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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? — “In case of fire, shut door — and beat it.”
That was the advice written on the inside of the door to the projection room in the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium when Walter Weeks was a teenager and in charge of showing movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Weeks graduated from Colfax High School in 1952. He has lived in Hudson for many years, but he returned to Colfax September 21 for his class reunion at Whitetail Golf Course.
“I was hired when I was 14. Speck Scott owned the movie theater franchise at that time, and he was the science teacher at Colfax High School,” Weeks recalled.
“The current projectionist at the time was a student in Eau Claire at the university. He was graduating, and they needed a replacement. I was a student of Speck Scott’s. He said, ‘Would you be interested in learning the machines?’” Weeks said.
“I was there for many sessions before they turned me loose and I was on my own. I was there from 14 years old to 18 years old when I graduated and then left Colfax,” he said.
“There were two of us. My friend, who was a year younger, Rollie Samuelson. We got $4 a night. The nights ended anywhere from 10:30 to 11:30, something like that. After school, the previous week, I would go and splice together the previews for the following week,” Weeks said.
Leaving the movie theater late at night could be a harrowing experience.
“They had the jail next to the back door [by the clerk’s office downstairs]. And after I finished running the movie, I always went out that door [by the jail] because I lived down the street. It always made me a little apprehensive to go close to where that jail cell was, because I didn’t know if he could grab me or what, if there was a prisoner in the cell,” Weeks said.
For those who are wondering, the jail cell is still in the municipal building next to the clerk’s office, but it is used to store office supplies now.
In addition to showing movies on the weekends — Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — movies also were shown after school at certain times.
“We would run a movie when there was a basketball game or a football game, a movie for after school before the games started. Mostly basketball because those games started later,” Weeks said.
Prior to the renovation of the municipal building, before the projection room was turned into a mechanical room for the heating and ventilation system, the walls were lined with tin.
The tin on the walls was there to make the room less flammable.
“The access door to the projection booth was a crummy old white paint wood door. The fellow we were following, I think, was Harmon Teppen. And anyway, the cellulose film was very flammable. The light source was an electric arc, which is very hot. He had painted on the inside of the door, ‘In case of fire, shut door, and beat it,’” Weeks said.
In the “good old days,” fires in movie projection rooms were a fairly common occurrence.
“They don’t have that door up there now. If they still had that door, I’d pay good money for it!” Weeks said.
While $4 a night for showing movies might not necessarily sound like a huge amount of money today, the pay still was not easy to come by.
“We would have to shake the $4 a night out of Speck Scott, it seemed like. It was not a regular, voluntary payment,” Weeks, said.
“We would have to go to his house on Saturday and get paid for a couple of weeks,” he explained.
Still, Weeks enjoyed the job — most of the time.
“I was recalling just yesterday that I got to be pretty skilled at repairing those old antique pieces of movie equipment. They should have been in the Smithsonian museum,” he said.
“One night, the cable broke. So I went out to the balcony and looked around, and Ruthie Noer was in there. I said, ‘Do you have a bobby pin?’ And she did. I took the bobby pin and repaired that belt and continued the movie that night. It was yesterday I was telling my daughter the story,” Weeks said.
Weeks noted he had just come from his class reunion.
“We learned that Ruthie Noer had died. She was one of my classmates, and we were saddened to hear of her passing. Her father, Victor Noer, had the drug store,” he said.
“Ruthie was a good friend. We all played in the concert band and the marching band. I never participated in sports. I never had the time or the desire,” Weeks said.
“Ruthie played the coronet. She was very skillful at it. I played the drums. We had a little pep band that we called the Blue Notes that we played before and at intermission for the basketball games,” he said.
“I worked for Victor Noer, too, shoveling snow, at 7 a.m. and also carrying stuff from the basement to the sales floor and vice versa and cleaning up,” he said.
Just as the Colfax Commercial Club provides concessions today for movies in the auditorium of the municipal building, when Weeks was the projectionist, concessions were available, too.
“They had a popcorn concession. A machine. On the first landing. The projection was on the top landing. My sister sold tickets there. We used to come out of the booth, and we would lower a container down to get our bag of popcorn. I just learned this morning from one who knows that the container that was used was a ceramic chamber pot. I had no idea,” Weeks said.
Faylene (Keilholz) Howe, Janet (Johnson) Creaser and Carol (Scharlau) Stuckert were Walter Weeks’ classmates, and several days after the reunion, the three of them stopped by the Colfax Messenger office to bring a picture of those who had attended the class reunion.
“During Walter’s day, when he was running the projector, we were selling tickets and popcorn in the Sue Hill’s history room. We sold the tickets, and we had a big popcorn machine there and a candy counter,” Howe said.
The Colfax History Room, with Susan Hill as the curator, is located to the right of the doors leading into the auditorium.
“We had a candy counter and a cash drawer. We always laughed. The tickets were so cheap. Nine cents for kids. But Speck always said he got the last penny out of them because he had a lot of penny candy and candy bars,” Howe said.
“Speck ran a matinee when there were games,” she noted.
“Janet reminded Walter — it was pretty much Walter and Rollie Samuelson who ran the projector — Janet reminded them they would let a chamber pot down with a rope from the projection room to have it filled with popcorn,” Howe said.
As he had mentioned in the interview, Weeks did not realize the conveyance for their popcorn was a chamber pot until they were at this year’s class reunion.
“We didn’t sell pop, though. There couldn’t be anything ‘wet’ inside the theater,” Stuckert said.
“Friday and Saturday night was always ‘cowboy movies,’ although once in a while maybe a mystery. Sunday and Monday were musicals and mysteries,” she said.
“Technicolor. And then there were a lot of short subjects. The Three Stooges,” Howe said.
“Bowery Boys, too,” Creaser said.
“And news reels,” Howe said.
“Double features on Friday and Saturday. It was cowboys and something else. Technicolor. The musicals,” Creaser said.
“Carol’s family of sisters were all into the movie star magazines,” Howe said.
“Like what you’d have on your bedroom wall, all the pictures of the movie stars,” Creaser said.
“When I left home, Joan (Scharlau) took them all out in the backyard and burned them all,” Stuckert said with a laugh.
“The drug store got a lot of money out of you from all the magazines,” Howe said.
“I got a lot of them from Egil Rasmussen in the post office. He sold magazines at the post office. On the honor system. He had a little box, and you’d put your money in there,” Stuckert said.
“He was blind. He could count his money. He had his money just so, but he knew what he had,” Howe said.
“I am so proud of the people who are so devoted (to showing movies in the auditorium now). All the time they put into it,” she said.
Although not during the era that Walter, Faylene, Janet and Carol remember movies in the auditorium, at one point in the municipal building’s history, the auditorium was known as the Cozy Theater.
The Colfax Commercial Club, in partnership with the Colfax Public Library, will be showing movies at the Cozy Theater in December, and January. Watch the Colfax Messenger for more details.