GOPHER THEATER by Sandy Schuster-Hubbard
During the late 1940s and early 50s, my richest vein of entertainment was the Gopher Theater in the center of Wheaton, Minnesota, population twenty-three hundred. Giant red capital letters on the theater’s white marquee announced the current movies and became my siren call. Admission: fifteen-cents.
The ticket window faced the street, with a set of double green doors on either side. Once I paid, heart pumping, I scooted through a door. Inside, the taunting aroma of popcorn wafted a delicious greeting. The muffled sounds of corn popping beneath the metal lid became louder as the exploding kernels pushed the lid open and spilled over the edges into the glass sided bin. The vender scooped hot popcorn into red and white paper bags and drizzled the top with real butter. Cost: five-cents.
All the candy bars sold for five-cents, except for my favorite, Nut Goodies, which cost a dime. When I had a quarter, I attended the movie and enjoyed both popcorn and candy or skipped the popcorn and indulged in just a Nut Goodie. To make it last, and be worth my whole dime, I nibbled around the chocolate outer edges first, one peanut at a time, saving the creamy maple center to savor last. And if I had no money, I scrounged for glass milk bottles—worth a nickel each—to at least garner enough for admission. Failing that, I skipped my twenty-cent school lunch. I’d rather see a movie than eat lunch any day––except maybe on chili con carne day. First, I always asked Dad for permission and a quarter to go to the movies. Sometimes, I’d get the quarter. Other times he’d say, “No, I ain’t made of money” or “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Having established his financial objection, I discovered it worked to smile and ask, “Well, Daddy, if I can find the money, can I go?”
He’d harrumph and mumble, “Okay.”
Ushers used flashlights to help people find their seats, and since few people came in once the movie started, they sat in the back row and watched along with everyone else. They received pay to see movies. When I turned fifteen, I wanted this job. What could be better?
Friday and Saturday nights before the feature began, there’d be previews of coming attractions, a cartoon, sometimes a comedy short like the Little Rascals or Three Stooges, and best of all, an ongoing serial lasting ten to fifteen weeks. My favorite, The Black Whip, featured a female Zorro-like character who fought for the rights of others and for those unable to defend themselves. She didn’t need rescuing––she rescued others. Unusual and wonderful to have a female hero. Each week I leaned forward in my seat, concerned for her safety, but without fail, The Black Whip triumphed. The cliffhanger did its job, and I returned the following weekend, eager to discover what happened next. A second showing followed the first one, and I had the choice of staying and watching the cartoons again or even the entire feature. Since the theater seated 562 people, seats were always available.
The magic began when the heavy maroon velvet curtains parted on the front stage, revealing the Cinemascope screen. Hoppy and Gene and Roy rode in week after week, delivering the message that good triumphs over evil. That cowboy world expected good manners, fair play, and helping others, especially those less fortunate. I fervently wanted to live up to that expectation. Their cowboy ethic inspired me to sometimes donate my nickel into the cure for polio collection basket passed by ushers during intermission instead of spending it on candy for myself.
The musicals lifted my spirits with singing and dancing. I so wanted to yodel and take dance lessons, especially tap. Since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing. When alone, I attempted steps on my own and recreated scenes. I sang all the parts and danced the numbers as I remembered them.
Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis, made my sides ache from laughter and tears leak down my cheeks. Most films were in black-and-white, so when The Wizard of Oz turned into brilliant Technicolor as Dorothy left Kansas and entered Oz, that placed the film into the awesome category. I had zero trouble believing in that world of music, comedy, color, and even those scary flying monkeys. The best discovery––Dorothy held the power within her the whole time.
My sister, Doris, and I walked to the theater together, though that didn’t mean she attended every movie, every time. Dad imposed strict limitations on her and insisted she take me everywhere. I loved being with her, but it probably wasn’t as much fun for a sixteen-year-old to be dragging her ten-year-old sister in tow. He apparently thought her incapable of getting in a compromising way with me around. He underestimated both our bond and my ability to keep secrets.
Doris and I concocted a system to get around his imposed circumstances. She’d drop me off at the theater, go joy riding with her friends, then return to pick me up when the show let out. On our walk home, I detailed a synopsis of the movie for her so when Dad asked about it, she answered knowledgably. She often pressured me to tell the end as I offered too much detail, and we’d be in danger of running out of sidewalk before finishing my plot review. When I shared, I had many “And then … and then … oh yeah, and then this other guy …” But when Dad asked her questions about the movie, she rattled off enough bits of character and plot to pass the “having been at the movies” quiz.
One Sunday afternoon, Doris left me at the theater, but when the movie ended, she didn’t pick me up. I never considered heading home without her. So, I waited, and waited, and waited. I scanned the street, searching for her. Minutes dragged like hours. Each time a car drove down the street, I turned to look at the poster of the coming attraction as if I were just now walking by, but despite the numerous times I stared at it, I had no recollection of that upcoming featured movie.
After nearly three hours, Dad found me in front of the theater. Since I couldn’t talk to Doris, I didn’t know what our story should be to explain our lateness. He scowled and said, “I’ve been looking for you. Where’s your sister? What do you know about where she went?”
A major fluttering rumbled in my stomach as I searched frantically for the right words to answer him. Doris and I never rehearsed a story to cover this. I’d rather be stretched on a rack than get her in trouble.
Since it would hurt Doris to tell the truth, I lied. “I don’t know. Um I-I begged her to let me sit in the front row. We decided to meet out front at the end of the movie. I don’t know what happened.” This was the best my ten-year-old-mind mustered under Dad’s scrutiny.
“She’s been in a car accident,” he said, “and is in Graceville hospital.” I didn’t know if his frown meant anger or worry. Why ask me where she was when he already knew? Later I realized, he wanted to trap me into ratting out Doris.
I gasped and felt cold and sweaty at the same time. “Is she gonna be okay?” I swallowed hard and prayed.
“The doctor says she’ll be fine.”
I didn’t know how to fix this. Eighteen miles separated Graceville and Wheaton, and I had no way to get to Doris to let her know the story I’d told Dad.
Sometimes providence intervenes to assist fools and children. Since she had broken ribs and sprained vertebras, it required several days in the hospital. Dad had to sign some papers, so I begged to go with him to visit her.
At the hospital, a man dressed in white mopped the hallway floor, making it smell like the Hi-Lex Addie used at home to bleach the sheets and clean the kitchen. Here that pungent odor followed us down the hall and into Doris’s room. I hated that smell.
Doris lay in the bed closest to the window. Dad sat in the one chair, and I leaned on the other empty bed. Just seeing her helped me worry a bit less. The hospital rules didn’t allow smoking in the patient rooms, so when Dad left to smoke a Camel in the waiting room area, I grabbed my chance.
I cupped Doris’s hand with both of mine, leaned over close to her ear, and in my version of a conspiratorial stage whisper, told her the ‘sit in the front row story.’
“That’s good, honey.” She squeezed my hand. “Really good. Thank you.”
What a relief!
I don’t know if enough time elapsed after the accident, or if Dad’s basic concern about her injuries made the difference, but after her release from the hospital, she received no added punishment that I can recall. Knowing Dad, though, I’m sure her future whereabouts received more scrutiny.