THE LAST PICTURE SHOW by Erv Coppi
It wasn't regal, like the Fox theater in St. Louis. It wasn't even as nice as the Globe theatre in Christopher. Actually, it looked more like an oversized brick barn. It had no marquee, no rest rooms, no concession stand, no air conditioning and no cushioned seats. But, hardly a day goes by that I do not think of the wonderful moments I spent with my friends looking up at the flickering images projected on that magical silver screen of the old Royal theater.
Scene one: PAL NIGHT
The owner of the Royal theater, from its beginning in 1920 until 1950, was Roy Clutts. Because of cost, he was never able to show first run movies. The films had to be shown at the larger theaters in Herrin, West Frankfort, DuQuoin and Carbondale before they were available to him. Of course, the box office ticket prices were much lower here. During the depression years, from 1930 to 1940, ten cents would buy a ticket for an adult and five cents would admit a child. Money was so hard to come by that many families could only afford to "go to the show" a couple times a month. It was around 1939 when Mr. Clutts began his popular "pal night." On Wednesday night, when the theater was usually closed, two people could go to the movie for eleven cents. One week I would pay ten cents and my pals Bennie Holmes, Bobby Cochran or Gerald Nix would pay the penny. The next week I would pay the penny and one of them would come up with the dime. We would sell junk, milk bottles, copper and beer bottles to earn enough to buy our "Pal night" tickets.
Scene two: VAUDEVILLE, STAGE SHOWS, SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS
Roy Clutts was a Franklin county deputy sheriff at the time of the hanging of the notorious southern Illinois gangster Charlie Berger. There were several, now historic, photos taken of the event. Mr. Clutts was on the scaffold and helped place the hood over Berger's head for the execution. He had the photos made into slides to be projected on the screen of the theater. Before the main feature began, Mr. Clutts would walk down to the front of the theater, the house lights would dim, the projectionist would light up the screen with the slides and Mr. Clutts would narrate the proceedings. The entire process took only about five minutes, but the audience took great delight in this added attraction. Many local productions drew large crowds to the theater in the early years. One of the most popular was a comic wedding. Featured as the "bride" was a very large man, "Big Jim" Hicks, who stood over six feet tall. He wore the traditional bridal gown, an ill-fitting wig and he was remembered as the ugliest bride ever to walk down the aisle. The groom, in a fancy tuxedo, was a small man under five feet tall. He was very fat and very jovial. He resembled a penguin. He was the mayor of our town at that time. His name was "Little Mike" Siebert. He ran the ice house and made deliveries of ice to all the homes in Royalton. Housewives would place a card in their window letting the iceman know how much ice to delviery. He was a friend of all the kids in town. On a hot summer day, we were allowed to pick up the chips of ice that fell off the ice wagon. The Shankland Stock Company, a traveling theater group, for many years brought their productions to the Royal theater. Working a circuit of about 20 small towns, they would appear in Royalton twice a month. Their performances were on Thursday night. They would arrive in town early in the morning. They had to unload two trucks of curtains, scenery, set pieces and musical instruments to be ready for the show that night. The company consisted of only six people. Two romantic leads, a "Toby" character and his female counterpart, and the villains. The audience could always tell what type of play they were in for by the way "Toby" was dressed. Just before the play began, the three-piece band would come out front, to the right of the stage, and set the mood for the night's performance. Mr. Shankland played piano, another actor played cornet and "Toby" played drums. They usually belted out a "hot" ragtime number. If the "Toby" character was wearing his "RUBE" fright wig and freckles, it was going to be a comedy. If he was wearing a skin-head wig, the play was likely to be a drama.
Occasionally, a local person would be selected to appear in one of the plays. The best remembered of these was a murder mystery called "The Crimson Hand." The local person selected for this production was Virginia Silas. She worked for the Rodenberg family who owned the hardware store and the funeral parlor across the street from the theater.
That night, the audience began to pour in early. Soon all four hundred seats were filled; it was a sell-out. Then it was showtime. The band came out front, took their places in the orchestra pit and began to play solemn music. What was going on? No rag-time music tonight? All eyes were on "Toby". He wasn't wearing the "rube" wig; he wasn't wearing the bald-headed wig. Who was this man? He was our old friend "Toby" without make-up. This was going to be something serious. Slowly the curtains parted, revealing a drawing room set: a divan, an easy chair, a potted plant and a desk. Above the desk was a portrait of a stern looking gentleman. The phone on the desk rang... a few seconds of silence...another ring of the phone. Virginia Silas, dressed in a maid's uniform, walked across the stage, picked up the phone and said, "Hello." At that instant, every light in the theater went off, even the exit signs! The house was in total darkness. A bright red light came on behind the portrait and a "Crimson Hand" appeared above the painting. Virginia screamed, the audience screamed, and thus began one of the most terrifying programs ever seen at the Royal theater. Virginia Silas later married Roy (Rounder) McPhail. To my knowledge, she never tried to resume her one word acting career. My brother-in-law, Earl Fairley, said on many occasions that "The Crimson Hand" frightened him so severely the he spent the rest of the evening crouched under his seat. By the way, Earl was one of the projectionists at the theater in its waning years.
Scene Three: FADE TO BLACK
In 1971, Peter Bogdonavich produced an award-winning movie called, "The Last
Picture Show." The locale was a small town in Texas and the action revolved around the Royal theater. I'm sure there are many small towns in America that at one time had a Royal theater. I only hope they bring back as many happy memories as our theater brings back to me. Even though we had no concession stand, it gave us an excuse to go across the street to Shafor's drug store or "Doc" Bennetts' drug store for a cherry coke, lemon sour or bag of potato chips.
It was because of the Royal theater that my broadcasting career was enhanced. The knowledge I received about movies I used many times on both radio and TV. In my radio days, I never failed to mention Royalton and the theater when playing a sound track from an old movie. When I became a host of a popular movie series on television, the Royal theater was the basis for many movie trivia remarks.
One man who was most responsible was George Beavers. He was the projectionist for most of my young life. Many times I would sit near the back of the theater, near the stairs leading to the projection booth. I was about eleven years old. One night I arrived at the theater early. George was already in the booth, with the door open, splicing film. He looked out and saw me and motioned for me to come up. I almost fell down the stairs for fear that he would change his mind. He explained the projectors, the sound system and change-over procedure. "You watch the screen near the end of a reel," he said. "When you see the white dot appear in the upper right hand corner of the screen, start your other projector. In ten seconds, you'll see the second white dot and you flip the lens mask to make the change-over to the other projector." For years after that, whenever I saw a movie, I watched for the two change-over dots at the end of a reel and I always thought of George Beavers.
But, even he ran into problems from time to time: a film with bad sprocket holes, a wrong reel loaded in the projector, the picture out of frame or out of sync. When this happened, George would stop the show and the angry crowd would stomp their feet. whistle and yell.
During the war, the service board listing the names of the men and women who were serving our country was a stark reminder of how things had changed. Not as many young men frequented Peck's pool room. Mclintock's restaurant didn't have as many people calling for their "blue plate" specials. School children and the elderly made up the largest portion of the theater audience. But a typical Friday night was still a Three Stooges short, a Flash Gordon serial and a shoot-em-up "Hopalong Cassidy" western.
After the war I returned to Royalton and Mr. Clutts asked me to take over the management of the theater. With the help of my wife Marie selling tickets and Danny Menghini as projectionist, we gave the theater new life. We made several trips to St. Louis to book newer movies. We were able to obtain movies that were never shown in Royalton before, the films of 20th Century Fox. Because the theaters in West Frankfort, DuQuoin and Christopher belonged to the Fox chain, they had a monopoly on these films. After the war, the huge conglomerates were forced todivest their theater exhibition rights and the films became available to us.
I was still interested in running the projectors for the fun of it. One day my big chance came. Danny Menghini had a date and he asked me if I thought I could handle it all alone. I jumped at the chance. I arrived at the theater early, spliced all the film, loaded both projectors and made everything ready to go that night. It was November and I decided to build the fires in the two huge stoves that heated the theater. They were two old coal furnaces without the duct work. One was located at the front of the theater and the other in the far back comer. I'd never been to the coal bin, located in a room behind the screen. I took two coal buckets and a large flashlight and headed to the small door that led to the area behind the screen. I sat down one of the buckets, pushed open the door and I thought I had entered another world.
I swear to this day I heard harps and the voices of a heavenly choir. There before my eyes was the real Royal theater.
Through all the dust, cobwebs, rotted boards, water and debris, through the musty smell and the faint rays of light coming through cracks in the roof, my eyes adjusted to this fabulous sight. As if an unseen hand moved my flashlight toward the stage area and I was the spotlight operator, the theater came to life. I imagined a great vaudeville show on a huge stage. I could see in my mind Tom Mix and his horse Tony galloping across the screen, Rudolph Valentino as "The Sheik" and Lon Chaney's "Phantom" being unmasked. The proscenium arch of the stage was breathtakingly ornate. There was a high scenery loft and rotted, half empty sand bags still hung from above. The golden architecture above the proscenium arch was highlighted by cherubs and unicorns still visible through the thick dust. The red velvet curtain, faded and torn, appeared as if it were yearning to go up just one more time. The wind through the loft gave a sound like an organ accompaniment to some long forgotten silent movie. I don't know how long I stood there, transfixed and frozen in time...a minute or an hour.
Suddenly, I was jolted back to reality. I remembered that Mr. Clutts had cut the Royal theater in half when the stock market crash caused movie and vaudeville audience to dwindle. He realized he could no longer afford the upkeep. He put up a plywood partition mid-way through the auditorium. What was once an eight-hundred seat elegant showplace, became a four-hundred seat small town movie house. Still in a dream-like daze, I picked up the coal buckets and headed back to the door. I decided to let Mr. Owens, our handyman, build the fires. I could not bring myself to desecrate this hallowed shrine by shoveling two buckets of coal.
By now, you're wondering how I did on my first (and last) night as projectionist. The film broke twice. I threaded a reel upside down. I burned a hole in the film by turning on the light before starting the projector. The last two reels were switched. The movie ended and then went back a half hour in the plot.
They tell the story around RoyaIton that the loud rumbling that comes from the machine shop now occupying the old theater building is caused by machinery. But you and I know better. It's the sound of that angry audience, stomping their feet, whistling and yelling, that still echoes off those walls.