HENRYETTA MOVIE THEATERS – CHAPTER II

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Earl Goldsmith

Earlier,  I wrote brief details naming early Henryetta theaters  wrote in 1999, and added descriptions of the Blaine and Morgan of the 30s and 40s.  This will be about  experiences as an usher at those two theaters after Dick Klein  hired me as the single usher at the Morgan (the Blaine had two) in September 1944 as I started my HHS freshman year.

 It’s fair today to ask why ushers were needed.  Movies ran continuously in small towns then.  When the feature ended, they immediately ran previews of the next three coming attractions, a newsreel, a cartoon, and sometimes a one reel short subject about an educational or humorous subject.  (The best known were “Pete Smith Specials” [always humorous], “The March of Time” [historical], Lowell Thomas Travelogues, and John Nesbitt’s “Passing Parade,” about things leading to significant discoveries or inventions.  All were quite interesting.)  Then the feature started again.  There was no intermission.  People entered at all times, began watching whatever was showing, even during the feature, and left when they began seeing things the second time.   The auditorium was always dark and at least partly full when people entered.  Since they couldn’t see in the dark, ushers kept track of empty seats and, with a flashlight shining on the aisle floor, led them to them.   For this, we were paid 45 cents an hour in 1944 – and had to get Social Security cards.  For the curious, the Social Security tax then was 1% of the first $3,000 of annual earnings.  For me, it was just 4 or 5 cents a week, and I sure didn’t reach everyone’s yearly maximum of $30.

 The movie playing when I started ushering was “Corvette K-225” about German submarines sinking ships of convoys crossing the Atlantic early in the war. when the U. S. was sending material to England under the famous “Lend Lease” program, before we were officially in the war.  As an usher, I caught glimpses of the movies so much that I usually saw most of each one it before it left, so I remember many war movies.  A few years ago, while surfing TV channels, I paused on what appeared to be a WWII movie.  Within seconds, I told myself it was “Corvette K-225”.  A few minutes later, I saw K-225 on the side of the ship.  It still ended with K-225  dropping depth charges to damage the submarine so much it surfaced, and we could then see it sink. 

I’d started delivering the Free-Lance in 1941 during the sixth grade, and still delivered papers after school.  Then I ran home, ate, changed clothes and beat it to the Morgan by 6:45.  I ushered until 9:45 and didn’t have much spare time.  The first six weeks, I made a D in algebra.  My father wasn’t impressed, and said I couldn’t continue that work schedule.  I told Mr. Klein I could only work Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and Saturday and Sunday matinees.  He said that was all he really needed ushers, kept me, changed all the ushers to that schedule, and we all started alternating between the Blaine and Morgan.  My math grades improved.

 Saturday afternoon cowboy movies were interesting.  The little kids didn’t need ushers – just  someone to keep them in their seats and sufficiently quiet for others to hear.  Since they thought anyone older had authority, it didn’t take much to do that.  Something else about those movies amazed me.   Every Saturday, area Indians (“Native Americans”) brought their children and sat through the movie and serial  several times.  The movies and serials with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Wild Bill Elliot, Lash LaRue,  Durango Kid, Johnny Mack Brown, etc., in those days were heavily biased against Indians, referred to them in derogatory terms, and after the whites lost early surprise battles, the Indians always lost the one that counted – to excited cheering by the white kids.  I never understood if the Indians thought they might win one, or just what was going through their minds, but they always stayed through several showings.  Maybe they liked scenes of their old ways, which weren’t nearly as far in the past then.  And since the movies were primarily for children with short attention spans, the features were a few minutes under an hour in length, so it didn’t take as long to see them several times as it would today.

Mr. Klein didn’t like for ushers to watch the movie through a curtain beside the door while people were  waiting to be seated, but he never completely broke us.  He was also bothered that popcorn spilled in the lobby and we were to sweep up to keep the floor relatively clean, usually took a reminder from him for  us make contact with a broom.  We ushers gave him more trouble than ticket takers, popcorn girls, or ticket booth girls.  He could be stern, but he was more reasonable with us than we deserved.  (Projectionists were adults.  One was a man known by nearly every boy who grew up in Henryetta over a long period – Barney Jameson, Henryetta’s great Cub Scout leader at the time.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday, January 26, 27 and 28, 1945, cowboy star Jimmy Wakely was in town on tour with a sidekick and a starlet.  Mr. Klein had promised me I didn’t have to work any Friday when there was a home football or basketball game, and the Hens were playing Ada for what would probably mean the conference basketball championship that Friday.  I had to work.  People fawned over Wakely and the others, but I didn’t.  They offered to give me free personally autographed pictures, but I was so hacked off I wouldn’t take them.  The Hens beat Ada and won the conference.   (I know the dates Wakely was there from a scrapbook that has dates and scores of Hen sporting events of those days.)

 Two popcorn girls were Jerry Nell (Hart) Erwin and Berna Dean (Brookey) Agee – both  now live in Jenks.  Jerry Nell still remembers that Jimmy Wakely stuck his hand into the popcorn machine to get a handful of popcorn and she hit it with her popcorn scoop because Mr. Klien had told to her not let anyone stick their hand into the popcorn.

Ushering was often boring, and when things were slow, so we tended to hang around the popcorn girls- and gobble handfuls of popcorn they gave us from their scoops.  Mr. Klein wasn’t amused.  A welcome change of pace duty was to get more corn oil, popcorn, boxes or bags for the popcorn girl from a room behind the projectionist.   I don’t recall the names of the older girls in the ticket booths.   One  usher duty was to occasionally check the balcony to see if young couples up there were behaving – I never saw any that weren’t.  

Mr. Klein’s young employees with the highest responsibilities were the ticket takers, the top persons under him except the projectionists.  When I started, Frankie Daniel was the primary ticket taker, and his older half-brother, Junior Kelly, had been before him.  Then it was Bill (Buddy) Sturdevant of my class.  Their most difficult duty was that three times a week after the ticket booths closed on the last night of each feature run, they had to change the marquee lettering at both theaters.  It was done late at night with tall stepladders, sometimes in very cold or rainy, or both, weather.   Another of their duties on those same nights was dealing with the Griffith Amusement truck delivering films for the next feature run and picking up those from the run that had ended before the current one, which was still being shown.  

Tickets had an alphabetic code known just by Mr. Klein and the ticket booth girls.  When converted to numbers, they could compute how many tickets had been sold and how much money the girl had taken in.   I wanted to figure it out, so when I briefly relieved the ticket taker at times, I kept a few stubs to see when one of the letters changed, thinking I’d eventually figure out their order.   I got part of it figured out and told that part to a future brother-in-law who’d come back from WWII – and ghe told me the rest of it!  I was so surprised I didn’t where or how he learned it – he had never worked at a movie.  It’s been many years now, so I can divulge it.  From 0 through 9, it was WESHOALPIX (we show all pictures).  I’ll spare explaining how they made sure the popcorn girls turned in all they collected.

As an usher, I was admitted free when I wasn’t working, and often dropped in to see some or all of whatever was showing. 

Tickets cost 5 cents for under 12s when I was under 12, but later 10 cents.  Over 12 was 25 cents, later 30 cents, at the Morgan, and 35 cents, later 40 cents, at the Blaine.  Bags and boxes of popcorn were 5 cents and 10 cents.  They sold candy and gum at the Blaine – to the extent available in wartime.  They didn’t sell  drinks, but there were water fountains on both the main and balcony levels.  With prices like they were, even after I quite ushering, a boy could take a girl to the Blaine, both have bags of popcorn, and  take her to the Jones & Whitie or S & M drive-in (a new post-war thing) where both could have a cheese sandwich and a coke, all for under $1.50.  I was off to college before Henryetta had a drive-in. movie.

I can just recall a few who were ushers with me.   Sadly, one was Buddy Whiteman who was later killed in Korea – he’s named on Henretta’s Doughboy plaque.  John Seymour was ushering with me when I quit in 1947.  A former editor of a monthly Hen Newsletter, Wayne Keith (now deceased), was probably my replacement. 

I don’t know when I was last in either movie.  For the Morgan, was probably while still in high school.  For the Blaine, I suspect it was in the 50s.  I don’t know when the Morgan closed, but it was long ago.  I think it was a skating rink for some time after that, but don’t know any of its other uses.  In the 70s, the Blaine changed to the “Cine”.  I was never in the Cine, but a daughter once went there with a cousin when both were in Henryetta from out of town in the 80s and were bored with the adults.   I do recall though, that for some time, a man stood on that corner and made strange jerking reactions at every passing car.

After years of being closed, the old Blaine building was demolished in 2008, and a Henryetta landmark passed.  In this movie rental and TV age, Henryetta no longer has a movie theater.