Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Springfield's Tower Theatre

by Pa Rock

One of my goals when I began this blog back in the waning days of 2007 was to occasionally use it as a repository of bits of my personal history so that one day if my grandkids, or their grandkids, wanted to know more about me they could dig through the Ramble and come up with the occasional odd historical nugget.

The major problem with that plan, now that I have posted nearly 2,400 entries in the interim, is that I tend to lose track of what I have already discussed.    For instance, I wrote a nice remembrance of my good friend, the late Fred Blue, early on, and then basically repeated it a couple of years later.  Old people tend to regurgitate themselves.

Today I am going to write about the time I spent working at the Tower Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, while I was in college back during the sixties.  I have written at length in this blog about working at the Ozark Theatre in my hometown of Noel, Missouri, during my high school years, and I have probably mentioned the Tower, because the two film houses were related, but I hope most of what I submit today is new to the Ramble.

The recollection of life at the Tower was accidentally inspired by a friend from college days who sent me an email yesterday containing an anecdote about the Plaza Theatre at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.   He didn't mention Kansas City in the email, and when I hurriedly read it, at O-dark-thirty, one of the rusty wires in my old brain got crossed with another and I thought he was referring to the Tower Theater on the Plaza in Springfield.  That set me to thinking about my days there and making a few notes.  An unfenced mind tends to wander.

Back in the day, the fall of 1966 when I first attended Southwest Missouri State College (now known as Missouri State University) in Springfield, the growing cow town only had four movie theaters.  (Four, if one did not count the Studio, a place that showed X-rated movies to old men in trench coats!)  Three of the four respectable theaters were owned by the Fox Company.  They were the Fox, which was located on the city square, and the Landers and Gilloiz, both situated downtown a couple of blocks from the square.

(One needed to get to shows at the Landers early because late-comers invariably had to sit behind the poles that were used to hold up the balcony - a circumstance that caused for aggravating split-screen viewing.)

The fourth respectable theatre was the Tower, which was a property of the Dickinson theatre chain - as was the Ozark Theatre in Noel.  Dickinson had been my employer for several years preceding my move to Springfield.  The Tower was (and is) located on the Plaza shopping center at the major intersection of Sunshine and Glenstone which - at that time - was on the edge of the city.

As a new arrival in Springfield with a background in working in movie theaters, that seemed to be the best option for a part-time job search.  My first stop was at the Fox Company because all of their theaters were within a walkable distance of campus.  The general manager was in charge of all three theaters, and he informed me that he didn't need any help.   He encouraged me to hop on a city bus and go visit with Mr. McDonald at the Tower.

A.C. "Mac" McDonald hired me on the spot to sell concessions.  The position started as part-time, but quickly morphed into most nights and every weekend.  It was a pleasant, though often hectic, work environment, and the other employees soon adopted me as part of their family.  Mac was a windbag who somehow managed to keep the whole place running without ever exerting too much physical strain himself.  His main squeeze, Ethel, was a severe sort who worked the box office.  Webster's used a likeness of Ethel to illustrate both "dour" and "sour."

David, a very professional type, was the doorman and ticket-taker.  He was a nice guy who would occasionally step in and help sell concessions when we were slammed.

Jim,  a young wild hair, ran the projectors.  Jim was a womanizer who could always be counted on to purchase alcohol for thirsty minors.  Jim was killed in a car wreck while I was employed at the Tower, and I was promoted upstairs to the projection booth to take his place, where, if I'm not mistaken, my pay jumped from sixty to ninety cents an hour.

Life in the projection booth had its moments, but it was overlaid with serious monotony.  The Ozark Theatre ran films for one weekend each - five showings.  The Tower, on the other hand, ran movies until people quit coming to see them.   I acquired an assistant when my best friend from Noel, James Carroll (who had also worked at the Ozark Theatre), came to Springfield for college a couple of years later.  He and I have joked over the intervening years about watching certain movies ad infinitum - and ad nauseam!.   Again, I may be mistaken, but I believe James and I together saw The Sterile Cuckoo with Liza Minnelli a total of thirty-seven times!  (Thanks, Mike Box, for reminding me of that!)

One of my clearest memories of working at the Tower occurred one Sunday afternoon while I was selling concessions.  The alarm in the jewelry store next door went off, and we were suddenly swarmed with police.  The store had been robbed, and the burglars accidentally set off the alarm on their way out - and we didn't hear a thing until it started ringing.

Another memorable moment occurred when Mac flirted with the trench coat crowd by running a Swedish movie, Dear John, which was essentially a ninety-minute bedroom scene.  That same week the Gillioz scheduled Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (and the wonderful Sandy Dennis).  Virginia Woolfe contained lots of raunchy language, but was nowhere near as risqué as Dear John.  Some local church groups, led by former congressman O.K. Armstrong,  set up a protest line outside of the Gilloiz.   After the protest was covered by all of the local news outlets, people flocked to the Gilloiz to see what all of the fuss was about - and hardly anyone came to the Tower.  Mac was furious, ranting and raving about how he was showing a much dirtier movie than the Gilloiz!

Sometimes life just isn't fair.

Today there are multiplexes across the sprawling city of Springfield.  The last time I was at the Landers, it was home to the acting troupe from the Springfield Little Theatre, and I have no idea what eventually became of the Fox and Gilloiz.   The city square was eventually redesigned into a park with no automobile traffic, so the Fox more than likely disappeared or was reborn as something else.  The Tower, with its distinctive tower structure, still stands on the Plaza.  I don't know if it ever shows movies, but I heard that is home to a radio station and possibly even hosts church services.  A sad end indeed for that once venerable, and fun, institution.

Today Palm Valley Cinema in Goodyear, Arizona, is the place where I normally go to watch movies.  It is a multiplex that has seen better days.  Palm Valley Cinema happens to be owned by Dickinson Theatres, and I occasionally mention to the teens selling popcorn there that I got my professional start doing the same work for the same employer.  They are seldom impressed!


Xobekim said...

I think geography trumped true outrage when the righteous protested at the Gillioz and not the Tower. The High Street Baptist Church was located within marching distance of that theater.

Years later High Street moved east to the what we called the Bypass, it is now called the Schoolcraft Freeway. Had they moved earlier Mac might have gotten his publicity.

I always thought High Street should have changed their name to Bypass Baptist Church when they made their move. The disagreed.

Tim said...

Great to read the details in this post. When people argue with me about my recollection of events I refer them to this blog and let my DNA do the talking.