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

Over forty years ago, a movie theater didn’t need to be located in a shopping mall to attract sufficient patrons. As other small, privately owned businesses had done before them, small-town movies theaters survived — and, in some cases, even thrived — for several decades. One may still occasionally find independent theaters grinding away in small towns located far enough away from metropolitan areas, but one is more likely to find abandoned buildings with empty marquess that often resemble the rusted prows of old ships. Some old theater buildings serve as shells for churches and small businesses, but even many of these buildings wear such skimpy camouflage that someone passing through town can easily guess the role they once played as a local center for a shared community experience. After the nature of the community changed, after the local people began identifying with the national television community, the local exhibitors stepped up the public spectacle through promotional showmanship in order to revitalize not only its role in the community but often the local community spirit itself. These converted marquees remind us not only of abandoned ships but of shabby circus tents that remain long after the circus has left town; they may bear few traces of their former role in the community rituals, but the memories of the personal efforts of local showmen to keep the circus alive in the face of cultural change will keep that circus and the knowledge of the cultural significance alive within us.

Before people relied so heavily on automobiles, and before they were afraid to walk more than a few city blocks, many towns of less than a thousand people had their own theater which residents often labeled “the show house” or “the picture show.” Residents of the western Illinois town of Carthage, for example, saw two show houses in its business district not long after the beginning of the 20th century, but only one of them survived for long. The Woodbine Theatre, named after the crawling vine that grew on the east side of the brick building, was not the first theater in the town of over three thousand people, but the showmanship of its owner caused the competition to go out of business.

The first Woodbine was converted into a theater in 1917 by Charles Arthur Garard. C.A., as he was called, had already operated a local dairy and a downtown ice cream parlor which offered five-cent ice cream sodas, confections, five-cent crushed fruit souffles, and a tobacco called Garard’s Royal Blue. He was a shrewd businessman, but he was also a fanciful dreamer who needed to be held in check by his pragmatic and even shrewder wife. Bertha, who often accompanied the silent movies shown in his theater with her piano, kept him from selling the theater and drifting off into other projects, such as the growing of grapefruits in Florida. When C.A. died, she took over as proprietor until her youngest son, Justus, became old enough to help her.

Justus recalled in June of 1981 how his father never really had a chance to enjoy any substantial returns from the theater for ten years after he converted it. “We would’ve been out of business if it hadn’t been for talking movies,” Justus said, the earliest of which “were very hard to understand.” The Woodbine was the first theater in the area to show talking pictures, which were sound-on-disc like 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 “only part-talkies. They would use some dialogue, then [the characters] would soar into song.” 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 would jump out of the groove,” and the projectionist would have to “pick it up and set it on the right groove by watching carefully and following the sound.” 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.

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