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Memories from the old theater

By Terry Shaw

When I was growing up in Litchfield in the 1950s, we had two movie theaters in town. They were the grand Hollywood and the lesser grand Unique Theater.

When the Catholic church in Litchfield burned down in 1920, before my time, Mass was held in the Unique Theater for a year until the new church was built. The Unique wasn’t allowed to show movies on Sundays, anyway, until April 14, 1929. We kids thought of the Unique Theater as “our” theater. We called it the “Uni-Q.”

The exterior of the Unique Theater in Litchfield. Contributed photo

Our theater showed our kind of movies, that is the movies starring the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges, and Ma and Pa Kettle. Then there were the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns and, finally, the science fiction and monster movies we both loved and feared. We went to every single monster movie, but some of us didn’t watch the screen when the monsters appeared. My younger brother Pat would dive under his seat when The Creature From The Black Lagoon or some other monster would show up on the screen. He implored me to “Tell me when it’s gone! Tell me when it’s over. Is it gone yet?” Invariably, I would lie and have him come up while the monster was still on the screen. Little brothers are put on this earth for older brothers to tease and torment.

The movie cost 20 cents if you sat in the first seven rows, except for Saturday afternoon matinees, when all of the seats were 20 cents. ($2.20 today, for inflation, which would still be a bargain.) Saturday afternoon matinees had a cowboy serial installment before the main feature which starred Johnny Mack Brown, Rex Allen, Gene Autry with his sidekick Smiley Burnette, or Roy Rogers with Trigger and Dale Evans. In the 1930s and 1940s, you could take your matinee ticket stub over to the Land O’Lakes creamery after the movie and get a free ice cream treat with it.

Our mother would give us a quarter on Friday nights for doing our weekly chores. Pat and I always went to the movies with the quarter. I’d “buck” him there on my bike, meaning he would sit on the bar between the handlebars and the seat. Once, while I was teasing him by pretending to peddle into a parked car, he swallowed his quarter. He had put it in his mouth for safekeeping because his elastic-waisted trousers had no pockets. We didn’t know what to do about the lost quarter. We explained the problem to the lady sitting in the ticket booth at the theater. She, being a mother, understood, and let Pat in with a promise that he’d pay double the following week. But he didn’t have the nickel left over from the quarter to buy any candy for the movie, so I had to share my Stark Wafers with him.

With the five cents I had left from my quarter after buying my ticket, I’d buy a package of Stark Wafers from the person working the candy counter. Stark Wafers was a roll of round quarter-sized candy wafers wrapped in almost clear cellophane. Another similar brand was Necco, which bought out Stark. Some of the wafers tasted like soap, we thought, but if you sucked slowly on the discs and didn’t chew them, they lasted for most of the movie. And yes, I did know what soap tasted like…thank you, Mom. In the days before us, the theaters didn’t sell candy or popcorn.

Movie poster from one of the movies played at the Unique Theater. Contributed photo

I had my very first date at the Unique Theater. In the seventh grade, I had fallen in love with a beautiful sixth grade girl with short curly blonde hair, a winning smile, and the most beautiful lips. Somehow, at 12 and a half years old, I convinced her mother that she could trust me to take her little daughter to a movie unchaperoned on Friday, Dec. 20, 1957. With my limited resources, I chose the 7:30 pm show at the Unique Theater, which was showing Beginning Of The End, a monster movie, of course. It starred Minnesota born Peter Graves and it was about giant grasshoppers. I paid the ticket lady 40 cents and my date and I sat in the first seven rows. Luckily, for me, she turned down my invitation to buy her some popcorn. I didn’t buy any Stark Wafers that night either, for the first time.

Sometime after the cartoon, (Woodman Spare That Tree), the previews of the coming attractions, the newsreel, and the comedy short called Let’s Talk Turkey, I worked up the courage to ask her if I could hold her hand. I was so nervous that my hand was sweating like crazy. Regardless of the sweaty palm, once I got hold of her beautiful tiny hand, I wasn’t letting go. I was in heaven. I would’ve tried to put my arm around her shoulder too, but I was deathly afraid of being seen by the other kids in the theater and then teased about it in school after Christmas vacation was over. Sitting by a girl was a daring enough thing to do and, for now, the touch of her hand was quite enough for my young and fast beating heart to stand.

The Unique is gone today, but the memories aren’t. The building was tore down in May of 1996 and now it’s just a vacant lot. But I’m sure dozens, maybe hundreds, of Litchfield teens and pre-teens had their first dates and maybe their first make-out sessions there.

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