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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Let's Go To The Movies

Movie Theatres came and went. This photo shows the Bradford Theatre sometime between the

time it closed in 1956 and when it burned in 1959. The adjacent building housed Stuart's Restaurant. (Photo: John Fatherly/Bradford Historical Society)

In this hall on the second floor of the Fairlee (VT) Town Hall, movies were being shown from 1914 to the mid-1950's. On June 22, 1950, during the second showing on the second night of the newly-opened theatre, a fire broke out in the projection booth. Only the quick action of the projectionist and the Fairlee firemen saved the building.

Richard Henderson moved his movie theatre to the Henderson Block on Central Street in Woodsville, NH in 1914. He showed some of the first "talkies" at this 529-seat theatre in the late 1920's. In 1931, it was purchased by the Tegu family and operated as Tegu's Orpheum.

(Photo:Gary Chamberlin)

The Opera House on Central Street in Woodsville, NH was built in 1890 and films began to be show there from 1901 to the mid-40s. Its ads described it as "The Theatre With the Perfect Sound."

In 1921, George Jenkins bought the Village Hall and renamed it the Colonial Theatre. It operated until 1948. During the Great Depression and World War II it provided movie-goers with an inexpensive diversion from the issues of the day. (Photo: Bradford Historical Society)

The Bradford Theatre, located at the north end of the Bradford village business district opened on July 16, 1949 in a 500-seat Quonset type building. It closed in early 1956 and the shuttered building was completely destroyed by fire on January 18, 1959. (Photo: Bradford Historical Society)

Journal-Opinion, November 17, 2010

For over a century, we have loved going to the movies. The Smithsonian Institute attributes that love affair with motion picltures to their, “power to both mirror and manipulate, to blur fact and fiction, to romanticize, to vilify, [and] to enlighten.” This column describes the history of area movie theatres. The content is drawn from town histories, The United Opinion and interviews with theatre owners, employees and patrons.

Three inventions in the late 19th century made motion pictures possible. The combination of the motion picture camera, transparent roll film and the projector made the screen come alive with activity. Short, black and white films at first supplemented and then replaced vaudeville and song slide presentations. They were silent, but exaggerated gestures, subtitles and a musical score played by local musicians conveyed the plot. “Talkies” were introduced in the late 1920’s with early colored films produced in the next decade.

One of the earliest attempts at putting sound on film was Lee DeForest’s Phonofilm. One of his first films featured Charles Ross Taggart in The Old Country Fiddler at the Singing School, produced in 1923. Taggart grew up in Topsham and lived in Bradford and Newbury. According to Adam Boyce, who portrays Taggart in local appearances, Taggart’s performance as a fiddler and humorist was widely popular on the lyceum and Chautauqua circuits.

According to Katharine Blaisdell’s history of Haverhill, the first movies in Woodsville were shown by a man from St. Johnsbury. They were shown in Davidson Hall on Central Street in the early 1900's. From 1910 to 1914, Richard Henderson operated the Palace Theatre in the building that is now the bowling alley. He then moved to his newly-constructed Henderson Block which housed a 529-seat theatre along with a hotel and other businesses. According to The United Opinion, The Henderson Theatre was the first in the area to show “talkies” with a grand re-opening on May 15, 1929.

In 1931, the theatre was bought by the Tegu family and reopened as Tegu’s Orpheum. Over the next few years they renovated the theatre. Blaisdell quotes theatre worker Frank Millette who recalled a packed house for both shows on Saturday night. “Sunday movies were frowned on at first, but eventually the public relaxed their scruples.” In 1950 WMTW-TV began broadcasting, a death knell to the theatre.

Gerry Sulham of Wells River recalls that in the 1950’s there were still no movie theatres in that village because they could just go across the bridge to Woodsville. She said that she would go with a “gang” of girls and often sat in front of a similar group of boys “who would throw popcorn at us.” After the show they went to the Happy Hour for a hot dog, fries and a coke. She remembers the special film presentation of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding and coronation. Others recall going to the theatre at Christmas for a free movie and a small gift. Garnett Hebb of Newbury said that going to the movies was a favorite option for an evening’s outing.

The Orpheum was in competition with the Opera House just down the street. It also had 600 seats and like other area theatres, alternated live performances with motion pictures. It advertised itself as “the Theatre With the Perfect Sound” with an “Electrical Ventilating System Just Installed for Your Comfort.” This theatre continued until about 1940 and the Orpheum held on until 1955. Nearby, weekly movies were shown in Pike Hall during the Twenties. The village was abuzz in 1922 at the showing of the sensuous film The Sheik , starring heart-throb Rudolph Valentino.

Smaller towns in the area that lacked a formal theatre were served by projectionist who traveled through the area. In the Lyme book, We Had Each Other, Ken Uline recalls that a man who operated a Fairlee movie theatre would bring his films to Lyme and other towns like Orford and Warren where there was a hall.

In Fairlee, movies began to be shown in the upstairs hall of the new town hall in 1914. In 1925, the management was taken over by Charles Thurber and John Munn. The Fairlee history mentions: “Many have fond memories throughout the ensuing years of the hard seats, the dashing heroes with their beautiful heroines, the piano played by Miss Wynona Bogle to set the proper mood, and the lovely hand-painted scene of Lake Morey on the screen.”

The Fairlee Theatre was purchased by Harold Smalley in July 1931 and was renamed The Star Theatre, a title that had been used sometime earlier. It advertised movies like Arizona with John Wayne, described as: “Thrills of the Gridiron and Army Post in a Throbbing Heart-Interest Story.” The theatre featured a Western Electric Sound System and had two shows nightly, except for Sunday. In her memoirs, Hazel Donnelly of Orford recalled walking over the bridge to the movies in Fairlee. The theatre continued to operate through World War Two, but closed sometime thereafter.

Probably the most exciting night at the movies in Fairlee was June 22, 1950.
The theatre had been re-opened by Harry Hudson of Randolph. He had purchased new projection and sound equipment and, according to a note in The United Opinion, promised “movie entertainment on a par with that seen in any large town or city.” The opening feature was Sierra with Audie Murphy. However, during the second night of the new theatre, a fire broke out in the projection booth. Paul Sargent of Fairlee, who was 13 years old at the time, recalls that he and his friend Freddie Hayward were ushers that night. The two young ushers flung open the doors, but panic broke out as patrons rushed from the second floor hall. The fast response of projectionist Ray Foote and the Fairlee firemen saved the hall from extensive damage. The hall was repaired and films were shown from time to time through the mid-50's.

As with other towns, motion pictures in Bradford were preceded by live performances and illustrated songs. The latter involved slides with a singer and accompanist. The first motion pictures, according to Bradford historian Harold Haskins, were shown around 1908 at the Village Hall, now the Old Church Theatre. In 1914, Doe Brothers store in Bradford gave away free tickets to the movies with a three dollar purchase. The showing of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 included a 10-piece orchestra and a chorus, “while several beautiful girls acted as ushers to furnish local color.” All seats for the three evening performances were sold out in advance. In each town a teenager was secured to make the appropriate noise to replicate the sound of the gunshot that killed President Lincoln.  (Pat Hill of Woodsville was the selected youth there.)

On October 13, 1921 George Jenkins bought the Village Hall, and renamed it the Colonial Theatre. It was showing films at least three nights each week in 1929. It was at that time that a rumor was circulated that Charles Barton might create a movie theatre on the second floor of his newly-purchased building on Main Street. In a newspaper article in which Barton denied the rumor, the editor wrote, “Bradford is too small to support two movie theatres” and credited the Colonial with “giving our movie lovers very attractive programs.“

Mable Humphrey of Bradford often provided accompaniment for the silent films. Her daughter, Katherine Thibault said that her mother was so accomplished that she didn’t need the score and, using either the piano or violin, set the right mood for the action on the screen.

Joining Mable was Lucia Davis, also of Bradford. In a 2011 interview, Mrs. Davis recalled that Mable often played the violin while she played the panio. Davis also played the violin. She said that local musicians from the audience sometimes join in. She said that when scores were not provided with the film, the musicians would "make up the music."

That came to an end with the introduction of “talkies” in the late 1920’s. In May 1931, the Colonial Theatre re-opened with a newly installed sound system. “Fighting Caravans” with Gary Cooper was the main feature, preceded by a brief band concert and followed by “selected short features.” Admission was 35 cents for adults and 20 cents for children under 12.

The Colonial Theatre continued to show movies almost year-round through the Great Depression and World War II. For the relatively small price of admission, viewers could escape the realities of everyday life through screwball comedies or trips of fantasy or adventures. During the war, films took on the added tasks of raising morale and patriotism and informing the public about the reasons for the conflict. Two features shown in both Bradford and Fairlee in the Spring of 1943 reflect these tasks. In Hitler’s Children, viewers were shown the brutality of living in a fascist dictatorship. The second was Stand By For Action with Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton, “a smashing saga of the sea, teeming with battle thrills of timely significance and brings before the wartime public a graphic portrayal of heroism and tradition.”

In 1949, the old Colonial Theatre, which had been closed for over a year, was replaced. The Bradford Theatre, owned by Dr. Leonard Abbadessa, opened its doors on July 16, 1949 in a 500-seat Quonset-type building. Located just north of the present business district, itt was described as follows: “The lobby, opening onto Main street, has the box office on one side and doors leading to a foyer, where there is a pop corn machine and candy counter. Retiring rooms are adjacent.” The theatre itself featured seats with red plush backs and leatherette seats on a concave floor “as to give every seat a clear view of the screen from the proper angle.”

Robert Nutting of Bradford worked at the theatre in the mid-1950‘s when it was part of the Tegu chain of theatres and managed by Charles Bigelow. He said that the biggest draw was for westerns featuring actors such as Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. I personally remember going to that theatre, sliding down behind the seat in front while watching Headhunters of the Amazon, singing along with the bouncing ball, mesmerized by heroic adventure or being enticed to come back by the previews of coming attractions.

Nutting recalls that by early 1956 attendance had dwindled. He said that on the night when the two evening show had a total attendance of ten, owner Pete Tegu announced, “We’re out of here tonight.” The building remained shuttered until it was destroyed by fire on January 18, 1959.

Better television reception and the opening of three drive-in theatres hastened the decline of area movie houses. The Tegu’s Drive-in opened in May, 1953 in Woodsville. It had a capacity of 450 cars. In 1954, according to Blaisdell, the Tegus “donated one night’s entire receipts from both the Orpheum and the drive-in to the Cottage Hospital Building fund.” About 1998, owners Lee and Janet Tegu added a second screen and continued to draw large crowds for first run films at what then was called the Meadows Drive-In. After 2004, it closed and was demolished.

The Starlite Drive-In opened in lower Orford in the early 50’s. It was operated by Leighton and Shirley Godfrey of Fairlee. Mrs. Godfrey recently said that while she had sold tickets as a young woman at the Bradford theatre, the drive-in was really “Leighton’s project.” Using skills learned in Chicago, he managed the theatre and served as its projectionist. It continued to operate until the late 60’s and has also been demolished.

The Holiday Park Drive-in was opened in Fairlee in 1950 by Reginald and Terri Drowns of Barre. Shows started at dusk and admission was $1 per car. I recall opening night because our car was the first one turned away from the free admission grand opening with its capacity crowd.  Around 1960, a motel was added, allowing guests to watch the films from their rooms. Robert Nutting worked at the theatre for 25 years in several capacities. He says that Drowns had his own censorship practices and would physically cut objectionable scenes or swear words, splicing the film afterward. Drowns also maintained a “heads above the steering wheel” rule and was known to interrupt young lovers who violated it. The theatre is still in operation under different management.

Today, viewers have the choice of multi-channel cable television, access to films on the internet or by mail and movie palaces featuring plush seating, surround sound, 3D screens, high definition projection and multiple choices. But these modern choices may still not dull the fond memories of the theatres mentioned above. Going to the movies as a youngster was a special treat. Taking your date made the darkened movie theatre a special place. The films opened your world in a special way. And those memories are treasures very special.

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