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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 Day Our Picture Show Burned Down

 By  W.F. (Bill) Werzner   


It was a sad spring day in 1948. I remember that day very well; it was the day our picture show burned. I was about five years old then and I remember hearing the fire siren that bright spring morning. My grandmother and I walked outside our home on Spring Street to watch for the fire trucks. The fire siren was mounted on the south wall of the sewing factory building where the American Legion is located today. It sounded quite differently than the air raid type Grayville has today and wasn’t as loud. We didn’t have to look which way the fire trucks were headed; a tall column of black smoke was rising high into sky from downtown. We stood on the front lawn watching the smoke and worried that it might be our restaurant, Werzner’s Café. Suddenly a man came running down the street and shouted, “the picture show is on fire.” Remember, back then there were no TV stations in the area and what few sets there were, could barely pull in the snowy black and white pictures from far away St. Louis. To have the only picture show in town burn back then, was like having the only TV set in your home suddenly taken away today. I’m sure any five-year-old would remember that for a long time.

Grayville’s Premier Theatre was located in the Masonic Building’s ground floor where Fisk Hardware is today. We used to watch the newsreels, cartoons, and those old classic western movies with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hop Along Cassidy, Red Rider, and so many more. Charles “Charlie” Brechner and his wife Chloe ran the place, and if you were looking for trouble, Charlie was always ready. No drinks or concessions were sold there, Charlie was afraid such things would attract rats. The only candy items sold there; as I recall, were roll lifesavers and they had to be purchased at the ticket window. Getting caught talking, putting your foot on a seat, or worse; slipping in a coke from Madden’s Drug Store next door, could easily get you a ticket to the street. When Charlie wasn’t prowling the theatre, he was usually standing under the triangular marquee that overhung the sidewalk. I can still remember that tall lanky gentleman standing in front of the Premier and asking him when the next Roy Rogers movie would be shown. The Premier was also one of the few, if not the only building in town that was air-conditioned back then. It was a welcome respite from those hot summer evenings to sit in that cool dark theatre and watch a movie so long ago. Years later I heard some say that it was in the air conditioning system’s “straw box” mounted on the boiler room roof near the alley, where the fire started.

Grayville had two fire trucks back then. A 1946 International and a 1924 open cab Ford. I believe the Ford was sold to a museum somewhere in Kentucky around 1960. I remember the models of those trucks because my mother ordered license plates for them when she was a notary. Both trucks were on the way to the fire with their crew of volunteers as my grandmother locked the house and we began a hasty walk downtown. By the time we reached the four way stop, traffic was blocked and a large crowd of spectators filled the highway and street. At first it appeared only the front of the building was on fire and some of the people thought that it was only the projection room that was burning. Surely those powerful fire hoses that were being trained on the front of the building would soon put it out, or so we wished. A ladder was raised from Madden’s Drug Store roof to a second story window, and as I recall, one or more people escaped down that ladder from the upstairs area. Suddenly, a great cloud of black smoke billowed from the front followed by bright orange flames, and everyone retreated. The firemen bravely beat back the flames and a cheer went up from the crowd. Little did anyone know that the entire theatre was on fire from the street to the alley. Soon it became apparent that this was no minor blaze, and we walked a circuitous route around the block and down to our restaurant. I remember my father saying, “well no more picture show”. Sadly, I sat on the back steps of the restaurant, listening to the roar of the fire trucks and watching the smoke towering into the sky. Dan Brooster walked up to the kitchen and told my mother that they were expecting the walls to fall. Still, I was hoping the firemen would save day and the show would reopen soon.

The firemen fought that stubborn blaze for the rest of the day, and I’m sure there were some neighboring towns that sent in men and equipment as well. Late that afternoon I walked up the alley with my dad to see the damage. The whole downtown seemed to reek of charred wood and the firemen were rolling up some of the few remaining hoses. Two large holes were broken open in the brick wall of the building to the east. From there some brave firemen crawled under that building and broke through the brick wall of the theatre in order to extinguish the fire in the middle of the building. One can still see where those holes were patched to this day. Yes, my dad was right, no more picture show. Some time later the building was remodeled. I remember when they cleaned out the fire-damaged interior there were hundreds of large coil springs from the burned out seats piled near the alley. Bob and Don Ragsdale were my playmates back then. They lived in a trailer home near the Legion building and we kept sneaking up there to collect those springs. Every kid in Grayville must have had one or more to play with during that summer.

 The closest theatres for us Grayville folks then were in Crossville (yes, Crossville had a movie theatre back then), Albion, or  Carmi (both had two theatres each). The old Premier Theatre became a memory and the new Leader Department Store opened in the remodeled building. Some of you older folks no doubt remember that fateful day and can embellish what I have written from memory as child back then. Perhaps someone has photographs of the Premier and the way it used to be. Today, a hardware store occupies that building and the pillar in the middle of the store, well; about fifty or so years ago, that’s about where the Ragsdale brothers and I used to sit and watch movies. Don’t think of taking it down, it holds up those charred ceiling joists which used to be the theatre ceiling. Don’t talk too loudly in there either. Old Charlie’s ghost might get on your case. And whatever you do, don’t spill a coke, or he’ll nail you for sure.

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