Friday, October 24, 2008

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Going to the Movies During the Great Depression

Faithful readers may recall “Before There Was Prozac”, a wonderful reminiscence by a new contributor, Marianne Richardson. Below, Marianne’s first original contribution to the Bijou Blog, in which she examines the role the movies played during the Great Depression, through the lens of some very personal family recollections.

“Brother can you spare a dime?” We all know the images the phrase conjures: breadlines, the Forgotten Man, down and out and unemployed in 1930s America. Americans needed help and hope, an antidote to the malaise and uncertainty of this Great Depression – and Hollywood gave it to them. The one bright spot of the economic crisis: the cost of a movie ticket dropped from a quarter to a dime.

One might think that in such tough economic times people viewed spending money on the movies as throwing it away. Yet, when you talk to people who lived through the Depression, that’s not the case. When there was a theater they could physically get to, people went every week – if they could get that dime. My great-grandmother Grano was very soft-hearted and wanted to help people. When a neighbor complained about having no food for her family, Grano gave her $2. But Grano was not pleased when she found out the woman used part of the money to take her family to the movies. My Grandma and I could understand Grano’s indignation, but we could also sympathize with the neighbor. As my father put it: “Movies were an escape to a world where people would have loved to have been to, but couldn’t.”

When I asked Grandma what it was like seeing the movies during the Depression, she didn’t even wait for me to get the question out. “It was great! Getting a break – if you could find a dime – it was wonderful!” She lived in Wooster, OH, and the Schine’s Wooster Theater was an art-deco palace. She was luckier than many, because both her parents had jobs. “Grano would give my sister and me the money [for movies], but many times her brother Harold would give me a dime. I'm sure there were other ways I got the money. A dime at that time was big money. [We didn’t have] money for candy or popcorn, [but we] would stay to see the movie twice.”

For some the dime was harder to come by. My mother’s father, Grandpuppy, earned it by working in the family’s garden. When it started to produce, he’d load everything into a wagon and walk along the street, selling beans and peas for 5 cents a quart, and radishes and carrots for 5 cents a bunch. He split what he earned with his sisters, who helped him. “Ma banked the money for us. One time I had $3 in the bank – thought I was a millionaire.” He’d mow “absolute huge” yards with a push blade lawnmower for 50 cents and take an extra turn at the dishes to get a dime for the movies.

In addition to the main theater in Fowlerville, MI, Grandpuppy recalls that when he was about 12 or 14 years old, a man named Abbot, along with some of the town merchants, started showing cowboy films on the side of a downtown building – for free. “I don’t know why he done it. I guess maybe ‘cause he could.” Eventually they rented the inside of a building, and for a dime you could watch cowboy movies “to your heart’s content.” At the main theater Grandpuppy saw newsreels, short comedy sketches, and lots of different cowboy features and serials.

Westerns were very popular Depression fare in all forms of entertainment. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were in the movies, and the Lone Ranger and Tom Mix were on the radio. Every one of my grandparents remembers seeing countless cowboy pictures. “They were the only kind they had on Saturday when we went to double features,” Grandma recalled, and she loved them. “After school, Hattie and I would play Cowboys. She’d be Tom Mix and I’d be somebody else, and we’d make our feet go like horses, like we thought horses’ feet would sound.”

The cowboy movies were Grandpuppy’s favorites, but of course, there were more than just Westerns. Grandma was dazzled by the glamour of Busby Berkley musicals, but she didn’t have a favorite – “I liked ‘em all. If it was a movie, I liked it.” The excitement of the Tarzan films thrilled her, but she revealed: “Of course, I couldn’t watch them all the way through, then. I can barely watch them now. Too scary! I mean, you know when they put a guy between two trees it isn’t real, but they left it to your imagination.” (She’s referring to the memorably gruesome scene from Tarzan Escapes (1936), which she saw when she was about 12 years old.)

Going to the movies during the Depression was about more than just the films – it was the act of going out on the town. For Grandpuppy, the best part of the movies was spending an entire afternoon and evening with friends. A sack of peanuts cost a penny, and after the movies, he and his friends would share the peanuts and walk up and down Grand River Avenue, just looking in the windows of the stores and watching the people. Grandma went to the movies with her older sister or friends, and on the day when the movies were changed to the new week, they would hang around the lobby to ask for the old pictures and posters, which Grandma hung all over her bedroom. Grandma had a unique hobby: collecting photos of Doris Davenport, because they shared the same name (Davenport was a Goldwyn Girl at the same time as Lucille Ball, but she only made seven films from 1934-40. I have no idea how Grandma found photos of such a little-known actress, but she did).

Though the movies were incredibly popular, theaters still faced tough times, and as many as one-third had closed by 1933. In addition to lowering admission, theater owners introduced “Bank Nights” to lure customers in. Grandpuppy remembers that between the theater and the merchants of Fowlerville, if you spent a certain amount of money, you’d get a ticket to enter the Wednesday night drawings when they gave away prizes and cash. One night he won $3. “I went into the corner store and bought shoes. Had change left… maybe a dollar? I turned right around and bough me some— whaddaya call ‘em, short pants, with the elastic in the knees? [knickers] Them were my Sunday school clothes.” In Wooster Bank Nights were on Thursdays, and they did the drawings using movie tickets, sometimes giving away as much as $300. “That place was packed,” says Grandma. “People you knew didn’t have the money to afford a ticket. People saved their tickets and used them from week to week.” I wondered what would have happened if two people had the same number on their ticket, but Grandma didn’t know.

Perhaps for my grandparents the movies were a kind of immunization against dwelling too much on other memories of Depression-era childhood: Grandpuppy worked hard at so many odd jobs because he was the only male breadwinner for his mother and four sisters after his father left; Grandma and her sister walked to and from school barefoot on the sidewalks because “it was the Depression. We saved our shoes for ‘good.’” The 1930s were a difficult and uncertain time for millions of Americans, but what my Grandparents enjoy remembering is that, for a moment, “If you could pony up a dime, you were in a different world.”

Marianne recommends these entertaining examples: 42nd Street (1933) It Happened One Night (1934) The Thin Man (1934) Flying Down to Rio (1933) The Public Enemy (1931) Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) The Red Rider (1934) Kid Millions (1934).

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