Monday, July 24, 2017

Reflecting on the golden age of the silver screen in Vienna

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By Captain Rex Settlemoir

For most of us who spent our formative years in Vienna and Johnson County during the 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s, we have fond memories of watching movies at the Grand Theatre on the North side of the square. We can vividly recall the giant silver screen, the pleasant aroma of fresh popcorn, and the color cartoon that preceded the main attraction. I have a particularly strong affinity to these memories because my family was closely associated with motion pictures in Vienna for three generations, over a period that included five decades.

Although most of us tend to remember the Grand Theatre as our very own “show building” (we always referred to the movies as “going to the show”), few are probably aware that the Grand was actually the second movie theatre in Vienna. During the early years of the 20th century, movie theatres began appearing in just about every city and town in the country, as Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention began to gain popularity. Indeed one could easily compare the impact of early movies to our fascination with the television in the 1950s, and various electronic media (including the internet) today.

Of course, Vienna was no exception and, in keeping with the times, the Cozy Theatre was opened some time before 1920. The Cozy was owned and operated by Ivy Marberry in a building located on the Northwest side of the square and played all of the latest silent movies of its day and time. The building still stands, and later became part of C. L. McCormick’s Dollar Store on that part of the square. Technology continued to march on, as it does to this day, and by 1927, the latest invention was the “talkie” as sound movies were first called. Unfortunately, Mr. Marberry lacked the capital to invest in a sound system for the Cozy, so he looked for a business partner and that is where the Settlemoir family begins its long association with movies in Vienna.

In 1919, my grandfather, William C. (Chester) Settlemoir became the railroad agent for the Big Four Route at the Vienna depot, transferring there from Mount Carmel. Chester Settlemoir remained as the agent and telegraph operator at Vienna for the Big Four and later the New York Central System, until he died in 1946. In that day and time, railroad employees were generally some of the better paid members of the work force, and Chester found that he had a healthy bank account at the same time that Ivy Marberry needed financial assistance with the Cozy Theatre. Consequently, in 1927, Chester Settlemoir bought a half interest in the theatre and paid for the purchase and installation of a sound system, so that Vienna could move beyond silent movies and into the realm of “talkies.”

My father, Harry Settlemoir (Chester’s son), was a teenager at the time and had the distinction of running the projectors for the very first sound movie that was shown in Vienna in 1927. “Sound on film” technology had not yet been perfected, so the first “talkies” were achieved by coordinating the sound from 78 RPM records along with the moving pictures that were showing on the screen. As expected, there were glitches from time to time and Harry related to me the various technical solutions that would be utilized if the picture and sound got out of sync. The audience loved it however, and business at the Cozy remained robust right on through the worst years of the Great Depression.

As the years went by, motion picture equipment continued to improve; consequently, Chester and Ivy installed a “sound on film” system in the theatre after the technology was perfected. Sometimes, we take for granted even the most basic innovations, and a good example was the simple machinery of the earliest motion picture machines. Anyone who has ever operated a movie projector knows that a reel of film is loaded at the top of the machine and an empty “take-up reel” is attached to the bottom of the machine, but it was not always so! According to stories related by my dad, before someone invented the concept of a take-up reel, the film simply ran out the bottom of the projector and into a paper bag, where it was later rewound onto the film reel to be used again.

In the 21st century, we are used to seeing large corporations take over smaller companies if there is a meaningful profit to be earned. While we might tend to regard this as a modern approach to business, it has been going on for many decades. Accordingly, Turner-Farrar Theatres located in Harrisburg, Illinois had its eye on considerable expansion as the motion picture business became ever more profitable. Vienna was one of many Southern Illinois communities that Turner-Farrar saw as a good market for its own growth plans. Therefore, in 1937, Vienna’s Cozy Theatre was sold by Chester Settlemoir and Ivy Marberry, and became (albeit briefly) part of Turner-Farrar Theatres.

Oscar Turner and Steve Farrar had bigger plans for movie customers in Vienna than could possibly be accommodated by the small (but cozy) Cozy Theatre. Since their theatre chain continued to thrive and grow in Southern Illinois, Turner-Farrar wanted a much larger and more modern facility in Vienna. Indeed, in those days before the multi-screen cinemas that now prevail, their circuit was to eventually include more than 20 individual theatres. Of particular note, Turner-Farrar had a very successful architectural design for a modern theatre that had been constructed in both Carrier Mills and Eldorado, so they decided to use essentially the same blueprints to construct the new facility in Vienna. As with Carrier Mills and Eldorado, Vienna’s new movie house would be called the Grand Theatre and would be a prominent feature in the city’s business district.

And so it was that the Grand Theatre in Vienna, Illinois was built, with construction starting in 1937 and opening on the North side of the square in 1938. Of some note, is that the ever thrifty Turner-Farrar equipped Vienna’s new theatre with used projectors when the new building was constructed. Although the original carbon-arc lamps were later replaced with newer (and brighter) lamps, the original Simplex picture heads and Western Electric optical sound system remained in use until the theatre closed in 1963.

Having no use for the wooden seats from the Cozy, since the new Grand was equipped with the latest cushioned seats, Turner-Farrar allowed the previous owners to keep the seats from the old facility. Fittingly, Chester Settlemoir donated these theatre seats to his church, the First Christian, located on North 6th Street in Vienna (which had suffered a devastating fire in December, 1935), where they remained in use for several more decades. A partial row of these wooden theatre seats, originally from the Cozy, somehow survived and has found its way onto display at the Forman Depot museum in Vienna.

Vienna’s new theatre was indeed Grand when it opened for business. Containing an astounding 596 seats, the Grand Theatre was a jewel on the Vienna square and would continue to serve the community for 26 more years. Charles Gilliam was the first manager of the new theatre and one of his ushers was Robert E. (Bob) Rentfro. Highly proficient in the technical aspects of projectors and other theatre equipment, Gilliam moved to Harrisburg in the late 1940s to serve as the head of maintenance and repair for the entire Turner-Farrar theatre chain. Later, when the Turner-Farrar association built WSIL-TV in Harrisburg, Charles Gilliam would become the station’s first chief engineer when it went on the air in December, 1953.

Having left Vienna to serve in the U. S. Army in the Pacific during World War II, Bob Rentfro then returned to his previous job at the Grand Theatre at war’s end. When Charles Gilliam left Vienna, Bob became the theatre manager. With a two year interlude for military service in the Korean War (more about that later), Rentfro would remain as manager of the Grand until he was elected as Johnson County’s sheriff in 1962.

The Settlemoir family once again became part of the Vienna movie theatre scene when Bob Rentfro was recalled for active Army service in 1950, during the Korean conflict. Upon Chester Settlemoir’s untimely death in 1946, Harry Settlemoir had become the railroad agent and telegrapher for the New York Central System at the Vienna depot. Having grown up around the Cozy theatre across the street, Harry was a logical replacement for Bob Rentfro for the duration of his Army service in the Korean War.

Harry remained as manager of the Grand until Rentfro returned from Army service in 1952, and these were busy times for movies in Vienna (it should also be noted that Harry continued to work at his “day” job on the railroad, in addition to his 7-day a week “night” job at the theatre). Television was yet to become commonplace, so movies were the primary form of entertainment for most Americans in the early 1950s. During this time period, it was common for the Grand to be a “full house”, especially on weekends. Tuesday was known as “Bank Night” and there was a drawing for cash prizes on that night. Following in his father’s footsteps, Harry’s son Phil Settlemoir (my brother), learned to operate the projectors at the theatre, and Harry employed a host of Vienna High School students to work in the box office, concession, and as ushers.

During the early 1940s, as it continued to grow and expand, Turner-Farrar’s movie chain was known officially as Egyptian Theatres, but the name was later changed simply to Turner-Farrar Theatres. One of the last new theatres that they constructed was the Wabash in Grayville, which opened in 1948. The Wabash was built to essentially the same size and configuration as the three Grand’s in Vienna, Carrier Mills, and Eldorado, but with a few noteworthy improvements such as air conditioning and a modernized box office and concession stand area. Satisfied with the improvements in the newer building design, the owners decided to extensively update the Vienna theatre. The 1951 remodeling of the Grand in Vienna included all new carpets, Formica paneling and brighter lighting in the lobby and foyer, new box office and concession areas, and the installation of a “cry room” utilizing a portion of the projection booth. Additionally, the main auditorium was painted, utilizing an orange and green color scheme to match the new bright orange color applied to the exterior marquee. Finally, the large picture window at the main entrance was removed and three sets of double doors formed the entryway.

As Bob Rentfro returned to the manager’s job at the Grand in 1952, rough times were in store for the movie industry in general and for small town theatres in particular. After building the Wabash Theatre in Grayville, Turner-Farrar had next opened the Star Lite Drive In near Eldorado, in 1952 and planned to build a similar drive in theatre at Vienna, to open in 1953. Property for the drive in was purchased on the south side of Illinois Route 146, just west of the Vienna city limits. However, it was not to be, since priorities were about to change dramatically for the theatre chain. Turner-Farrar obtained the license to construct WSIL-TV in 1953 and in December of that year, the new station went on the air as channel 22.

KFVS-TV (channel 12) in Cape Girardeau, Missouri went on the air in 1954, followed soon by WPSD-TV (channel 6) in Paducah, which started broadcasting in 1956 – the theatre business would never be the same! The public rapidly abandoned movie theatres for the relative comfort of small screen entertainment in the privacy of their own homes and the economic impact on theatre owners was catastrophic. Vienna was no exception as “Bank Night” and Tuesday night movies came to an end in the mid 1950s. Six day a week operation continued until 1958 when Wednesday and Thursday shows were discontinued. Not to be left behind in this fundamental change in American entertainment priorities, Harry Settlemoir opened Vienna TV Sales & Service in 1955.

Vienna’s Grand Theatre now operated only on Friday-Saturday-Sunday-Monday and admission prices were soon raised. For many years, tickets had cost 35 cents for adults and 12 cents for children; however, the new prices reflected a 50 cent admission for adults and a 15 cent admission charge for children. While those price increases seem small to us today, they were significant at the time. The concession was still a bargain, as Cokes sold for 5 cents and 10 cents; popcorn (supplied by Blevins Popcorn in Ridgeway, Illinois) was still 5 cents for a small bag and 10 cents for the large box. Coconut oil, dispensed from 6 gallon pails, was used as a seasoning for the popcorn. The unique smell of this delicious popcorn was heavy in the air around the entrance to the theatre! Candy bars were also available in the concession for 5 and 10 cents. Attendance continued to decline significantly and was relatively sparse during the final years of the Grand, with Saturday and Sunday matinees providing an entertainment outlet for Vienna children and Friday/Saturday night shows still popular on “date nights.” Of course, the theatre provided employment for a small number of young folks in Vienna, and I started running the projectors there in 1961, at the age of 12!

Some of us can vividly remember the large billboard style advertisements that were pasted to the side of the building on its West side and on the rear façade. These were known as “24 sheet” posters because, at one time, 24 individual sheets of paper were pieced together to form a large billboard ad. These billboard areas on the exterior of the Grand were lighted and were fitted with large wooden frames. The last time a 24 sheet poster was pasted up to advertise a movie at the Grand was for the showing of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor) in 1958. The billboard area on the rear of the building hosted 24 sheet posters for the Johnson County Fair throughout the 1950s. Along with declining attendance, maintenance began to suffer at the theatre, also. Paint was peeling on the exterior marquee and the once vivid and colorful neon lights were not repaired as they began to fail. The seats (original from the 1937 construction date) started to take on a shabby look and the lack of air conditioning in the building could be uncomfortable in the summer months.

As noted previously, Bob Rentfro was elected as Johnson County sheriff in November, 1962 and left the manager’s job at the Grand Theatre at that time. Harry Settlemoir (with my youthful assistance) again became the manager when Bob left for his new duty in the sheriff’s office. In February, 1963, Harry (who still worked for the New York Central Railroad) was transferred to Harrisburg, Illinois and it was time for serious decisions to be made about the future of Vienna’s only movie theatre. Meeting with O. L. Turner (of Turner-Farrar Theatres), we took a quick look at the financial condition of the Grand and the decision was all too obvious. For several years, the theatre had been barely covering its expenses and there was simply no justification to keep the theatre open, especially in view of needed repairs and upkeep. The last motion picture was shown (by projectionist Jerry Boaz) on February 9, 1963.

As a postscript to this tale, it should be noted that I continued to work for Turner-Farrar after the Settlemoir family moved to Harrisburg, Illinois early in 1963. Knowing my familiarity with theatre projectors, the owners quickly put me to work in that city’s Orpheum Theatre, which was part of their chain. However, later that year, fate was to take one final turn and some might say that I was lured to the “small-screen” after so many decades of my family’s association with motion picture theatres. Turner-Farrar, which as we noted earlier, also owned and operated WSIL-TV determined that my services were needed at channel 3 (WSIL had converted from channel 22 to channel 3 in 1959). Accordingly, as a 14 year old high school freshman, I “transferred” from the Orpheum Theatre in Harrisburg to the TV station located next door. Ironically, I worked side by side with WSIL chief engineer Charles Gilliam, who had been the first manager of the newly built Grand Theatre when it opened at Vienna in 1937. I remained at WSIL-TV until my graduation from Harrisburg High School and subsequent appointment to the United States Naval Academy in 1967.

One final note is appropriate. Unable to completely sever my family connection with movie theatres, I did manage to maintain contact with theatre operations. Working at WSIL-TV normally required my presence there on a Monday through Saturday basis, however, I utilized my own day off (on Sunday) to operate the projectors at the Star Lite Drive In near Eldorado, in order to give the regular projectionist a day off.

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