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By Bob Sandidge

 
 

Dr. Bass   Premier Theater       Last Picture Show      Eleven Stores
   
China Trees           John Appman         Grayville '61       Last Day Of School

 
The Last Picture Show

The story of Charlie Brechner and the Wabash Theatre   
by  W.F. (Bill) Werzner

 

After the Premiere Theater burned in the spring of 1948, downtown Grayville was without a picture show for the first time since 1907.

When the late Charles “Charlie” Brechner died in 1962, I was working as a projectionist and wrote an article about this motion picture pioneer that was published in Box Office Magazine.  According to the material that I found in the Mercury Independent’s archives,  Charlie worked for the railroad around the turn of the century.  In 1907 he left the railroad, traveled to Chicago, bought a hand cranked projector and screen, and returned to Grayville.  He borrowed 120 folding chairs from the undertaker, and opened Grayville’s first motion picture theatre, “The Theatorium”.  Just where it was located , I am not sure, but I recall some of the old timers saying that it was in the building located on the northeast corner of North and Court Streets.  Several others opened storefront theatres during the teens and twenties, but Charlie managed to outlast the competition.  Now the fire ravaged shell of a building that used to house the Premier was boarded up and without movies, Grayville just wasn’t much fun.   

Grayville was a Saturday night town back then.  The oil boom was still going on, the war was over, people had money to spend and the sidewalks were full of people having a night on the town.  Several people including my uncle, the late George Werzner, were trying to gather some investors together to buy the property west of Bowman's Market on North Street and build a new theatre.  But the man who owned the property didn’t want to join the effort and sell his small restaurant that was located there. 

Then it happened!  One day the whole town was abuzz with word that a theatre chain from Harrisburg would build a new theatre on North Street where the Hall stores once stood.  This new theatre would be built with the latest state of the art technology from the air conditioning system to the projection room.  It was to become the envy of all the other towns in the area.  Turner – Farrar Theatres of Harrisburg began construction in 1948 with a huge excavation that quickly filled with water when the rains came.  I remember how North Street resembled a yellow sheet of clay as tons of water was pumped from the construction site.  Finally the weather cooperated and concrete was poured.  Soon the steel skeleton was assembled and I remember watching from across the street as a large crane lifted the steel roof girders into place.  The brickwork followed and we began to get an idea of how the new building would look.  I remember the first night they lit up that beautiful marquee on the new Wabash Theatre.  It was one of the prettiest this side of Evansville and seemed to light up the whole downtown. 

One day Charlie came to our café and offered to give us a little tour of the nearly completed building.  That was when my father and I saw the interior for the first time.  I was about six years old then.  I remember how the place smelled of fresh paint and the interior seemed huge to a little guy like me, we paused and watched as the painters finished up the walls near the stage exit door.  Charlie told us we would soon be watching movies in the finest of picture shows.  The Wabash opened its doors in July 1949 and one of the movies shown that day was “Hold that Baby”.  I found the movie ads from that opening day upstairs in the office when I worked there as a projectionist in the early 1960’s.  Perhaps they are still filed away somewhere up there in a cabinet, or maybe they were discarded long ago. 

The Wabash used to operate seven days a week and people would line up all the way to the four way stop just to get in.  During the days of  The Tri-State Oil Shows, celebrities would make appearances live on stage.  Rex Allen was one of the stars who I remember was there during the showing of one of his movies. Ticket prices were fourteen cents for kids under 12, twenty-five cents for adults, and you could stay all day as the movies ran continuously.  We saw many great movies there, I remember “High Noon,” “The Robe,” “Singing in the Rain,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Ben Hur,” “The Alamo,” “West Side Story,” and so many, many, more.  Unlike the Premier Theatre, Charlie had to sell concessions in the Wabash in order to keep his job.  Cokes were five and ten cents, as was popcorn and a large variety of candy.  I have never found another theatre to this day that can compare with that wonderful tasting popcorn we enjoyed for so many years.  I’m sure there are enough of you still around who will agree with me on that one.

Charlie retired as manager in the late 1950’s as television and drive-ins began to take a serious toll.  It was around that time that the Saturday night crowds also disappeared from downtown.  The Wabash finally shut down to a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday schedule, but when that beautiful marquee was turned on at night, it stood out like a beacon with all the green, white, and flashing yellow lights.  The marquee seemed to bring downtown Grayville back to life, if only for a few hours.  In retirement, Charlie became a lonely widower after his wife Chloe died.  Every evening he would sit in his old green car parked next to the theatre as if he was guarding place.  The theatre was his life and he couldn’t stand to be away for very long.

He was in the nursing home when I started working there in early 1961.  Every day that we were open , he would come in and often he would climb the stairs to the projection room where I was working and tell about those days of long ago.  Back then I don’t think we had a name for it, but today it is called Alzheimers; and Charlie succumbed to it about a year later.  I wish I could remember some of the stories he used to tell about the early days of showing movies in Grayville.  I guess as a teenager they didn’t seem important to me at that time and the details were forgotten.

Perhaps movies will be shown in the Wabash again some day, and the marquee restored to its original beauty.  At 50 plus years of age the building still looks great and the Community Arts folks have done an excellent job with the interior.  The place had some close calls over the years, and survived two fires that could have destroyed it.  Maybe old Charlie and Chloe are up there somewhere looking over it.  Take good care of it Grayville, you have a real asset there, and you should be proud of it.        

Write Bill Werzner                   

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