was the kindest person I’ve ever known,” said Tivoli Theatre manager, Tom Anson. It was a widely echoed sentiment.

He managed to spread joy without a computer or answering machine. “We bought him one (of the latter) – twice,” his brother laughed, “but if your birthday or anniversary was coming up, you got a card from John. He had a manual calendar and every year he’d sit down and fill it in for the New Year. There’s a card shop somewhere in St. Louis that may go out of business.”

Not a bum

When he wasn’t at the Tivoli, Mr. Thompson was greeting people as the doorman at some of the area’s toniest high-rises. Most recently, he had worked at the Whitehall in Clayton.

“I’m real lucky in so many ways,” he said during a 2010 interview with BoxOffice, a film industry magazine. “I’ve been lucky in the places I’ve worked. When I was much younger I was pretty much of a bum — I feel like I got more chances and did better as I got older.”

He was no bum; he was sick. For much of his young adult life, Mr. Thompson dealt with debilitating depression and undiagnosed schizophrenia.

“He had 20 very difficult years,” said his brother Joseph. “He went to various doctors, various hospitals, had various treatments.”

Things changed when he met Dr. Maria Lyskowsky, a local psychiatrist, in the 1960s.

“I would have to say that she saved me,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2003.

Love wins out

His efforts, which seemed effortless, earned him BoxOffice’s 2010 Front Line Award, given to theater employees “considered to be genuine role models making a significant impact on … theater operations.”

Save Joe Edwards, a former owner of the Tivoli, and rock and roller Chuck Berry, it’s doubtful any Loop denizen is better known than Mr. Thompson.

“John attained a significant degree of notoriety for a ticket-taker and a doorman,” his brother said in a voice tinged with pride. “He didn’t have high-level jobs, but they exposed him to people every day (and) John’s focus was other people.”

None drew his attention more than one Fran Sontag, a regular Tivoli patron on whom Mr. Thompson had developed a crush.

“John always said he was ‘single, but looking,’” then Tivoli general manager Dale Sweet, now an attorney, told BoxOffice in 2010. Sweet nominated Mr. Thompson for the magazine’s award.

To everyone’s amazement, Mr. Thompson convinced Sontag to give him a date, and the two married five-and-a-half years ago. He was 69 years old at the time and had never been married. 

An old warrior

John McCray Thompson was born in St. Louis on July 11, 1939, the eldest of Edward and Ellen Finney Thompson’s three sons. His father was a newspaperman at the Star, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Post-Dispatch. His mother was an admitting interviewer at St. Louis University Hospital, then called Firmin Desloge.

He graduated from Saint Louis University High School in 1957, the year his father died, and attended Saint Louis University for about a year. As his mental health deteriorated, he took any job he could find.

"Mostly the strong-back, weak-mind kind of work," he told the Post-Dispatch in 2003.

But fate had given Mr. Thompson a second chance and he vowed to hang onto it.

“All I ever really wanted to be was a nice person,” he said. “I believe in the old adage that what you aspire to be is what you are. I'm going to have them carry me out of here on my shield, just like an old warrior.”

They almost did. The day he died, he was supposed to be at the Tivoli at 6 p.m., in his trademark vest of course.

Mr. Thompson was preceded in death by his parents and younger brother, Bob Thompson.

In addition to his wife Fran and his brother Joseph (Kathleen), his survivors include four stepchildren, Tim Sontag of Yellow Springs, Ohio, Dan Sontag of Battleboro, Vt.; Becky Wood of Minneapolis, Minn., and Ruth Waks of Creve Coeur.

A memorial mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m., on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at St. Roch Catholic Church, 6052 Waterman Blvd., St Louis, Mo. 63112.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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