Yesterday's Magazette

1 – Back Row Seat

I Had A Back Row Seat

YM:BackRow:Madonna1

By Madonna Dries Christensen

During my 1940s childhood, the Max family owned the movie theater—the Royal. Just before each birthday, kids received in the mail a free pass to a movie. I later learned that Mrs. Max had collected names and birthdates from the school. That’s how she kept track of who turned 12 and was no longer eligible for a child’s ticket.

By the 1950s, the theatre had been renamed the Max. As an usher, I earned fifty cents an hour (I think). On weekends, I saw the same movie several times, with gaps—like scenes left on the cutting room floor—while I located a seat for someone. Perks of the job were free admission to any movie and free popcorn. I never went for popcorn because I wasn’t sure the teenager who tended the concessions knew who I was and would expect me to hand over a dime. He was the owner’s son, and he always seemed cranky.

My brother Daryl recalls cleaning the theater on Sunday mornings. “It was quiet and spooky, even with the lights on. My pay was fifty cents and free movies. I could keep any money I found; sometimes a few coins had slipped out of someone’s pocket.”

From my position in the back, I sometimes viewed as much romance and action from dating couples in darkened corners as there was on screen. The current owners, Larry and Aileen Pedley, fell in love at the Max. Larry says, “Aileen and I started working there when we were sixteen, in 1963. She was the popcorn girl and I was projectionist. She was cute and made such good popcorn I asked her to be my bride. We married in 1968, and leased the theatre from Mr. Max. When he died in 1981, we purchased the theatre from his heirs. Our life has revolved around the theatre, including raising three children who took turns cleaning, running the projectors, and making popcorn.”

The couples’ Website explains the theatre’s history.

In 1917, a Mr. Dixon purchased the closed opera house and opened Port’s Theatre. Two years later the building was razed and the new auditorium, The Royal, boasted a lobby, foyer, women’s bathroom, its own power supply, 525 seats, and the first air-conditioning in the area.

In 1929, the theatre had new management, Otto Lehman, who installed sound equipment called Talkie Vitaphone. Richard Max moved to Sibley in 1941 and purchased the theatre from Lehman. In 1951, Max designed and installed a new marquee: Max. He introduced one of the first wide screens in the area: Cinemascope. He sold bottles of soda, which had to be consumed in the lobby. Those were the days of double features, so during intermission, movie-goers filled the lobby, enjoying soda pop, a cigarette, and use of the restroom.

Pedley remembers the air-conditioning. “It was state of the art for its time and was still in operation into the 70s. On either side of the stage and screen, there were large vertical air vents. Behind the theatre, in a small garage, sat a huge blower with a well near it. The sliding doors behind the theatre were opened, water was pumped from the well and a fine mist was made over the screen opening. The blower sucked outside air in through the water, cooling it and bringing it into the theatre. Kind of like a Florida Swamp cooler.”

Pedley recalls Farmer’s Day, held in conjunction with the John Deere dealer, who held an open house and served hot dogs and pop. “The theatre showed a free movie, with free popcorn and door prizes. It was a big event; unfortunately a lot of farmers wore their work boots and the theatre did not smell the best for a few days.”

Pedley writes on his Website:

During the farm crisis we had a hard time getting people to come to a movie. Ticket prices were $3.50. In 1987, we lowered the price to $.99 a ticket. People thought it was neat to hand over a dollar and get change. There was a penny jar and when it was full we had a contest to guess how much money was in the jar. The winner got a year’s pass to the theatre. The money went to a local charity. A few years later when sales tax was raised, admission went to $1.00. Not long after that, it was $2.00, due to inflation and the cost of living. Also the movie companies started having a per capita amount, and if that amount wasn’t met the movie couldn’t be bought.

In 1995, the theatre underwent renovation and expansion. A next door store was torn down and a new building was put up for a second auditorium. Handicapped accessible restrooms were added and sound equipment was upgraded. The concession stand was enlarged, and new seats and carpet were installed.

Alice Max Krebs contacted Pedley with information about the early years:

In 1942, the theatre was owned by Mrs. Lehman and Ray Isaac. Mr. Lehman passed away and Mrs. Lehman had no interest in running it. Ray had been a silent partner and did not want to run it, so it was for sale. Dad bought Lehman’s half of the business in the summer of 1942 and later bought Ray’s share. He also bought the building.

The war was on and people couldn’t go far from home because gas and tires were rationed but they needed relief from the stressful times, so business was good. Tickets for children were 10 cents and for adults 50 cents. Favorite movies were Abbott and Costello, Lassie, and Bells of St. Mary’s. Popcorn was a nickel, and when candy was available, it was 5 cents a bar. Popcorn business was good during a musical because kids got bored and needed a drink of water and something to eat.

When I graduated from high school Dad invited the senior class to the show and started a tradition. He also had private showings for the nuns and priests in the area for movies that would appeal to them:  The Song of Bernadette and, Going My Way.

It’s great that you have succeeded in times that must have sometimes been difficult. I wish you continued success.

Pedley adds, “In 2012, we’re looking at a different storm cloud. The forecast is for all movie theatres to convert to digital movies and sound. Possibly, as soon as 2013, they will stop making 35mm film. Theatres have the option of converting or closing the door. The cost to convert is around $65,000 per screen. At our age, we ask ourselves whether or not to do this. The sad part is that the 35mm film experience, with its shortcomings of film jerking and scratches, will be gone for future generations. Currently, business is good, depending on the availability of prints. We have two screens showing different movies; we’re open nightly and admission for adults is $6.00; children $5.00. We’re on Facebook, too.”

This writer still envisions the theatre of the early 1950s: Mrs. Max at the ticket window; her son making popcorn; Mr. Max or Alice taking tickets; and the back row where I stood, flashlight in hand, ready to direct someone to a seat.

Vol. 39 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2012

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