Part Nine: Western Movies in Galesburg

by Bill Monson


During the prime years of Western movies, which were from the mid-30s to late 40s, there were five theaters in Galesburg – the Orpheum, the Grove, the West, the Colonial and the Bond.

The Orpheum was the top house in town, so it showed the best A-westerns and never showed B's. Errol Flynn's Warner Bros. films like "Dodge City" or Paramount's Gary Cooper features played there. So did some of Randolph Scott's best Twentieth-Century-Fox pictures.

The Grove was located on Grove Street north of the Santa Fe tracks and was considered the second-best theater in town.

It showed lesser A-westerns from Fox, Paramount and RKO – and some of their

high-class B's as well.

Neither the Orpheum nor the Grove offered Saturday western matinees for kids, which was probably just as well. The Orpheum's boxes and balconies would have been too good as launching pads for missiles.

Third-ranked was the West, on Prairie Street, which as its name suggested, played lots of westerns – mostly the best B westerns – Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tim Holt, and Republic Pictures specials for Bill Elliott and John Wayne. Some of the John Ford cavalry trio A's may have played there, too ("Fort Apache" "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande"). However, I remember Wayne's post-war westerns mainly as Orpheum offerings. But the West also played Rex Allen

and Jimmy Wakely "singing westerns." Yuck.

The Colonial next door got lesser B-westerns from Columbia and Universal like Charles Starrett and Johnny Mack Brown as well as Republic series with Allan (Rocky) Lane, Sunset Carson, Don (Red) Barry, Monte Hale, Whip Wilson, and The Three Mesquiteers. It also showed releases from Monogram, Allied Artists, and some Poverty Row independents which featured Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, Al (Lash) LaRue, The Rough Riders, The Range Busters, and The Trail Blazers. The William Boyd Hopalong Cassidy series played here, too; and the Colonial and West shared the Bill Elliott/Rocky Lane "Red Ryder" series.

The Bond was a small, cheap theater on the south side of Main Street between the Square and Cherry Street. It offered the poorest of the B's, including Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter, Eddie Dew, and Bob Livingston. Many of its offerings were re-releases of films from the 1930s. Because its other films were also poor, the Bond did not last very long.

All three latter theaters ran 1:30 Saturday matinees for kids, which offered a feature, a comic short subject, and a serial. Sometimes there might also be a cartoon. The admission price across the years was fourteen cents to a quarter. As I remember, neither popcorn nor pop was regularly offered – too messy and too slow to hand out. Mostly, youngsters bought candy in small, easily-dispensed paper boxes for a nickel or dime. We rarely threw candy, but empty boxes were sometimes folded and flung. The light missiles and our chaotic tosses rarely produced injury. The features averaged around an hour; and the whole bill was under two hours. When both the West and Colonial let out about the same time, Prairie Street was a traffic-stopping shootout of pointed index fingers and shouted "kapows." We were usually back on Blaine Avenue by 4 o'clock to relive the movie or serial across the backyards of the neighborhood.

The same westerns were shown Friday and Saturday nights, of course, so parents could go with their children or alone; but few adults were present at the matinees.

I remember a couple of western stars coming to the Knox County Fair. Rex Allen did a musical show and Smiley Burnett presented one which featured both his singing and comedy. I went to the infield to meet Smiley and found him friendly and funny (he did his frog voice for me); and I wish I hadn't lost the autograph he gave me that day.

Because television did not become a powerful factor in Galesburg entertainment until the mid-50s, the B-westerns hung on longer here than larger cities. But no doubt about it, TV did kill the Colonial and the Grove and eventually (along with the Sandburg Mall Cinemas) doomed the Orpheum. Ironically, it was the smaller, mid-ranked West which survived until now. Having absorbed the Colonial next door, it continued to show westerns as long as they were made. It, too, will go the way of the movie Western when the Showplace 8 opens later this year.