The Free Show

The Hub Theater in Rochelle was the first place I watched movies. During summers in my childhood the local merchants sponsored a free show for kids each Wednesday afternoon. To get into the theater a child had to have a ticket, and to have a ticket the child, or the child’s parent, had to request one from one of the local stores. It was a simple process. One simply walked up to the cash register and asked; no purchase was necessary, one could even ask for more than one so a friend or two could also get in. But you had to get a new ticket every week. I’m not sure if the merchants were trying to attract children, or at least their parents, into the stores, since someone had to go into the store to get a ticket, or if they were hoping that the free show would provide them with at least one afternoon each week with no worries about small hands touching everything in the store.

In any case, each Wednesday afternoon during the summer what seemed like thousands of kids converged on the Hub to stream through the doors, buy popcorn, candy, and pop (this was the rural Midwest in the ’50s — it was pop) at a small counter in the front hall, then noisily claim seats. The Hub was built to serve as a variety theater as well as a movie theater. It had a stage at the front, and a heavy red curtain could hide the movie screen. There was also a balcony, a favored place as I recall, that usually filled rapidly. The least desired seats were those directly below the front edge of the balcony, where one might be subjected to popcorn or pop spills or the occasional maliciously thrown candy package or wad of gum.

Invariably the movie didn’t start quickly enough for the throng that filled the seats, and the room was soon vibrating with a rhythmic chant, “We want the show!! We want the show!!”, accompanied by stomping feet. I have always believed that the manager or the projectionist purposefully delayed in order to encourage this display of eagerness, but perhaps the audience would have chanted whether there was a delay or not.

Suddenly the theater lights dimmed and a white funnel appeared in the air, connecting a tiny window behind the balcony with the screen in the front of the room. The first images were always advertisements for the theater’s concessions and for local businesses. I remember ads for Barker and Sullivan’s Rexall Drugs, and possibly for Hornsby’s Five and Dime, but there must have been more; the ads seemed to last much too long. The ads were followed by a cartoon, Tom and Jerry, or Looney Toons, or Woody Woodpecker. And finally the opening credits for the first movie appeared — Captain Blood, or Robin Hood, or a Three Stooges comedy, or any number of movies that were cheap for the theater to rent but exciting or funny enough to satisfy a rowdy crowd of pre-teens.

The free show was a double feature. More ads and cartoons heralded a second feature, a second hour or so lost in someone’s adventure or slapstick comedy.

No movie was watched in silence, no actions went without comment. I was reminded of this some years later in Chicago when a friend and I ventured into a neighborhood theater to watch a re-release of a 1940s Batman serial. The two of us, two white college guys amid of a sea of black kids, were immersed in the sounds of hilarity and utter disrespect for the film-maker’s art. Hey, it was kids watching a movie, and it was loud, and it was fun, and we had been just like that at the Hub.

It always surprised me that the sun was shining when the second feature ended and we left the theater. The sudden flash of daylight when the exit doors burst open hurt the eyes, and the first few steps back into the real world seemed less real than the movies we were leaving. Sometimes we carried the stories away with us, sometimes we simply returned to our normal lives having been entertained in community for an afternoon.

I don’t know if the free show continued after I outgrew it. I hope that it did.

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3 thoughts on “The Free Show

  1. Reading your entry, I can smell the buttered popcorn in the lobby and hear the popping as that round thing spun around, dropping fresh kernels into the big glass popcorn case. I can feel those taffy “all day suckers” glueing my teeth together–did they cost a penny?
    What I remember most, movie-wise, were cowboys and Indians, galloping on white horses, black horses, palaminos, paints. I remember Debbie Reynolds, and one movie in particular–Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back”–apparently the true story of his experience in World War II. Do you remember that?

  2. I love this essay. My sister worked at the Hub, and she always slipped me a free “nickel bag”. (I think that term has a whole new meaning now.)
    Even when I got older, I took by babysitting charges to the show to get a couple hours of peace. My favorite movie was The Long, Long Trailor, which had Lucy and Ricki in a hilarious honeymoon story.

  3. Thank you both for filling in memories of those summer afternoons at the Hub. Cowboys and Indians, yes many, many cowboys and Indians and horses, although I don’t remember any specific ones. I’m not sure I remember seeing “To Hell and Back”, but I do remember seeing “Sargent York”, and some other war movies whose names and stars I have forgotten. And comedies, like “The Long, Long Trailer” and those with Debbie Reynolds. There were far too many to remember them all — more than the movies themselves I remember the theater, the crowds, the smell of the popcorn, the joy it seemed to give us, all of which made this experience special and separated it from watching movies on TV. Nancy — thanks for letting me know that the free show continued after I was no longer going to it. I think it was a great benefit for kids in Rochelle and regret that there was nothing similar for my kids when they were growing up.

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