When we were young, we lived on a small farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. We don’t remember going to the movies then. The closest thing we had to the movies was having popcorn and “pop” on Sunday nights while we watched Bonanza on television.
When we were in middle school, we moved to Lake Mills, and we were excited to learn that our new hometown had a movie theater. Sometimes on Saturday night after church, we were allowed to go to a show. I remember slipping out of church right after communion to go see Gone with the Wind, which was replaying at that theater.
Unfortunately, the Lake Mills Theater closed a couple years later and we had to wait until Joann had her driver’s license so we could go to the theater in Watertown. We often reminisce about the fact that we could go to movies there for 50 cents. Our local paper always had a coupon and, if you took the coupon to the ticket window, you could get in to the movie for 50 cents. One coupon got everyone in your party in to the theater for 50 cents each. And sometimes that 50 cents got you a double feature!
Last September, on a trip to photograph barns in the Northeast section of Iowa, Joann and I passed through a small town that had an old theater called the Sunset Theatre. Later, while looking for information about the history of this theater, we found out that it is known as “The 99 Cent Theatre” and is still showing movies for 99 cents. That’s quite a bargain in this day and age and it reminds us of our 50-cent movie days.
One night Joann and I took my best friend with us to see a movie. It was one of the special double-feature nights and the movies were both very long. It was a long time ago, so we’re not quite sure which movies were playing, but we think we saw Lady Sings the Blues and The Godfather. The first movie didn’t start until 7:00 pm and there was an intermission between the two features. We didn’t get home until after 1:00 am, and the next morning, Mom and Dad told us that my friend’s mother had called them and woke them up after midnight because her daughter still hadn’t come home. Mom told her that we had probably stopped somewhere after the show and that she wasn’t worried about us.
The next morning, Mom was surprised when we told her how long each movie was and that we had no idea we would be in the theater that long. Fortunately, she believed us. Dad, however, thought there was no way we were in the theater that long and that we were out getting in trouble somewhere.
On another double feature night, we decided to go see Man of La Mancha. The movie playing before it was called Brother Sun, Sister Moon. We hadn’t heard of that movie, but we decided to go anyway. It was a surprisingly good movie.
Then came Man of La Mancha. It started badly, and we looked at each other, wondering when it was going to get better. We decided that it couldn’t stay as bad as it started, so we continued to watch, but we were rolling our eyes and whispering to each other about how bad it was. Finally our whispering turned to whether or not we should get up and walk out. Since we paid for our movies with our own hard-earned money, we hated to waste even part of that 50 cents, but we just couldn’t believe how bad the movie was. So finally, after the first 30 or 40 minutes of the movie, we did get up and walk out. I think it is the only movie I’ve ever walked out on.
Neither of us really goes to the movies anymore. The prices are too high and we have better things to do than sit in a theater for hours. We watch our movies on the small screen and are usually multi-tasking as the movie plays, but we do think fondly of the old theaters when we pass by them in our travels.
Driving down the main highway through a small town in Sauk County one day, we passed an old theater, and I read aloud the words on the marquee. As I finished, we both started laughing and Joann pulled into the right lane, taking the first available turn so we could circle around and get a photo.
According to an article we read later about that theater, the son of the people who owned it for many years recalled an incident with another funny (and rather embarrassing) marquee. In the early 1950’s, the theater ran a John Wayne movie entitled “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” That title was placed on the marquee, and below it were the words “And Also Selected Shorts.” A local clergyman saw the sign and complained about the implication of those words. The owners immediately changed the marquee prior to the opening of the movie the next day.
These days, when we’re out on the backroads and we have to go into a town for whatever reason, we often drive through the old downtown to check out the buildings. And sometimes we’re lucky and we stumble on an old theater. And when it has an old-fashioned ticket booth, that makes the find even better.
So when you’re out shunpiking and you stop for lunch in a small town, check out the downtown for interesting architecture and maybe an old theater!