Oshkosh Stories and Snapshots: The Movies

The Movies
Contributed by: Ron

There were two theaters to choose from on our side of town, and for ten or fifteen cents you could see a double feature, cartoons, coming attractions, a newsreel, and, if you chose the Star, a weekly serial as well. The Mode was the theater of choice when you wanted to be drawn into a story, to be caught up in the action, the suspense. To walk that one short block away to the quietness of this theater and experience another place in another time in a darkened place of make-believe was a way of shutting out the outside world for four hours on those long-ago Sunday afternoons.

The Star, though, was the most fun because it was not as strictly supervised as the Mode. If you were in a mood to watch a good World War II flick or something else that had depth slightly below the surface, you chose the Mode. They didn't permit any noise there. But if you wanted to have fun, act like a kid, throw popcorn or jujus at someone two rows down you went to the Star. And the Star showed serials. The serials (we called them chapters) relied upon a much-tested device for keeping suspense alive one weekend to the next and it seemed to always work. It was drama by installments. They were motion picture cliffhangers even in the literal sense. How many times did the stagecoach plunge over the cliff just as the episode ended? How many times did the wagon laden with burning hay crash into the ranch house killing the besieged hero, his girl companion and his faithful saddlemate? We knew that the hero and those with him had escaped unharmed ready for the next episodic adventure. Nevertheless, the nagging thought that this time they might not have escaped, tugged at and returned us to the Star the next Sunday, and the next, and the Sunday after that. The Perils of Nyoka and its sequel Nyoka the Jungle Queen were two of my favorites. Nyoka was a lady Tarzan, swinging through the trees on vines, battling fearlessly with diamond hunters and gorillas. But, unlike Tarzan, she was feminine and beautiful. And when she was captured and about to be tortured or harmed her boyfriend always came to the rescue. In a few of those episodes with a leap of faith and some imagination, I became that hero and the benefactor of Nyoka's favors.

I enjoyed most every kind of movie: musicals, westerns, adventures, war stories, films of most any description. And a few that I watched--like Casablanca, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Grapes of Wrath--stand out above most of the others. And if movies do indeed influence, mold, and shape, these three have done that for me.

The Star featured western films of the B variety. The plots, thin as they were, were pretty much alike. There was the ubiquitous cowtown and the barroom brawl, cattle stampedes and the cattle baron, the desperados and the deputized men, and always the pretty girl and her reluctant hero. Filling that role were the likes of Wild Bill Elliott, Lash La Rue, Hopalong Cassidy and the singing cowboys, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The images of the hero and his sidekick riding their horses, alone or with their band of deputized men, chasing desperados, firing their guns and dodging bullets, getting the outlaws in the end, and then riding off into the sunset are there to be retrieved in all of us who spent those countless Sunday afternoons at the Star Theater.

But there were downsides to the Star beyond the insidious noise and rowdiness when you actually got caught up in the film's plot and it's characters. The toilet facilities were in the basement. Rumor had it that rats roamed freely there so you either held it, or, if that was not possible, not take long doing what you had to do.

And then there was Charlie, a little boy in a man's body who was a fixture on those Sunday afternoons. Charlie had difficulty distinguishing between make-believe and reality, and when he became immersed in what was happening on the screen, which seemed to be always, he would cry out, shout for the evil-doers to stop, bawl when a dog was run over by a stagecoach, cheer when Hoppy corralled the horse thieves, or when Wild Bill out-dueled the town bully, and clap loudly when the hero and his lady rode of into the sunset. It was a scene beyond belief to those of us too young to understand. So we were mean, real mean as kids can often be. Charlie often went home crying not because of the roller coaster of emotions he experienced watching the movie. No, it wasn't that. Sad to say, it was because of us; what we said, what we did.

Although there were movie theaters downtown, two that were large and ornamental and one, the Strand, that was just plain beautiful, I chose to spend most of my time watching B movies and second-run movies on the south side. They were closer and cheaper and Beerntsen's, where penny and nickel candy was sold, was just across the street.


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