44.3waller - Imagining and Promoting the Small-Town Theater...

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© 2005 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819 Cinema Journal 44, No. 3, Spring 2005 3 Imagining and Promoting the Small-Town Theater by Gregory A. Waller Abstract: This essay examines the small-town theater as business strategy, local institution, and culturally resonant myth in the early 1930s, focusing on trade press discourse and a series of stories published in the Saturday Evening Post that con- cern the operation of a movie theater in a small Indiana town. The key man of the picture business, now and always, is the exhibitor. “The Road to the Public,” Exhibitors Herald-World , October 4, 1930 We are for the exhibitor, first, last and always, but we would not say that the exhibitor has not been to blame for many of his own troubles. “Skies Look Brighter for the Independent Producer,” Billboard , March 8, 1930 The two hundred–seat Llamarada Theater in Hilltown, Indiana, unquestionably stands as one of the most well-documented small-town movie theaters of the early 1930s. Owned and operated by a locally born and raised man who had been exhib- iting films in Hilltown since the nickelodeon era, the state-of-the-art Llamarada was built in 1930 and managed to remain solvent throughout the Depression and independent despite the efforts of regional theater chains to dominate exhibition in the Midwest. From existing records, we know a good deal about the size and makeup of the Llamarada’s staff, the managerial and programming policies of its owner-operator, and, most important, its audience and its place in Hilltown as “an institution, an important part of the community.” 1 The problem—or at least the apparent problem—is that the Llamarada Theater and Hilltown, Indiana, are fictional constructs, created by Margaret Weymouth Jackson for a series of five stories published in the Saturday Evening Post be- tween August and October 1930. 2 That the stories are fiction does not negate their historical value—or, for that matter, that of the many other movie-related works of fiction published in the Post during this period. In fact, the Llamarada stories are an important, overlooked resource, which, when read in the context of the motion picture trade press, can help us analyze the small-town theater as concrete practice, business strategy, and culturally resonant myth, particularly during the first years of the Depression. Focusing on the audiences as well as the entertainment providers, this historically specific analysis will underscore even Gregory A. Waller is chair of the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. His publications include Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial En- tertainment in a Southern City, 1896–1930 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995) and Moviegoing in America (Blackwell, 2002).
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4 Cinema Journal 44, No. 3, Spring 2005 as it problematizes the role of the local, a topic of considerable import across twentieth-century media history. Until recently, film historians have understood the early sound era principally
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44.3waller - Imagining and Promoting the Small-Town Theater...

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