Before the Malls Came: Showmanship for Small-town Movie Theatres

Over forty decades back, a film theater did not have to be found in a shopping mall to draw decent patrons. As other small, independently owned companies had done , small-town movie2k theaters survived — and, sometimes, even thrived — for many decades. An individual may still sometimes find independent theaters grinding off in smallish towns situated far enough away from urban locations, but one is far more inclined to discover abandoned buildings with vacant marquess which frequently resemble the rusted prows of older ships. Some older theater buildings function as cubes for churches and tiny companies, but even a number of these buildings use these skimpy camouflage that somebody passing through city can quickly imagine the role they played as a neighborhood centre to get a shared community experience. Following the essence of the community transformed, following the regional people started identifying with the nationwide tv community, the regional exhibitors stepped up the public spectacle through promotional showmanship so as to revitalize not just its part in the area but frequently the local community soul itself. These transformed marquees remind us not just of abandoned boats however of shabby circus tents which stay long after the circus has left town; they might bear few traces of the former role in the area rituals, but the memories of their private efforts of neighborhood showmen to maintain the circus living in the face of cultural shift will maintain that circus as well as the wisdom of the cultural importance alive in us.

Before individuals depended so heavily on cars, and until they had been reluctant to walk over a couple of city blocks, several cities of less than a million people had their very own theater which citizens often labeled”the show house” or even”the picture show.” Residents of the western Illinois city of Carthage, by way of instance, watched two series homes in its own business district after the start of the 20th century, but just one of them lived for long. The Woodbine Theatre, named after the crawling vine that climbed on the east side of this brick building, wasn’t the very first theater in town of more than three million individuals, but the showmanship of its owner resulted in the contest to go out of business.

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The very first Woodbine was transformed into a theater in 1917 by Charles Arthur Garard. C.A., because he was called, had operated a local dairy and a downtown ice cream parlor which provided five-cent ice cream pops, confections, five-cent crushed fruit souffles, along with a cigarette named Garard’s Royal Blue. He was a shrewd businessman, but he was likewise a fanciful dreamer who had to be kept in check by his pragmatic as well as shrewder wife. Bertha, who regularly accompanied the silent films shown in his theater with her piano, kept him out of promoting the theatre and drifting off to other endeavors, like the growth of grapefruits in Florida. After C.A. died, she took over as owner before her youngest son, Justus, became old enough to assist her.

Justus remembered in June of 1981 the way his dad never actually had an opportunity to delight in any significant returns from the theatre for ten years later he switched it. “We would’ve been out of business if it hadn’t been for talking movie2k,” Justus said, the oldest of which”were very hard to understand.” The Woodbine was the first theater in the region to reveal discussing pictures, which have been sound-on-disc such as Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone system (shown in the black-and-white TV promos for the 1955 film HELEN OF TROY and included in the DVD and VHS copies of that film). The first sound films were”just part-talkies. They’d use some dialog, then [the figures ] would soar into tune.” Because sound equipment was expensive to install, he and a friend Oliver Kirschner constructed their own sound system. Cast-iron record turntables were cast at an industrial plant sixteen miles away in Keokuk, Iowa, and attached to the projector drive. Since sound projectors operated at 34 frames-per-second, they revised a way to speed up their projectors to synchronize the film with the soundtrack on the record. Occasionally,”the needle could jump out of the groove,” and the projectionist would have to”pick it up and place it on the ideal groove by viewing carefully and observing the noise.” He recalled that they had to do this for two or three years until the advent of sound-on-film. Whenever the needles would jump from one groove to the next because of over-modulation, the customers would patiently wait for the projectionists to synchronize the record with the film.

The introduction of sound-on-film, which Justus recalled was here to stay by 1933, required that he, like other exhibitors, insert an expensive sound head into the projector. Because some films were released as sound-on-disc and some were released as sound-on-film, such as Fox’s Movietone system, many exhibitors had to choose between one system or the other. “Consequently,” said Justus,”we weren’t enjoying with any Fox pictures. Paramount came with all the documents and Fox together with all the sound-on-film.” Once he installed the sound-on-film system, he no longer used the disc system because he was never”able to completely conquer that wavery sound. The audio goes down and up.”

Although C.A. died shortly after the sound-on-disc system was working, he never saw the business at his theatre improve. Justus saw a gradual improvement “along about 1937.” This increase in patronage came about not because many small-town citizens were interested in the latest technical improvements or in having their lives enriched by the imaginative visions of such geniuses as Orson Welles; they merely wanted entertainment that would whisk them away from their humdrum lives — and an excuse to get out of the house. They didn’t expect to be surprised by the plot or ending and didn’t really want to be intellectually challenged. They were as excited about seeing their favorite romantic leads involved in the latest routine star vehicles as they were about seeing the burning of Atlanta.

The fact that GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) was a hit in Carthage may or may not have been the result of Justus renting the side of a barn where he and his friends pasted up a 24-sheet display touting the popular classic. Many of the films that we today regard as classics were, at the time, little more than run-of-the-mill programmers. CASABLANCA (1942), for example, was merely a modest romantic thriller with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman acting as stand-ins for our exotic fantasies; they turned the attention of small-town patrons away from their personal issues while the caricatured Nazi villains provided targets for their anger. In most instances, what was playing at the local theatre was irrelevant, whether it be a film like WIZARD OF OZ (1939), which initially did disappointing business but was later perceived to be a classic, or films with appropriate titles like SMALL-TOWN GIRL (1936). It was a community activity that was as vital to the town as the Saturday night band concerts when the white-painted wooden bandstand was hauled to the center of Main Street.

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An activity that Justus promoted in his small town to help improve theatre patronage was bank night. Bank night was a gimmick that worked like this: the patrons would register in a large book, and attached to each registration form was a numbered tag which Justus or an employee placed in a large drum. The drum was hauled out in front of the theatre audience after the first showing on Tuesday nights where a local merchant or other prominent citizen would draw out a number and announce it to the audience. If the person holding that number sat in the theatre at that moment, he or she would claim the money. “If not,” Justus added,”the money was placed into what we predicted bank nighttime and held until the following week. We had include fifty dollars a week.” A fifty dollar night would hardly pay for the showing, and the theatre wouldn’t start making money until the jackpot reached around $200 or $300. “Then we would fill the theatre,” he said, and this didn’t include”all of the men and women who came and gambled at the afternoons.” Of course, a weekly winner would have wiped out the business, so Justus, like other independent exhibitors, took a gamble with this particular gimmick.

Another gimmick to bolster limping ticket sales involved the distribution of sets of silverware one piece at a time until the patron had collected an entire set. These sets — knives, forks, spoons, and ladles — were easier to handle than dishes; dishes were shipped in barrels and often arrived broken. Unlike today, exhibitors actually made the bulk of their profits from ticket sales. The limited offerings of the concession stands in small theatres — long before the days of hot dog warmers and cheese-covered tortilla chips — provided only a small percent of the revenue. The best years for ticket sales, added Justus, were during World War II.

While Justus was an officer in the Navy in 1943, a fire started in the furnace and consumed the entire theatre. His uncle, prominent architect Edgar Payne, drew up blueprints for a wider, single-floor theatre, and construction began immediately under Kirschner’s supervision. The new building had no balcony, but it did contain a soundproof cry room on the second floor. The seating capacity of the theatre was 500 seats, and this was later reduced to 350.

In the late 1930s, Justus remodeled an older building into a theatre in Dallas City, Illinois, sixteen miles north of Carthage. The theatre, he recalled, had a”lovely front seat with walk-up front measures” which”afterwards became prohibited since it was a fire hazard.” The Dallas Theatre made a profit during World War II but, he added, was the first of his three small-town theatres to”dry up” A quonset hut theatre was constructed in the river town of Warsaw after World War II. It outlasted the older theatre in Dallas City, but it never, according to Justus, made money. A large theatre circuit made him a considerable offer in the early 1950s for all three of his theatres, but, despite the gradual shifting of populations away from small communities, he declined. He said that he just didn’t want to get out of the theatre business.

Television contributed to changes in the rural communities, particularly when nearby Quincy acquired a TV station in the early 1950s, but a shift away from the shared experience of small-town living was equally to blame. Justus’ theaters lost clients no quicker than several other regional companies, for example furniture dealerships and dry goods stores. Despite attempts of theater exhibitors and other retailers to maintain their integral roles living in a slumping community, transport eased the migration of inhabitants into urban areas where they found suburban communities complete with omnipresent shopping malls and centers. New theatres hauled up within these shopping places, later becoming allies and multiplexes, however they typically failed to provide patrons any feeling of engaging in communal rituals. Watching movies projected by automatic gear while seated among strangers at a shoebox-sized shopping mall theater (in certain urban regions ) bore little similarity to the experience of seeing a film with neighbors and family in the neighborhood”show house.”

Patrons in tiny communities did not need to wait three weeks or to push round town to get a new movie because the tiny theaters ran several changes per week. Justus remembered his own theaters would operate”a Sunday-Monday movie, a Tuesday bank night, a Wednesday-Thursday, then a Friday and Saturday. We got to the point where we were open three days a week. First it was Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday; then it was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.” The Carthage community encouraged the theatre during the week at night at the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the Warsaw Theatre dwindled down to Saturday and Sunday showings, occasionally with a different movie each evening. Pupils from the regional four-year liberal arts school in Carthage retained Friday night attendance powerful in the Woodbine, but higher school soccer games seriously restricted Friday presence in Warsaw.

Another element which”made it so tough for the little towns,” based on Justus, was that the individual exhibitors”couldn’t get the product until it had played the bigger places,” like Quincy, that is roughly twenty miles south of Carthage, or even Keokuk, that sits just across the Mississippi River on the northwestern tip of Iowa. Since he had been an independent, he needed to wait six months to play with a movie that was reserved first in Quincy, Keokuk, or in other nearby circuit theaters. “If we could’ve played the film the next week,” Justus added, “Why, the people would have stayed home to see it. But they knew that we weren’t gonna have it for awhile. So they’d go to Keokuk.”

One of afterwards gimmicks used to stir nearby community attention were Halloween midnight displays and four attributes run every New Year’s Eve, but the largest seasonal occasion in Carthage was that the yearly set of merchant-sponsored Christmas movies. Before every Christmas season, Justus bought a Filmack trailer for those retailers, along with also a salesman from St. Louis offered the retailers a place on the trailer for $37.50. The retailers were given tickets or free passes for the theatre that were great any moment, however the Christmas movies — usually selected for the children of these parents who were invited to do Christmas shopping in city — were shown free to the neighborhood. The popcorn, naturally, was not totally free. I am able to remember stuffing sacks filled with popcorn and yanking round the glass counter tops to pushy patrons that needed to cover… maybe not $3.00… but ten pennies.

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The midnight Halloween showings of terror double-features were those I found to be especially enjoyable. Justus often conducted double statements such as THE FLY and THE RETURN OF THE FLY and AIP’s I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957) with UA’s THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958). For the latter, in Warsaw, I pushed white cardboard to some castle that coated the left exit. Over the departure, suitably enough for Halloween, was a clock that promoted a regional funeral home. (I wondered why funeral house clocks were exhibited in little movie theaters in these days. Were patrons being educated that their lifestyles were ticking away while the movies have been flickering on the screen?) I stretched a cord in the projection booth into the exit, found directly to the left of this display, and draped a white bed sheet above a clothes hanger. Throughout a high stage of a few of those movies, I stood at the exit door with my girl friend and jerked about the series connected to the hanger, intending to pull my phantom to the depart over the minds of the crowd. The phantom arose from the little projection window cue, however, the hanger became hung-up about the cable and refused to journey as I had planned. I tugged on the series and it snapped, or so the projectionist gave the hanger that a push. After the houselights came on at the end of the attribute, I found my planned deus ex machina suspended in plain view in the middle of the auditorium. Perhaps this collapse was why Justus restricted all my upcoming marketing efforts to the reception and outside the theatre; perhaps he determined that I was affected too much by the gimmicks of these master showmen as William Castle (such movies as THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE TINGLER, MR. SARDONICUS, HOMICIDAL, along with THIRTEEN GHOSTS). Of all the Castle movies that Justus played, I can only recall the coloured glasses for the first THIRTEEN GHOSTS being especially powerful. [Further facts about horror film promotions are available in the companion post BLACK-AND-WHITE HALLOWEEN HORROR HITS: I WAS A TEENAGE UNDEAD WITCH, that can be found online.]

These are just a few instances of promotional machinations which were required to improve ticket sales for the second-run movies shown by individual, small-town exhibitors. Lots of the prior gimmicks, for example bank nighttime and merchant-sponsored Christmas shows, brought in a few additional bucks, but it’s doubtful whether the later and much more flamboyant gimmicks substantially influenced ticket sales. BOXOFFICE magazine and media sheets to the individual movies offered manipulation hints, a lot of which demanded the purchasing pricey gear, but the fighting independent needed to mostly rely upon his own creativity to make makeshift, cheap promotions.

Justus Garard* promised to be among the last independent exhibitors in the region to venture out of business. The Woodbine Theatre at Carthage was offered to the neighboring automobile dealer in 1969 and finally transformed into a showroom for new automobiles. The inside of his theater, when my brother and I watched it soon after it was gutted for this use, resembled the inside of the big-screen movie theater in the brilliant and touching Italian movie CINEMA PARADISO (1989). Even the Dallas and Warsaw theaters, though closed long ago, nevertheless resemble film theaters; the latter, utilized as a storage space for antiques, nevertheless has its own prow of a marquee that juts out over the sidewalk. Not much has changed from the river city of Warsaw, but on Saturday nights, with no bandstand with neighborhood citizens playing devices while children bypass it around, and minus the glittering marquee of the old movie theater, Main Street appears much darker, as well as a whole lot lonelier. Maybe just a few separate exhibitors, such as those in small, midwestern cities such as Carthage and Warsaw, resorted to the above-mentioned gimmicks, and possibly the death knell for your mom and pop theater operation was appeared long before the staging of lots of the following promotional attempts, but such as the sailors on ships that many of those still-existing theater fronts resemble, the more stubborn independents refused to return without a struggle.

 

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