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Small-Town Theater and
Small-Town Family

Hilary Aydt
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

In Dahlgren, a small town in southern Illinois, there was a small, family-run movie theater. The owners, the Aydt family, bought it from Frank Glenn, a local man who owned a chain of movie theaters throughout southern Illinois. The theater opened in 1946, a year after the Second World War ended, and closed its doors in 1952 after the advent of television and the drive-in movie. While it was open, it provided entertainment for an entire farming community.

Movie theaters were the major source of entertainment, even in smaller communities.
The Orpheum was one of several theaters in downtown Springfield.

Orpheum Theater

ILLINOIS HISTORY / MARCH 1993 51


The theater was run through a joint effort of the Aydt family. Rado, the mother, ordered films from film salesmen as much as a year in advance. To do that she had to travel to St. Louis, an adventure in itself in the days before the highway system. Most major roads were two-lane highways, while country roads were one-lane gravel roads. Once in St. Louis, she made her way to Live Street, affectionately referred to as "Film Row. "The regional headquarters of such movie companies as Republic, Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, RKO, and Universal Studios were located along the street. She looked over the general story outlines of upcoming movies and decided whether or not to order them. It is interesting that at this period there were protests over the profanity in Gone with the Wind and the violence in The Three Stooges. She knew her audience and selected movies she believed would appeal to the town and surrounding farm families. A good portion of her audience had limited economic resources, and Mrs. Aydt wanted to make their trip to the theater an enjoyable experience.

A typical farm family around Dahlgren might spend their Saturday as follows. They would wake up early in order to gather the produce they sold in town. Before leaving the farm they did all their chores including gathering eggs, milking the cows, and feeding the chickens. Usually most families would sell eggs and milk, but sometimes they would catch a chicken or two and take them to town to sell. "Cappie" Aydt's feed store would buy the farmers' produce and in turn sell feed for livestock, fertilizer, and seed back to the farmers. If the family bought groceries, they bought only basic staples that they could not make at home such as flour, sugar, baking soda, and coffee. After shopping, they would go back home to drop off their groceries, finish the chores, and come back into town for the seven o'clock movie.

Each person wore his nicest clothes, the women wearing print dresses and the men wearing their newest pair of bib overalls. Movie tickets were affordable, selling for twelve cents tor children and twenty-five cents for adults. Sometimes the children would persuade their parents to give them a nickel for a bag of popcorn. It it was cold outside, there were two woodburning stoves in the theater that would get so hot that they glowed cherry red in the darkness.

The theater program was typically divided into three parts. The show usually started with a comedy such as The Three Stooges, Looney Tunes, or Ma and Pa Kettle. Next in sequence was a weekly serial where familiar characters tackled new terrors each week. A serial always ended in a "cliffhanger" where the fate of the
character in a perilous predicament was to be decided "in next week's episode." Finally came the feature presentation. Most movies were either westerns or comedies. After the feature film was over, the beginning was rerun for late arrivals, and the theater was cleaned and prepared for the next night. The farm family would return to the farm and repeat the routine until the next Saturday night.

The Aydt children were assigned jobs in running the theater. The oldest children, Audrey and Roger, together managed working the projector. The youngest daughter, Wilma, sold tickets to the moviegoers. The youngest child, Stan, popped popcorn and sold it for a nickel a bag.

The Aydt family theater provided an important source of entertainment for the people in and around Dahlgren. The theater not only furnished family entertainment, it created a sense of fellowship and community by gathering everyone together on a Saturday night. With the advent of television, families began to stay at home, and small-town theaters were forced to close. Although the Aydt's theater closed in 1952, many people still reminisce about the good times they spent together and the anticipation of seeing next week's episode of the "cliffhanger." [From student historian's interview with Stanley Aydt, Nov. 10, 1992; Dahlgren Echo, June 14, 1946; Editors of Time-Life Books, This Fabulous Century, 1940-1950; and student historian's interview with Mary Rado Travelstead, Oct. 20, 1992.]

Moviegoers were sometimes treated to live entertainment before the feature attraction. The marquee at this theater advertises its "mighty Wurlitzer" organ, a common feature of many movie houses.
Tivoli Theater

52 ILLINOIS HISTORY / MARCH 1993


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