Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Appeal of Small-town Movie Theaters

Community and Nostalgia--with Pigs, Ghosts, and the Wolverine Himself

Joy the pig is a local celebrity--performing tricks and entertaining patrons as the mascot of Newton's Capitol II Theatre. The owner says locals realize that theaters are important community gathering places. I guess a talented pig adds to the ambience.

The Talent Factory in Nevada, Iowa, occasionally shows classic films, but it is earning a local following because of musical performers and variety shows. Formerly known as the Camelot Theater--and before that the Circle Theater--it is the place where, as the owner says, many in the area saw their first movie, had their first date, and brought their own children. Oh yes, one more thing. A recent article covered the possibility that ghosts haunt the place.

Metropolitan Theater in Iowa Falls recently drew a crowd that included famed actor Hugh Jackman--who attended because his agent and agent’s father renovated the classic small-town venue. Jackman was gracious, the locals were excited, and the theater was saved.

More Than Just Sticky Floors and Unearthed Corpses

I have complicated childhood memories of small-town movie houses. My brother and I nearly died of fright when an Edgar Alan Poe feature involved too many corpses, and I came close to strangling an irritating seven-year-old at the theater just six dusty miles down the road from our central Iowa farm.  

My first movie outing was at Hubbard, a classic farm town of the late 1950s. The small, cream-colored screen took up most of the south wall in the musty room, but it was a big step up from the flickering black and white TV in our living room. The film was more of a nature special--Fantasia and National Velvet would have been too much for us at that stage. My younger brothers sat to my left, and a "townie" wiggled in the worn seat on my right. I'd never met the boy, but he acted as if he was Bill Nye the Science Guy and I was a bumpkin. Every time an animal came on screen, he'd start lecturing me. "That's a squirrel. It stores nuts for the winter." I wasn't clever enough to wait for the appropriate time to say, "That's a badger. It viciously attacks anyone in the theater who irritates it." Luckily a bigger kid behind us flicked us both on the back of our heads and told us to shut up.

A year or two later my folks went shopping in the county seat, a town of 5,000 or so. They dropped my brother and me off at the Circle Theater and took the younger siblings shopping. Tom and I grabbed some Dots and popcorn before making our way down a Cherry Coke-tinged aisle. Our shoes stuck with each step, and we nervously looked side-to-side at the big folks sitting in the shadows. The place was gothic before the term was cool--a dark upstairs section behind us, fake "opera windows" on each side of the stage, and wine-red velvet curtains covering the screen.

During the opening scene of Poe's Premature Burial, a gaunt-looking grave digger unearthed a casket containing a decomposing corpse that had obviously been buried alive—it had a horrified expression and dried blood on fingers that had clawed the lid. Tom and I moved to the back row near the exit. As Ray Milland spent the rest of the film unsuccessfully trying to avoid a similar burial fate, we kept slipping out into the lobby during the scariest segments.

Kids nowadays are too savvy to wet themselves in a dark theater watching a horror film with bad special effects. They get scarier stuff on their iPhone Instagram feeds. But small-town theaters still have more than nostalgia to offer; they help keep a town together. Main streets have less tendency to dry up if the locals gather to watch movies. The theater is a town icon that helps give it a pulse during an era when many rural areas are withering away.

We didn't have a magician, celebrity, or even performing pig at the country theaters I went to as a kid. But we did ride along with Ben Hur on his deadly chariot race; we bounced around on flubber shoes with Fred McMurray; and we went crazy with Jonathon Winters and the cast of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Social media now has much more to offer--but back then we did look up, laugh, squirm, and throw popcorn with an interactive group. Oh yes, I also learned that squirrels bury nuts for the winter.

by dan gogerty (top pic from, bottom from


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