Nights at the Orpheum

Staff writer Randy Bartley has a feature on the 1919 grand opening of the Orpheum Theater on the front page of this edition. The story interested me very much as once upon a time, I worked at Orpheum Theater.

I recently was reading a news feature about the future of "movie theaters." Seems the pandemic and a host of other issues exacerbated by the pandemic are threatening to erase the movie theaters as we know them.

I rarely go to new movies anymore. I like a good story but movies have become nothing more than a series of explosions hurling the stars through the air with their arms and legs twirling all about with profanity-laced dialog wrapped in a few car chases and shoot-outs.

There are very few "good stories" left at the movies that don't include a "message" you're beat over the head with. And then there's Hollywood itself, but let's not open that can of waste.

But back in the day, for a few months, I saw every new movie that came out. It was around the second-half of 1988 and the first half of 1989. I was the manager at the Orpheum and Garby theaters in Clarion. It was the first job I had after I came home from the army.

I also was the ticket-seller, ticket-taker, popcorn popper, projectionist, floor sweeper and, well, you get the idea. (Fun fact: The popcorn sold at the Orpheum was popped at the Garby and hauled up the street in clean trash bags.)

By 1988/89, the Garby and the Orpheum were in pretty bad shape. The theaters had been sectioned off and each building had two screens.

The Garby was in a little better shape than the Orpheum if you didn't take into consideration the boiler down in front at the Garby. It tended to leak hot water and occasionally "go out."

If you read Randy Bartley's feature, you'll understand what a mighty fine new and modern theater the Orpheum was when it opened along Main Street in 1919.

In 1919, it was grand. It was clean. It was as up-to-date as a theater could be. People flocked to it.

By 1988, well, not so much

The projection room was up a set of twisted, uneven stairs in a narrow corner in the front of the building.

I remember one particular night, it was raining quite heavily. I was dumping popcorn into the popcorn display case. A very polite older woman came out of the darkened theater carrying a piece of plaster.

She told it had fell from the ceiling and landed on the seat next to her. She thought I might like to know.

She handed the piece of plaster to me and it was dripping wet.

I ran up to the projection room to see if I could see any sagging plaster. When I arrived upstairs, there was water all over the floor.

I looked up at the ceiling of the projection room and there was a steady stream of water flowing out of the ceiling right around the electrical socket for the single light bulb.

Now I'm no electrician, but I was convinced that was probably not a good thing. The rain stopped and the show went on. The next day I used a long board to knock the rest of the loose plaster down.

Another night, as I was restocking the over-priced candy counter, one of the front doors simply fell off the building. A few long wood screws took care of that but it never opened again.

The movies had to be run at their starting time. Even if no one was there.

We had one movie running it was an awful movie about a family vacation gone bad. A young man and woman came in late. I told them they had missed about the first half-hour of the movie but they didn't care and bought tickets.

I had to go into the theater later to check something down front. I noticed the couple had left or so I thought.

They were still there. Down on the floor in front of the first row. They didn't seem to have any interest in watching the movie; they were busy with other business. But they had to be cold being naked and all.

One evening I started the projector to show "Beaches," in my opinion a terrible movie, and I went down to the Garby to start the projectors there.

When I returned to the Orpheum, I discovered the "take-up" platter wasn't working and I had run about an hour of film onto the floor. I seriously considered just leaving, but luckily, Alex and his son happened to stop by.

Alex, an older gentleman with only one arm, had been a projectionist there for years and he and his son Steve somehow got all that film gathered up and spun back onto the platter.

Ah, the Orpheum circuit breakers broke, ice makers froze, carpets rolled up.

Oddly enough, though, I did enjoy my time there. I had some great people who worked with me there. Some of the movies weren't too bad.

But by 1989, some 70 years after it had opened, the Orpheum Theater was a dump.

Several efforts were made to restore it, convert it and save it and today its nice place to have a pizza.

The Garby Theater is long gone, too. It's now home to another business.

And if you ask me, "the movies" are gone now, too. Like the Orpheum, they suffered a slow decline and became a memory of something that used to be good.

The author is the editor of the CLARION NEWS.