Puttin’ On the Show

by Terry Hogan

Many communities are learning to value the best of the old. Old historic homes are being restored rather than torn down or converted into multiple apartments. Restoration efforts have broadened to include significant old commercial buildings as well. Old movie theaters, some that had live vaudeville before the introduction of movies, have also become the subject of preservation and restoration projects. Galesburg has done well in this area. The saving of the Orpheum is something that the city can be proud of.

Other smaller towns are also confronting the task of saving their old theaters, and often on a shoestring budget. Franklin, the county seat of Johnson County, located just south of Indianapolis, has taken on that effort. Perhaps, more accurately, a small group of dedicated folks have taken on the task.

Franklin’s Artcraft Theater is a product of the art deco period. It is small, much smaller than Galesburg’s Orpheum, but its size is fitting for the size of Franklin. The theater is blessed with original, working neon decorative lights. It has curved doorways. The stage also is blessed with the old dressing rooms below where entertainers would dash between acts to change and reappear to keep the audience entranced.

Unfortunately, there is no large grant for the local foundation to purchase and restore the theater to its full glory. Instead, through a group of volunteers, the theater stays open and alive, by periodically showing old movies on Thursday and Friday nights. Popcorn odors call to patrons as they enter the building. Glowing neon lights proclaim that the theater, like a ghost of memories past, has reappeared.

People come to the theater. They bring stories. They bring memories. Sometimes they bring their grandchildren and explain to them that this is what theaters use to be like. The types of movies vary. John Wayne and the Marx Brothers, are a couple of recent examples of movie stars that have been brought back to life to entertain on the large screen in the glory of unaltered black and white film.

At 7:30 PM (more or less) the Executive Director of the Franklin Heritage Foundation, Rob Shilts, steps forward and says a few words about the organization, the theater, and the movie. In the metal-line projection room, the projectionist is ready with the gigantic reel to feed a vintage cartoon and the full movie of 2 hours or so. At the most recent movie night, there was also a serial short shown. The good cowboy did battle against overwhelming odds to save the heroine from the evildoers. Death to the hero looked like the inevitable outcome, when the serial stops, "…to be continued".

The projection room still has its old fire prevention/fire containment system developed years ago with the film was highly flammable. With a fire, the booths door and cutouts where the projector "looks out" would slam shut, containing the fire, and perhaps the projectionist if he wasn’t quick enough. The whole system worked on weights, cables, and pulleys, with sacrificial segments in the cables. The sacrificial segments would burn allowing the weights to drop, pulling on the cables that drew shut both the single exit door and the cutouts. With the new film used, the risk of fire is minimized, but the old system is preserved for early-arriving theater patrons to peek in and see. I’m pretty sure that the current projectionist is pleased that the old extremely flammable films are no longer used in theaters.

The movies are a great glimpse of yesterday. The audience, which tends to be a little older than that found in the "mainstream" theaters, is pleased. Soft drinks are drunk and popcorn is consumed. Memories are recalled. I had one patron stop and tell me that his grandfather used to take tickets at the theater. The patron, now probably in his late 40s, admitted that when he was a lad, he used to get in free from time to time, compliments of his granddad. Other stories are heard from those who "dated" at the Artcraft Theater and now measure their marriages in decades, not years.

Of course, my recollections go back to the West and Orpheum theaters in Galesburg. Once in a while on a Saturday morning, I’d be taken to town to get a haircut. The barbershop was next door to the West. After the haircut, I was allowed to go see a movie, while the Saturday morning shopping was done. Later, my high school dating often included going to the West or Orpheum, or perhaps to the drive-in theater on West Main. This was America in the Midwest. In the 50’s, we had black and white horror movies, reflecting the fear of "atomic radiation" where crabs or insects, or even a woman, would grow to terrorizing size. Later, we had the early James Bond movies that pushed the moral standards of the day. It is a part of our history.

The effort by the Franklin volunteers is successful, so far. The theater is alive, but not completely well. Restoration is needed, but funding is scare and getting scarcer with the hard economy. But in the dark, when the screen lights up with old black and white movies, the water stains on the ceiling are not noticed. Years are shed away. Old wrinkled hands find one another, as they did years, decades ago, when a little "sparkin’" on a Friday night in Franklin, meant going to the Artcraft Theater.

The effort is at a pivotal point. A newspaper article in Cincinnati about the effort has resulted in a few folks coming from Cincinnati and staying in local Bed and Breakfasts. The Artcraft also draws patrons from other, closer cities and towns - Greenwood, Indianapolis, and New Whiteland. So far, the Artcraft hasn’t turned back the clock sufficiently to make downtown Franklin the busy place it was on Friday nights a half a century ago, when it was featured on the front page of Life Magazine. But it’s working at it.

And in the process, the Artcraft does what it has always done best. It takes patrons from the tensions and toils of everyday life, and transports them into another world – black and white- when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and you could tell them apart.

In Franklin, Indiana they’re doing their best to save an old theater, while "puttin’ on the show". Although I don’t know, I suspect that similar efforts are occurring throughout the Midwest as local folks see the decay of their towns and take steps to try to preserve what is best. It is a noble, and difficult undertaking. But it’s worth the effort.

If you come to Franklin Indiana, check out the Artcraft Theater and see if something is showing. If you see a ticket taker, or an usher that looks entirely too old for the job, stop and say "Hi". I’ll see you there.