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.