A look at
Minonk's past
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Movies in Minonk

By Dave Uphoff and Martha Cunningham

Page 1 through 4 of this article was taken in part from an article written by Martha Cunningham for the Minonk News-Dispatch in 1980.
Since the early 1900's there was always a place to go see a movie in Minonk. "Minonk's first movie theater was the Rose Theater which occupied the space on the second floor of the tavern located in the alley at Fifth Street between Chestnut and Walnut. It was a small, makeshift affair, but it was a movie house. Ray Mars, Sr. was the manager. Around the same time there was the Bijo Theater which was located in the 600 block of Chestnut Street. In 1915, Harma Hinrichs opened the Royal Theater which was located directly south of the old City Hall building on West Fifth Street. The August 12, 1915, Minonk News-Dispatch carries an ad that tells us that there will be no show "tonight or tomorrow at the Rose Theater on account of moving into the new Royal Theater which will open on Saturday night." An article in the same paper tells us that this wondrous new building boasted a front built by Decorator's Supple Co. of Chicago and contained a complete set of new scenery, a Mirrorside curtain, two of the lastest Motiograph picture machines and seating for 250 people."
    Interior of the Bijo Theater Bijo Theater

"Herman "Buzz" Claymon of Minonk recalls the early days of the Royal when he was alternately the usher, the ticket-taker and the janitor. He shoveled coal into the furnace for the steam radiators, and switched off with "Doc" Morse (who bought out Hinrichs) as ticket taker when the crowds were heavy. The first films were silent and when sound finally came to movies in 1927, the Royal had a miserable first night. Claymon remembers going into the projection room to find Morse, Walter Taylor and Bob Witte in a mess of sound equipment that they couldn't get to work. Meantime, the crowd outside the door was getting larger. Claymon was sent out to tell the opening night crowd that they'd have to come back the next night because the equipment wasn't working right. The people weren't too happy, but most of them did come back the second night."

Page 3

"Early sound was a nightmare compared to modern movies according to Claymon. The first sound pictures didn't have the sound on the film as they do now. Instead, each reel of film was accompanied by two large records which were to be played with it. That was OK in theory, but a lot of times the screen would show a wild chase scene with Indians but the record would have some lady singing a fancy song from an opera."

"In the Thirties, Morse sold out to Baily Entrerprises of Princeton and moved to Indiana. Baily was looking for a new spot to build and while he was negotiating for a piece of land on Fifth Street, W. G. Sutton, who owned the the mine and a block of buildings on Chestnut Street, offered to build a theater to Baily's specifications and then rent it to Baily. Eventually, that theater was built and Baily moved to the new building in the 400 block of Oak Street."

The building housing the old Royal Theater on Fifth Street was never used as a theater again. Few people remember that WLS in Chicago once advertised a Fibber McGee and Molly show that appeared there. Fewer yet remember the Mississippi Red Devils Band or the vaudeville acts that also performed on its stage.

Page 4

Royal Theater

Standing in front of the Royal Theater in this early photo are from left to right; Eariel Rowe, Hopkin Hill, Cloyd Phillips, Ed Morgan, and Henry Defries.

"The building housing the Royal Theater remained empty until 1949 when it was purchased by M. J. Blan who remodeled the building to house his insurance agency. Mr. and Mrs. John Taylor had their electric shop in the building too, and lived in one of the apartments Blan had built at the rear. Eventually, Blan sold his insurance agency to William Havener in the mid 1950's. In 1980 the building was torn down to make room for construction of the new Minonk State Bank building".

Page 5

The Minonk Theater was started in the Sutton building in the 400 block of Oak Street in 1938. The building narrowly escaped being burned down when the entire block to the north of the theater burned down in 1940. Baily Enterprises owned the theater until 1950 when they sold it to the Sutton Brothers who ran it until 1967 when it was temporarily closed due to lack of business. The increased popularity of television and the increased mobility of people caused most small town theaters to close.

Wayne Witte, son of Bob Witte, eventually bought the theater building in 1970 and continued to operate it until the 1980's. The theater burned down in the early 1990's when sparks from a welding tool used to cut down the marquee started a fire in the roof.

The Minonk Theater had an impressive art deco interior that was popular during the 1930's. It was considered to be one of the finest in the state at that time. The front lobby had a white terrazo floor and the main lobby had a deep wine colored rug with a floral design. The outer and inner lobby were separated by white swinging doors. There were big round mirrors on the walls of the lobby and the ladies restroom had a small entrance room with a couch where ladies could rest or where mothers could take noisy babies.

Page 6

Minonk Theatre

The Minonk Theatre on Oak Street

The interior of the movie house had 3 large art deco lights on each side wall. The lights were about 8 feet high and could be dimmed when the movie was ready to start. There was an usher with a flashlight to show you to your velvet covered maroon seat. Lawrence Gerdes was one of the first ushers in the theater. Later on the Oyen boys, Dale and David would be ushers. The ushers wore maroon jackets.

Page 7

Art Kettlehut, an usher at the theater during the 1950's, had these memories of the theater. " I was an usher there, also cleaned up after the show, sweeping the aisles and dumping trash. I remember how great the popcorn tasted, and the candy bars they sold at the refreshment counter. I was always eager to see what movie was going to be showing next. They would deliver them and put them at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the projection booth..I'd look at the label to see what came in."

The first two seats to the left of the south entrance of the theater were reserved for W. G. Sutton who owned the building. The seats were extra wide and more plush than the rest of the seats. After Sutton passed away, heavier people would vie for that seat. One heavy person in particular would always be first in line in order to get the big, plush seat formerly occupied by Mr. Sutton.

Albin Johnson had these memories of the theater. "Resisting any discussions of romantic escapades, I can recount one observation. During WW11, cigarettes were sort of rationed, or rather hard to get. Inside the theatre doors were sand filled recepticles for putting your cigarettes out. when the show started, the very long and only slightly used butts now became prime targets for young neophyte smokers."

Page 8

Joe Vallow filled in as a part-time projectionist. His son Joe Vallow Jr. gives an account of what it was like being a projectionist. "

"We would arrive at the theater early, and stop by and see Mrs Witte, who ran the popcorn machine. We would get a big cardboard box of hot popcorn and then climb up the narrow stairs into the projection booth. Dad would load the first two of the big reels of film into the two projectors. The projectors light source were high voltage DC carbon arc lamps. In the 50's that involved a lot of glowing vacuum tubes and big reostats to control the voltage. The power supply and controls looked like somethng out of a science fiction movie. He would tinker with them until they were glowing correctly and ready to go. At that point, he would turn off the stack of old 45 rpm records on the PA system and start the first projector to running."

"Things were calm while the first reel ran. Once it was getting towards the end of that first reel, you had to get ready to start the second reel. You can still watch closely today in the movies and you will see a flash up in the upper right corner of the projected image when it is time to start the second reel on its projector."

Page 9

"Once the second reel got to running, you rewound the first reel and stored it in its shipping case, and loaded the third reel on the first projector. Most movies at that time took four reels, as I recall. Things went along pretty routine then, unless the film broke or one of the projector lamps quit working. Things got pretty exciting until he would get things fixed and running again. By the 50's, the projectors were getting sort of old and tired."

Bob Witte was the movie projectionist for a very long time before he eventually became manager after Buzz Claymon retired. Herman "Buzz" Claymon was the original manager of the theater. Buzz was a very personable guy and would greet patrons with a booming loud voice. Everything Buzz did was done in a hurry. He was not one to sit idle. He would always be doing something or talking to someone.

Bob Schmitz was manager for awhile in the early 1950's. His son Bob Jr. changed the marquee and was a ticket taker on Sundays. Elsie Eden ran the popcorn machine during that time period.

The 1940's was the golden era of movies for Minonk movie goers. With a first class theater and first run movies, people did not have to go out of town to catch a movie.

Page 10

People from miles around would come to Minonk to see a movie. Movie bills were passed out in the lobby announcing the coming attractions. The movie bill would have a person's name printed on the front cover. If that person appeared at the theater, he or she would get a prize.

Movie bills advertising coming features

Page 11

During the normally slow week nights, prizes would be given away to lure customers. Tuesday nights were always dish night when someone would win a set of dishes. Movie stubs were thrown into a box and drawn to determine the winner.

Friday nights was Hollywood night when each patron would receive a card with the names of three Hollywood stars. Between the double feature, Buzz Claymon would roll a big spinning wheel out onto the stage and spin the dial which would stop on a letter. If the letter was in a name on your card, you checked it off. The first person who could spell an actors name on his card would yell "Hollywood" and receive a prize.

Double features were often shown on Friday and Saturday nights. The double feature usually would consist of a short movie with the Bowery Boys or Abbot and Costello followed by a cowboy movie. First run movies were shown on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Matinees were shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Show times were usually 7:00 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. and matinees usually started at 2:00 p.m. After the matinees, theater goers would walk out into the bright sunlight squinting until their eyes could adjust from the dark surroundings of the theater.

Page 12

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers

Saturday afternoon matinees were usually reserved for cowboy movies. There were many cowboy stars back in the 1940's. The most popular were Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were supported by their side kick Gabby Hayes and later Smiley Burnette. Normally, Roy rode his horse "Trigger" but sometimes he would drive a Jeep named Nellybelle with his German Shepherd dog Bullet which didn't make much sense in a cowboy movie. Roy was a good looking guy and most kids seem to favor him over Gene Autry who had a pot belly and wanted to sing too much. Gene Autry had Andy Devine and Pat Butram as his sidekicks. His horse's name was "Champion." It was amusing to see how Rogers and Autry as singing cowboys could break out into song at a moment's notice. Roy Rogers would usually be accompanied by The Jordanaires while Autry would usually sing solo. There were many other stars such as The Cisco Kid("Hey Pancho, Hey Cisco"), Hopalong Cassidy, The Durango Kid, Tim Holt, Randolph Scott, The Lone Ranger, Johnny Mack Brown, Rex Allen and Lash Larue, but Rogers and Autry ruled the roost.

Page 13

The main feature movie was always preceded by a cartoon and often times a short. One of the more popular shorts involved a character named Joe McDoaks who would be peering from behind an eight-ball during the movie introduction. He was known as the "behind the eight-ball" guy which meant someone who was prone to trouble and problems. McDoaks played the role of some helpless sap who would try to show how to do something only ending up instead completing screwing up the works. Most of the titles of the series began with "So you want to be a -----".

Another popular movie series was the Bowery Boys. These movies usually ran longer than a short but shorter than a full length movie. The Bowery Boys featured Slip Mahoney played by Leo Gorcy and Satch played by Huntz Hall. The movies centered around a group of young punks who lived in the Bowery in New York. Satch was the idiot who would always be getting Slip Mahoney into trouble. The funniest part of these movies was the malapropisms uttered by Slip Mahoney. Some of his classics were "Let me regurgitate" instead of "Let me reiterate" or "Pardon my protrusion" instead of "Pardon my intrusion".

Page 14

      The Bowery Boys

Bowery boys

Another extra feature at the movies was the news reel which was the equivalent of the ten o'clock news in the pre-television days of the 40's. The news reels usually lasted about 5 minutes and were provided by Pathe News. Each news reel would start out with a crowing rooster on top of a world globe. Ed Hurley was usually the narrator of the top news stories of the week. One of the best features would be replays of significant plays in a sporting event such as the World Series or the Rose Bowl. For many people, it would be their first glance of marching jack-booted Nazis or of mushroom shaped clouds from an atomic bomb test.

Page 15

Probably the most popular movies shown at the Minonk Theater was the "Ma and Pa Kettle" movies from the late 1940's and early 1950's. Ma and Pa Kettle were backwoods bumpkins who lived on a run down farm somewhere in the sticks. The movies contained very loose plots that were mostly punctuated with exaggerated examples of redneck idiocy and just plain old corny humor. Every movie would have a scene in which Ma, played by Margorie Main, would walk into the kitchen and knock the chickens off the table and Pa, played by Percy Kilbride, would change stations on the old radio by bumping his rocking chair up and down on the floor a few times. Whenever a Ma and Pa Kettle movie came to Minonk, people would be lined up all the way back to the corner of Fifth and Oak and then east on Fifth Street.

Many romances budded in the Minonk Theatre. Often times during a movie a girl would send another girl to ask a boy to come sit with her. The girl would never ask the boy directly, it was always done through an intermediary. Usually, the guy would say yes and go down and sit with the other girl. Initially, it would often be an uncomfortable encounter while both would sit mute waiting for the other to say something. If they hit it off, they would eventually began to "neck." There was a couple of seats in the theater reserved for hardcore "neckers". The arm rest was removed between the seats to allow the two lovers to get real close to each other.

Page 16

      Ma and Pa Kettle Ma and Pa Kettle

In addition to the movies, some of the entertainment was provided by the patrons. Gertude Kohl was a passionate movie goer and would become emotionally involved in the movie. During sad movies, everyone could hear her crying. During funny movies she would let out a loud, shrill uncontrollable laugh that would cause everyone else to laugh at her instead of at the movies. Nobody ever knew if Gertrude knew that people were laughing at her instead of the movie.

Sadly, the Minonk Theatre succumbed to the effects of television. The once beautiful theater breathed its last breath as it suffered the indignity of mud wrestling in front of its stage before it closed. Up until then, for 14 cents it provided kids fun and excitement and for 50 cents it provided adults a respite from the worries of the world.