Woodworking: Long, long ago: How the show went on, small town by small townI recently had the pleasure of being a judge on a panel that read the entries submitted in the River Falls Reads essay contest. I enjoyed every one of them.
By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal
I recently had the pleasure of being a judge on a panel that read the entries submitted in the River Falls Reads essay contest. I enjoyed every one of them.
One that sticks in my mind was from a woman who grew up in a small town that had no movie theatre.
That’s pretty common nowadays, but back in the fifties almost every town that was a town had what we called “a show house.”
In my hometown, Whitehall, it was The Pix, a fairly glossy place erected just before World War II.
It had art deco characteristics, two aisles, a crying room for babies and even a row of plug-in amplifiers for the hard of hearing.
To say that most of us kids lived there would not be an exaggeration.
Some of the movies shown were of “B” and sometimes “C” stature. These are movies I like to watch to this day on channels like TCM.
But the woman who wrote about what they watched in the tiny town where she grew up brought back fond memories of small towns that were so small they had no “show house.”
What they did have that we lacked in Whitehall was “free show.” She described it beautifully.
Once a week, a giant white sheet would be tacked up on one of the town’s biggest buildings, and at night families would “go to show.” That’s what they called it, “go to show.”
Folks would drive into town after the cursed milking and watch a movie shown on the white sheet.
The experience never faded in the essayist’s memory. She says when she went off to college, her dorm mates would kid her when she suggested that they all “go to show.”
Just up Hwy. 53 from Whitehall was feisty little Pigeon Falls, population 200.
Pigeon Falls had two bars: The Dew Drop Inn and Dresselhaus’s, a barber shop, a bank, a general store and, of course, two Lutheran churches, “Upper” and “Lower,” which had resulted from one of the several crises suffered by that denomination in the 19th century.
But no “show house.”
So every Saturday night all summer long, the local merchants tacked a big white sheet on a bare wall of P. Ekern General Store. When the sun went down, the ’38 Chevies and Model A Fords would journey in from the coulees.
The men, dressed in bib overalls, starched white shirts, “suitcoats” and fedoras would head for the bars, their wives to P. Ekern, which advertised itself as a “Trading Post Since 1870.”
And the kids spread out blankets on the lawn to watch a flickering “C” movie or maybe even a “D.” They would be joined by their mothers after shopping was completed.
Once we kids in Whitehall got old enough to drive, we headed for Pigeon Falls to what we called “freeshow.”
“Freeshow” was way more fun than the Pix because we could run around during the movie and flirt with the girls and maybe even convince an older fellow to buy us a six pack of Leinenkugel’s.
Once in a while we even watched the movie.
I even recall seeing a good movie once. Not a Leon Errol comedy. Not the irritating voice-over of a Pete Smith Specialties episode.
But a real movie called “Gentleman Jim,” a movie about the boxer Jim Corbett, played by Errol Flynn, with Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan.
I just looked it up in my movie guide to find out it was made in 1942, so it was only ten years old. And according to Leonard Maltin it was Flynn’s favorite role.
How did little Pigeon Falls manage that?
Each summer I spent a week with my aunt, uncle and cousin in Coon Valley, which was a 400-soul mega-village below La Crosse.
It also had two saloons and two churches — one Catholic and one Lutheran — which got along better than the two churches in Pigeon Falls. And because of the town’s metropolitan nature it featured a “freeshow” more elaborate than Pigeon Falls.
On Wednesdays the city fathers would tack up a huge white sheet on the bare wall of Uncle Ray Ringstad’s lumberyard. And after the cursed milking and, in Vernon County, tobacco suckering, the Chevies and the Fords would roll in from the coulees.
The men would head for the Fjord Bar, the women to the grocery store and we kids spread our blankets to enjoy the double feature. That’s right, a double feature.
Over the years I’ve met a lot of cinema buffs and no one I’ve ever talked to saw the movie I saw 65 years ago in Coon Valley. It was a murder mystery and featured the Bobbsey Twins, my favorite literary series for kids.
I’ve looked for references to it in all my film books and never found it.
I’ve seen Nancy Drew movies starring Bonita Granville, but no Bobbsey Twins. So I feel fortunate to have actually seen a movie my associates have not.
Hats off to “freeshow.”
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.