When I was a kid growing up in La Farge, one of my great sources of entertainment was attending the movies at the Mars Theatre. Located on the corner of Main Street across from the bank (now the Field House Bar), the Mars really was another planet for a young lad existing in those pre-television days of the early1950’s. Movies at the Mars brought that whole wonderful world beyond the hills that bracket the Kickapoo Valley to the folks who resided in the little river town. For a boy or girl of that era, the images that flashed on the silver screen of the Mars Theatre transported us to other times and other places.
I usually went to the movies on Saturday night and the matinee on Sunday afternoon. It cost twenty cents for a kid to go to a movie back then. I would usually get forty cents from my parents for each trip down two blocks on Main Street to the Mars. That would leave me twenty cents for a Coke (in a cup from a dispensing machine) that cost a dime and a bag of freshly popped popcorn for the same. Or I could skip the Coke and go for a box of buttered popcorn for twenty cents. Sometimes I would limit my discretionary spending on Saturday night to only ten cents on regular popcorn, then use the extra dime on Sunday for a Coke AND buttered popcorn on Sunday. What a treat that was!
Saturday nights were my favorites as that was the big night for all the businesses in town. My folks ran a grocery store on the east end of Main Street (Byrd Kennedy’s store for those that go that far back; today the Episcope office) so getting a five-year old out of their hair for the evening was certainly worth the forty cents. All of the kids in town and country alike would be in town as their parents did the family shopping and visiting on Saturday night. But no grown-up duties for the kids, who headed to the Mars for a double feature packed with action and laughs.
Saturday night scheduling of films at the Mars generally included a double feature with an action flick, usually a shoot-em-up western that would be paired with a comedy aimed at the younger set. Funny movies featuring the likes of “The Bowery Boys”, “Francis, The Talking Mule”, or “Ma & Pa Kettle” were favorites. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were always in some kind of trouble in those Bowery Boys schemes, and Francis the mule seemed to make Donald O’Connor’s life a mess every time. Can’t you still hear Pa Kettle slowly saying “Now Ma” and she would shout back with that raspy voice of hers nearly knocking him over as he slouched in his chair? The westerns were loaded with action, lots of six-shooters blazing, horses galloping, and the stagecoach headed for the cliff. Randolph Scott was often the star and you couldn’t go wrong by him. John Wayne would come riding in some nights as did Gene Autry, but my favorite was Roy Rogers. It wasn’t just Roy with that winning smile though, as his movies always featured an assortment of co-stars and sidekicks. Wife Dale Evans was usually around to sing a duet or two, and George “Gabby” Hayes was always good for lots of laughs. Jingles (Andy Devine) might help in a shoot-out, firing off his six-shooters like he was throwing darts (did he ever hit anybody with that technique?). Then there were the animal stars as well: Champion, the Golden Palomino and Buttermilk led the horses for the heroes, and Bullet, The Wonder Dog was always doing, well, wonders. The “Sons of the Pioneers” would probably be over in the bunkhouse singing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds”. Action, music, amazing animals, comedy, good singing – how could you beat it?
Now you might think that those two movies would be enough for that evening’s entertainment, but there was usually more. A cartoon would certainly follow the “Coming Attractions” at the start of the evening. Tom & Jerry were classics from that era, loaded with colossal cartoon violence, but nobody was permanently hurt and laughs were plentiful. If there was only one show on a Saturday night, then a “Three Stooges” short was usually included with the main feature. Now, we’re talking about mayhem and violence aplenty with Moe, Larry, and Shemp performing their shenanigans, but the laughter was always uproarious, long, and howling for us kids.
In to the theatre our army of kids would march at six-thirty or seven, and out we would race after ten, another Saturday night at the Mars Theatre (Best in Sound for Miles Around). The country kids would race to their folks’ car and head for home. I would run back up Main Street to Steinmetz Grocery, still busy with the last of the evening shoppers. I would regale my Mom with the fantastic things seen on the Silver Screen at the Mars Theatre. Then with eyes drooping with sleepiness, I would troop upstairs to bed, where I would dream of amazing adventures with Bullet and Champion by my side.