Going to the Movies in Kansas…Circa 1950s
…When you could have an evening’s entertainment for less than a quarter
When I was a kid growing up on a farm outside of Claflin, Kansas from the late1940s to late 1950s if you wanted to see a movie you had to travel to other towns in the county. The county seat of Barton County was Great Bend with a population of around 15,000, and was about 18 miles southwest as the crow flies. Great Bend had three movie theaters and a drive-in. My maternal grandmother lived in Great Bend and when we visited we often walked the 10-12 blocks to the theaters with neighborhood kids. In the mid '50s my uncle, Eldon "Timber" Harwood moved to Great Bend and became the manager of the Crest Theater and the Drive-in. You would think that this would have given me a leg up with free tickets and so forth. No such luck. All three theaters were on the same city block. The Drive in was on the western outskirts of town.
The town of Hoisington, population of about 3,000, was 14 miles straight west of Claflin, and it had a movie house. There was another seedy drive-in between Hoisington and Great Bend, and there was a theater in Ellinwood, population of over 2,000, and nine miles south of Claflin, but that was it for the county.
Barton County, Kansas (map published in 1899)
(Except for Odin and Galatia, none of the towns north of the Mo Pac now exist)
Sometime in the early 1950s the Lux Theater came to Claflin. The proprietors were Tony and Essie Wheatcroft. I don't know where they came from, but they were determined to give Claflin its movie house. The theater was constructed just south of Ed Steiner's pool hall on the west side of Main Street. An alley separated the theater from Emil Wickert’s farm implement dealership and garage. By today’s standards the Lux was a small movie house, with just a center section of seats flanked by an aisle against the walls on both sides. But that was big enough for a town with a population of less than 1000 souls.
I was in probably the fifth or sixth grade when the Lux came to town. On Saturday afternoons they showed the usual “B” western fare, including a cartoon and one of the old black and white serials, like Flash Gordon, Sherlock Holmes or the Rocketman, and maybe a news reel. Admission for kids was 14 cents, with a nickel for a box of popcorn. My gang and I usually went to the Saturday matinee every week if we could. As I recall the Lux showed films every night of the week as well and usually had first run films.
As we advanced to high school, got drivers licenses and started dating girls, the dynamics of movie going changed. We still patronized the Lux, but would sometimes venture to Great Bend or Hoisington depending on what was playing, and the drive-ins provided much better opportunities for kissy face or what ever other hanky panky your date would allow. We tried that in the back row of the Lux as well, but the chances of being seen were much better, and you would find yourself as the subject of gossip along the streets of Claflin the next day.
We had some fun in the Lux as well. Max Mathis, who was the father of my high school buddy and K-State room mate Wes, had one of the best routines of all. He would wait for a quiet scene in the move, and then blow a loud fart. He would then turn around and look at whoever was sitting behind him. It worked every time. Then there was the old “up through the bottom of the popcorn box” trick that was supposedly pulled on your date. I’ve heard a lot about that one, but can’t say that I ever really knew anyone who did it…except maybe Jim Foshee. Ask Bonnie to confirm that at the next high school reunion.
And then there were the drive-in antics. To save the price of one admission Schultz, Friedel and I snuck Pinky Galliart into the Great Bend Drive-in by locking him in the trunk. We didn’t let him out right away. We finally relented when the screaming and pounding got too loud. On another occasion Foshee and I threw a couple of old mattresses in the back of our Ford two and half ton wheat truck, picked up our dates; all four of us crammed into the cab, and headed for Great Bend. We were allowed into the drive-in if we’d go to the last row. We pulled into a slot with the back of the truck facing the screen, stretched the speaker up to the side board, and occupied the mattresses with our dates. Don’t think anything amiss happened. We had everybody’s attention with a truck in the drive-in, so we just watched the movie from the mattresses. I can’t remember what happened after the movie. And there was a very special night at the Hoisington Drive-in a few years later, but that is another story.
The Lux went out of business sometime during my later high school years, or soon after I left Claflin for K-State or the Naval Academy. When I came home on leave it was no more. I guess it lasted 8 or 10 years. It was a noble experiment, but a town the size of Claflin just couldn’t support its own theater. The fact that television arrived in Claflin during my early high school years may have had something to do with it as well.
So now you have an idea of how the movies impacted the lives of kids growing up in central Kansas around mid-century. It might not seem like much today, but there really wasn’t much else going on out there in those days. The movies provided a nice respite from the routine of life in a small rural farming community.
Dirck Praeger sends