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

Over forty years ago, a movie theatre 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 theatres survived — and, in some cases, even thrived — for several decades. One may still occasionally find independent theatres 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 theatre 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 theatre 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 theatre 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 theatre 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 theatre with her piano, kept him from selling the theatre 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 theatre 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 theatre 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, “we weren’t playing any Fox pictures. Paramount came out with the records and Fox with 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 overcome that wavery noise. The music would go up and down.”

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.

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 put into what we called bank night and held over until the next week. We’d add 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’d fill the theatre,” he said, and this didn’t include “all the people who came down and gambled in 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 “beautiful front lobby with walk-up front steps” which “later became illegal because 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’ theatres lost customers no faster than many other local businesses, such as furniture dealerships and dry goods stores. Despite efforts of theatre exhibitors and other merchants to keep their integral roles alive in a shrinking community, transportation facilitated the migration of residents to urban areas where they established suburban communities complete with ubiquitous shopping centers and malls. New theatres cropped up inside these shopping areas, later becoming twins and multiplexes, but they generally failed to offer patrons any sense of participating in communal rituals. Watching films projected by automated equipment while seated among strangers in a shoebox-sized shopping mall theatre (in some urban areas) bore little resemblance to the experience of watching a movie with neighbors and relatives at the local “show house.”

Patrons in small communities did not have to wait sixteen weeks or to drive around the city for a new film because the small theatres ran several changes a week. Justus recalled that his own theatres would run “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 supported the theatre during the week nights in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the Warsaw Theatre dwindled down to Saturday and Sunday showings, sometimes with a different film each night. Students from the local four-year liberal arts college in Carthage kept Friday night attendance strong at the Woodbine, but high school football games severely limited Friday attendance in Warsaw.

Another factor that “made it so tough for the little towns,” according to Justus, was that the independent exhibitors “couldn’t get the product until it had played the bigger places,” such as Quincy, which is about forty miles south of Carthage, or Keokuk, which sits just across the Mississippi River on the southeastern tip of Iowa. Because he was an independent, he had to wait six weeks to play a film that was booked first in Quincy, Keokuk, or at other nearby circuit theatres. “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.”

Among later gimmicks employed to stir local community interest were Halloween midnight shows and four features run each New Year’s Eve, but the biggest seasonal event in Carthage was the annual series of merchant-sponsored Christmas films. Before each Christmas season, Justus purchased a Filmack trailer for the merchants, and a salesman from St. Louis sold the merchants a spot on the trailer for $37.50. The merchants were also given tickets or complimentary passes for the theatre that were good any time, but the Christmas films — usually chosen for the children of those parents who were encouraged to do Christmas shopping in town — were shown free to the community. The popcorn, of course, wasn’t free. I can remember stuffing sacks full of popcorn and handing them across the glass counter to pushy patrons who had to pay. . . not $3.00. . . but ten cents.

The midnight Halloween showings of horror double-features were the ones that I found to be particularly fun. Justus often ran double bills like 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 shaped white cardboard into a castle which covered the left exit. Above the exit, appropriately enough for Halloween, was a clock which advertised a local funeral home. (I often wondered why funeral home clocks were displayed in small movie theatres in those days. Were patrons being reminded that their lives were ticking away while the films were flickering on the screen?) I stretched a wire from the projection booth to the exit, located immediately to the left of the screen, and draped a white bed sheet over a clothes hanger. During a high point of one of the films, I stood in the exit doorway with my girl friend and jerked on the string attached to the hanger, intending to pull my ghost down to the exit over the heads of the audience. The ghost emerged from the small projection window on cue, but the hanger became hung-up on the wire and refused to travel as I had intended. I tugged on the string and it snapped, so the projectionist gave the hanger a push. When the houselights came on at the end of the feature, I saw my intended deus ex machina suspended in plain view in the center of the auditorium. Maybe this failure was why Justus limited all of my future promotion efforts to the lobby and outside the theatre; maybe he decided that I had been influenced too much by the gimmicks of such master showmen as William Castle (for such films as THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE TINGLER, MR. SARDONICUS, HOMICIDAL, and THIRTEEN GHOSTS). Of all of the Castle films that Justus played, I can only remember the colored glasses for the original THIRTEEN GHOSTS being particularly effective. [Further details about horror movie promotions can be found in the companion article BLACK-AND-WHITE HALLOWEEN HORROR HITS: I WAS A TEENAGE UNDEAD WITCH, which is available online.]

These are only a few examples of promotional machinations that were necessary to boost ticket sales for the second-run films shown by independent, small-town exhibitors. Many of the earlier gimmicks, such as bank night and merchant-sponsored Christmas shows, brought in a few extra dollars, but it is doubtful whether the later and more flamboyant gimmicks greatly affected ticket sales. BOXOFFICE magazine and press sheets for the individual films offered exploitation tips, many of which required the ordering expensive supplies, but the struggling independent had to primarily rely on his own imagination to create makeshift, inexpensive promotions.

Justus Garard* claimed to be one of the last independent exhibitors in the area to go out of business. The Woodbine Theatre in Carthage was sold to the neighboring auto dealer in 1969 and eventually converted into a showroom for new cars. The interior of his theatre, when my brother and I saw it shortly after it had been gutted for this purpose, resembled the interior of the small-town movie theatre in the superb and touching Italian film CINEMA PARADISO (1989). The Dallas and Warsaw theatres, although closed long ago, still resemble movie theatres; the latter, used as a storage area for antiques, still has its prow of a marquee that juts out over the sidewalk. Not much has changed in the river town of Warsaw, but on Saturday nights, without the bandstand with local citizens playing instruments while kids skip around it, and without the glittering marquee of the old movie theatre, Main Street seems much darker, and a lot lonelier. Perhaps only a few independent exhibitors, like those in small, midwestern towns like Carthage and Warsaw, resorted to the above-mentioned gimmicks, and perhaps the death knell for the mom and pop theatre operation had been sounded long before the staging of many of the later promotional efforts, but like the sailors on ships which many of these still-existing theatre fronts resemble, the tenacious independents refused to go down without a fight.

[Note: *Justus Garard’s statements were taken from an interview conducted by Sam Garard in June 1981 at a Daytona, Florida, cinema draft house owned by Sam at the time. I am indebted to both my father who passed away in May of 1988 and younger brother for the information which supports my own recollections. Some of these memories have been utilized as background for my novels WATERFIELD and CLOSED FOR THE SEASON.]

All rights reserved.