Displaying items by tag: Movie Theaters
This week we received two items that had me nostalgic for … February. They were handbills for local theaters. Remember theater? Remember going out and doing things?
The first handbill is from about 1931, when the Norris Theater was less than a year old and showed both live vaudeville acts and movies. Both shows illustrate trends in American entertainment in the early 1930’s. The first is hillbilly music, a phrase coined in the 1920’s for what we now might call bluegrass, folk, or Americana. Groups like the Blue Ridge Ramblers toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and recorded 78rpm records. They played traditional songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Golden Slippers.” Radio shows also featured groups like this, as the advertisement points out at the bottom, “You’ve heard these Hill-Billies on the air – now see and hear them in person.”
The show is combined with the movie, Svengali, starring Hollywood megastar John Barrymore. Svengali was a horror movie about a singing teacher who hypnotizes a tone deaf milkmaid (people’s idea of “scary” has changed). Horror was a popular genre in the early sound days of film. Universal Studio’s monster movies are probably the best remembered examples. Svengali was released in May of 1931.
The other handbill is from 10 years later and features Norristown’s three theaters: the Norris, the Grand, and the Garrick. The three theaters were all owned by the same family so they advertised together. The Norris still seems to be the premier theater, showing the biggest movies, in this case A Yank in the RAF with Tyrone Power and Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The other two theaters show “B” movies, like The Smiling Ghost, an example of the horror comedies popular in the 1940’s.
Hopefully we’ll all be back in theaters someday soon whether it’s for a movie or clog dancers or whatever “Spark Plug – the 16 year old boy wonder” is. If you’re curious to hear what the Ramblers sounded like, you can hear some of their songs here.
Any plans for the weekend? Maybe you’re thinking of taking in a movie. In early and mid-century Norristown, you had to be sure to see that movie on Saturday because movie theaters were closed on Sundays by law.
At the time, Sunday “blue” laws were common. Stores and businesses were closed and there was no mail delivery. Although observance of a Sunday Sabbath goes back to the early Christian Church, by the Middle Ages it had fallen out of favor. Protestants revived the idea, particularly the Puritans (although both Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the need for laws to enforce the Sabbath.) In the United States, several groups promoted laws enforcing a day of rest sprung up in the late nineteenth century. In 1912 they succeeded in closing post offices on Sunday.
In 1947, the borough held a referendum on legalizing Sunday movies, and Ronald Heaton created a scrapbook of the newspaper ads that flew back and forth on each side.
The proposal was for movies to be allowed after 2pm on Sundays. Supporters of the measure argued that the late start time meant that the theaters would not be interfering with church services.
Opponents of Sunday movies argued that they would increase juvenile delinquency. Many nearby communities allowed Sunday movies including Conshohocken and Bridgeport (there were more movie theaters back then, kids). Supporters of the referendum argued that these communities saw no increase in juvenile crime. Some even argued that by giving kids a place to go on Sundays would reduce crime.
In addition to the competing advertising campaigns, many churches held meetings and sent letters directly to voters.
Ultimately, arguments about crime, employment, the local economy meant little to the defenders of the ban on Sunday movies. Their opposition to Sunday movies came down to the Christian observance of the Sabbath and its role in American tradition. This ad argues for the universality of dedicating the Sabbath to God.
One wonders if the people who wrote the ad knew the Rabbi was talking about Saturday.
Heaton also records earlier votes on the issue.
On election day, the proposal to allow movies on Sunday was rejected.
Once it was defeated the issue could not appear on the ballot for four years. In 1951, another referendum was held and Norristown’s four movie theaters were free to open on Sundays.