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A new commentary every Wednesday - Dec 7th, 2016
December 7th, 1941
Two events spring forth from my memory of that day. The first was the manner in which a film was treated by my cousin, the projectionist at the Hayton Theater, the one motion picture house (400 seats) in my small Illinois hometown. The house was SRO (standing room only) for the long awaited arrival of a film adapted from a successful Broadway play, "The Women." It was written by Clare Boothe Luce, author, playwright and wife of the Henry Luce, then Publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Mrs. Luce became a U.S. Representative and Ambassador to Italy.
According to the protocol used by film studios, theater owners bid for first runs and subsequent showings. The big movie palaces in metropolitan areas in the Midwest, such as Chicago and St. Louis, were first to pay top money to show all big, new films. After that, movie houses in towns like Peoria and Springfield vied for showings. Many months later, "The Women," starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and 20 other female actors, made its way to Carterville, Illinois (population, 2700). By then, it already had been shown in every town and village of consequence within 100 miles of Carterville.
The gimmick for the movie: no men appeared in the film, except as extras in a street scene, or waiters, doormen, hotel clerks or taxi drivers, for example. No Clark Gable, Jimmie Stewart, Spencer Tracey or Humphrey Bogart. Not even "Lash Larue," a cowboy hero who whipped bad dudes in "horse operas" by using yes, a bullwhip.
Keep in mind that at that time projectors held only 20-minutes of film on a reel and the operator switched from one projection machine to another on the fly, as the film played out. "The Women" was held on six, 20 minute reels. A two hour film was the exception then. Most "B" movies were four reelers. Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton comedies ran for about an hour, and were therefore termed "three-reelers."
By December of 1941, I was a sophomore in high school and had graduated from usher at the Hayton Theater to ticket catcher at the door. I also rewound reels from time to time and learned how to be a projectionist by hanging out with my cousin after I got off work.
During the later part of the showing of "The Women" at its first performance in the Hayton Theater—a matinee that began at 2:00 in the afternoon of December 7th, 1941—one of the usherettes informed Mr. Hayton that she had seen the film elsewhere and swore that my cousin had skipped a scene or two. The theater owner sent me upstairs to tell my cousin not to begin reel six, but instead regress to the beginning of reel four, which he did...under duress.
Soon, the audience, after viewing the early scenes twice, became restive They had already sat through a cartoon, a Movietone newsreel, coming attractions and a few short advertisements for local merchants.
Reels four and five clattered through the machines and the usherette still swore the part she had seen elsewhere had not been shown. My cousin was ordered to run reel three. In anger, he shut down both machines, but left the sound on, so it went wah, wah, wah, wahhh, waaahh! from the speakers back of the screen as the sound-track on the film slowed to a halt. He threaded up reel number one and started the performance all over again, beginning with the MGM lion's roar and opening credits. You can imagine how the audience responded...with whistles, cat-calls and loud groans from the adults present. One or two might have asked for their admissions to be refunded.
The admission then for children under 12 was ten-cents—rather inexpensive baby-sitting for an hour or two. During that marathon performance, not one kiddie left their seat. By 6:00 p.m. that Sunday evening, the phone in the box office rang without ceasing, the No Parking zone in front of the theater was jammed with vehicles and the lobby was full of anxious parents.
It was about then that Mrs. Tedford, wife of the grade school janitor, came into the lobby to yell out over the clamor that "The Germans have bombed our naval base on Hawaii." She was close. Right war, wrong enemy. Mr. Hayton turned on the house lights and announced from the stage that Stuka dive bombers could be on their way to Carterville at the moment, and all who wished to be with their families would be given a "rain-ticket" for a showing of another film of their choice.
I understand the film was produced again in 2008, but I didn't care to see it. All the women in the first production did was talk, talk, talk about their male friends and husbands. A film critic who saw the first production called it a sophisticated comedy. I still haven't the slightest idea of what he meant.
Oh yes, as an aftermath of the evening, vehicle owners sucked up every last drop of gasoline at the six "filling stations" in town and the manager of the Kroger store stayed open until all of his shelves had been cleaned of all sugar, flour and tobacco products "before the hoarders bought it all up," a caustic remark later made by Mr. Ledbetter, Editor and Publisher of the weekly "Carterville Herald."
-Phil Richardson, Observer of the human condition and storyteller. "He goes doddering on into his old age, making a public nuisance of himself." - Joseph L. Mencken
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