Objects from history provide opportunities for nostalgia, learning

In the East Linn Museum’s back room sits an object from this area which causes us to ask, “What is it?”

Large and bulky, it has an opening on one end and another on the top. Is it a stove or a heater of some kind?

An identifying label tells us it is, in a way, sort of a heater, but in a remote way. It is what remains of the carbon arc projector from the once-upon-a-time Santiam Drive-In theater.

When the Sweet Home firemen burned down the derelict drive-in in 1994, Keith Gabriel rescued the projector and saved it for the museum. A housing development went in where people had once congregated to sit in their cars in the good weather we sometimes get from late spring to early fall.

Wayne Douglas, a museum visitor of a few years ago, fortuitously recognized the projector. His father, Royal E. Douglas, and Wayne’s uncle had built the theater. Initially, each brother contributed $50 to buy second-hand lumber from the razed Foster School.

Royal Douglas owned Doug’s Plumbing and Wiring, so he had easy access to the materials needed for a projector building housing also the concession stand, rest rooms and electronics necessary for setting up speakers.

The drive-in could hold up to 175 cars (with patient and courteous drivers, we presume), which entered one side of a toll booth or ticket booth and exited on the other. A playground in front of the raised screen accommodated children of those arriving early until it got dark enough to show the movie, cartoons, and usually a short film or two and a newsreel. All this sat in a pasture between Sweet Home and Foster until the 1990s, when the housing development went up between 46th and 47th Avenues.

But, by then it had been some time since the drive-in theater had functioned.

Drive-in movie theaters began back in the early 1930s to allow people to watch the increasingly popular works of the movie industry. The word “industry” indicates they were indeed a money making proposition, an integral part of the entertainment industry concerned more with profit than with artistry.

However, according to a Union Carbide Company ad, its projectors rated Oscar quality with the movie makers, up above the best, noted for clarity of image and superb at showing the ranges of colors in technicolor films.

The projectors depended on an arc light process like that used in welding and, as Wayne Douglas noted, if the reel should stop winding, the light burned right through the film. At a drive-in movie theater, we suspect this could lead to a raucous cacophony of honking horns and whistling males. But it, fortunately, was a rare occurrence.

What was it like, we wondered, to go to a drive-in theater back in the 1950s when the Santiam Drive-In was built? So we asked a few people, but some memories, like leaves float away with the wind. We hoped to learn more, but … drive-in movie theaters were cheaper, especially on family nights.

Then, as many as could get into a car would squeeze together and all got in for the price of just the car, heads not counted. In good weather a blanket would accommodate the viewers with the speaker lying on the grass.

So, if it weren’t such great weather, and the car held four kids and the parents, was there ever jostling for position and complaints about not being able to see? As one mother put it, there were some things she preferred not to remember. By sitting in a car in the dark some couples got privacy they might otherwise not get at home or at a movie theater, especially if they were courting. Otherwise, it was possible, too, to gourmandize through the movie presentation for those well prepared with Tupperware containers and snacks, instead of depending on the concession stand.

Nadine, a museum volunteer, remembered a trip to a drive-in-theater which produced a few problems. Her husband, Gerald, had built a camper to fit on the back of the pickup. It was high enough to include a bed over the cab.

They stopped to pay their fee. The toll booth had an extension over the ticket window, a porch to protect the cashier from rain. As Nadine and Gerald started to drive in to the parking area, the toll booth followed and was torn nearly from its foundations. The camper top had caught on the booth’s porch roof.

Gerald wanted to leave, but he had paid, so he might as well go see the movie, he was told.

With the Santiam Drive-In’s movie projector in mind, why not see what other ways of broadcasting entertainment in the past might exist in the East Linn Museum?

Naturally, several. Among them is another movie projector listed as being the first one used in Sweet Home’s Rio Theater. Also, two Art Deco radios (a Philco and a Zenith), a 1950s 21-inch television and, going way back into the early 20th century, a Gramophone, which used cylinders instead of discs.

The search stopped basically with the 1950s, the first half of 20th century which has been called the Century of Communication.

The Rio Theater still shows movies. In downtown Sweet Home, it was a spin off of the Roxy by the Gesslers, who operated both theaters until the Roxy was closed and the “New Rio” became the theater of choice back in the ’50s, the Roxy having operated previously at least in the 1930s and 1940s.

Those decades were a peak time for radio and movie entertainment. The movies finally had sound and radios could bring new programming right into the home. Even people who lived in rural areas without electricity could listen to battery operated radios. During the 1931-to-1945 war years, many farm families heard the progress made by soldiers on the Pacific and European fronts over battery-powered radios turned on exclusively during news broadcasts to save the batteries.

Nadine remembers putting her ear close to the radio to hear the question asked: “Who was that masked man?” during exploits of the Lone Ranger. Others listened to “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and varied tales of the Wild West while still others favored hard-boiled private eyes like Richard Diamond and yours truly, “Johnny Dollar,” “The Whistler” and “The Shadow.”

In many cases, programs on the radio merged with the movies. Comedians such as Abbot and Costello, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Jack Benny all turned up in the movies. Nadine recalls, too, how her sister would not sit next to her when an Abbott and Costello movie played at the Roxy. By laughing too loudly, she embarrassed her sister.

Kid’s fare like Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges and “Bomba,” the Jungle Boy (Johnny Sheffield in a leather loin cloth imitating Tarzan), cartoons, newsreels and especially B movies played at the Roxy, Rio and Santiam Drive-In.

B movies meant, in part, westerns in which Lash Larue who sported a bull whip, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott bested the bad guys.

In big-city settings, private eyes often did the same, sometimes with a little help from the constabulary. The heroes generally got the best-looking girls in the group.

Churned out with highly competent actors, actresses and crews, B-movies were meant to entertain and not to be mistaken for art. Big name stars seldom appeared in such films, but “Jezebel,” starring Bette Davis, did play at the Roxy in 1950.

Which brings us to the museum’s television set, the Motorola with a 21-inch screen and black-and-white reception. We began to get television here in the early 1950s. It had been around since the late 1920s, but a good way to transmit images had been hard to perfect and then World War II intervened.

A lot of us may remember back when our area was first receiving televised broadcasting. Once the family owned the requisite set and antenna, CBS’s channel six from Portland could be watched. After four in the afternoon, that is. Until 4 p.m, an eager viewer studied the test patterns.

One of the first programs on was a cartoon show, “Mr. Moon.” A scrawny Portlander wearing tights, a cape and a papier mache’ moon over his head introduced cartoons – old cartoons, often dating as far back as Betty Boop. Some of us might remember a jerky cartoon shown repeatedly about a whirling dervish.

It featured a refrain that went something like, “She’s the girl friend of the whirling dervish and the only one he knows. They dance all night in the pale moonlight, but little does he realize she’s only giving him the run around.”

Television literally slurped up all of those programs and B-movies popular for so long on the radio and in movie theaters. In fact, much of what we learned regarding movies, back to silents, came from watching TV.

‘The movies compensated by making bigger and brighter pictures featuring big name stars and radio went to chatter and music. A few daytime soap operas still hung on in radio and some of us can recall when Stella Dallas, Helen Trent, Ma Perkins continued to face life’s disappointments and entertain our mothers.

Some claimed that television did not spell the end to drive-in movie theaters but on the other hand, smaller cars did spell their demise by replacing gas guzzling show boats which could seat six 6-footers, especially when gas prices rose. Nadine recalled the Santiam Drive-In tried to survive by hosting swap meets in the early ’70s, with swappers filling the car stalls during daylight hours.

She also remembers the family’s television set and how her father would not let her sit close to the screen because of possible radio active waves and their potential damage. With all of the hills and ridges around here, earlier TV’s main disadvantage lay in not getting reception even as channels from Eugene and another from Portland reached us.

Changing channels or coping with stormy weather often meant someone had to go out and get on top of the roof to turn the antenna. It was a good time to have an adolescent boy unafraid of heights in the family.

Now movies are made to be shown on television, but the heyday of radio and movies is gone. Thousands of little movie theaters in smaller towns have been turned into something else while many drive-in theaters like the Santiam Drive-In have become housing developments or have otherwise been consumed by towns spreading out over them.

East Linn Museum’s movie projectors for the Santiam Drive-In and the Rio Theater were cast away, as were the Philco and Zenith radios and the Motorola television. Because we can remember a past for them, we draw nostalgia. Maybe we recall the smell of popcorn at the movie theater when we only had a nickle to spend and popcorn cost a dime. Or perhaps we recall the discovery we felt when really young, when we reached under our seat during a Tom and Jerry cartoon and found wads of chewing gum parked there.

Or perhaps we can compare what it was like to find the family car in the dark at the drive-in theater after a trip to the concession stand with running for the kitchen refrigerator during a television commercial. Then we timed our actions by the refrain, “Brillcream, a little dab will do you. Brillcreme, the girls will all pursue you, just rub a little Brillcreme in your hair.”

For younger generations, looking on the movie projectors, radios and television is something like our looking upon the Gramophone in the museum’s parlor. We know what it is. We know it worked, but how unfinished technologically it seems, primitive. Gramophones didn’t even use electricity, but were wound up.

The 1906 Sears Roebuck catalog gives an example of some of the music heard over them, such songs as “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” “Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?”, “Hello, Central, give me Heaven,” “Darling Nellie Gray”, and “Good Bye, Nellie Gray.” All songs, 12 cents each or $2.15 a dozen were sung by tenors and baritones because their lower voices recorded better. This favored Enrico Caruso’s popularity but it also meant, in later years of radio and television, that there was discrimination against women’s “shrill” voices in announcing.

Those of us who in the distant past encountered wound up record machines know, too, that despite signs labeled “Don’t Touch” when playing a record on one, a winding down tenor can begin to sound like a baritone with a drunken drawl. But such is a nostalgic memory.

When it comes to movie memorabilia we invite you to look for a fire-scarred porcelain Mickey Mouse with damaged feet, who once pleased some child and a permanent wave machine with dangling electric cord tentacles ending in clamps designed to burn moppets’ curls into Shirley Temple waves – if the hair wasn’t burned off!

The East Linn Museum is definitely a place in which to allow a little nostalgia into the day, or to share memories with the grandkids. We will be open again Thursday, Friday, Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each week, beginning April 1.