May the Force be with those restoring the old LIberty Theatre

By Dorothy Swart Fleshman February 12, 2010 01:35 pm

News of the Liberty Theatre renovation plans is an exciting possibility to those of us who once attended movies there, at the elite movie theatre in town.

That was where I watched all of the Shirley Temple movies and marveled over the little girl of the golden curls and cute dresses. I had all of her paper doll cut-outs until they ended up in our furnace by an over-zealous father in clean-up mode.

“You can buy more,” he encouraged as the last of the Dionne quintuplets followed suit as part of the moving to another house clean-up had progressed to almost all of the paper dolls standing on a ledge around the back porch, my failing for not having put them away in shoe boxes when play was last ended.

Unfortunately, neither Shirley, Jane Withers nor the Dionnes ever again became my playmates until years later in reproduction style for collection. Jane Withers, though, did catch the attention of my sister and I as we became less taken with the sugary promotions and absorbed the devilish imp in Jane as she attempted to undermine her opposite and became our counterpart. She never won, but neither did we, so we became soul mates in the struggle of growing up.

Young women dressed more carefully to attend the Liberty Theatre, located in the current Domino’s Pizza and next to City Hall, previously the old post office, as versus the Granada and State theatres. The State Theatre, just down the block east of the Liberty Theatre, must not have been here for many years.

I remember being in it only once, in attendance with my older cousin Edith. It is vivid in memory as we watched a man come in just before the lights dimmed for the show. He was carrying a watermelon and sat down near the front of the theatre, just under the screen.

We giggled over it and wondered if he ate watermelon during the show or cradled it until time to go home. Whatever movie was being shown, I remember not caring for it.

The Granada, of course, was our favorite stomping ground, for that is where we spent every Saturday with Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hopalong Cassidy (Bill Boyd), Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, John Wayne, Tim Holt, Buster Crabbe as spaceman Buck Rogers and Johnnie Weismueller as Tarzan.

Armed with a lard or syrup bucket of cookies, candy, fruit or even sandwiches, we paid our nickel (under age 12) and spent the afternoon in innocent pleasure. Frances Greulich was probably the manager of the single floor theatre at the time with maybe Kenneth Grant as projectionist and perhaps Raymond Montgomery was faithfully standing at the front door ushering folks in and out. A cry-room for mothers with babies was added later as I recall.

A bit of news, but not much, cartoons, an on-going serial, coming events and the main feature kept time to our goodies from the pail. Sometimes we sat through two showings.

Mostly young boys sought the front seats, doing a bit of clowning and roughhousing up front until collared by adults. The high school-age usherettes in outfits of authority, carrying a flashlight to guide customers to seats while the film was in progress, were usually on the job in the evening hours while we were our own watch-dogs during the matinee. Of course, the adults kept some kind of order when it threatened to get out of hand.

Our group, from four to six girl cousins, sought the rear row right below the projector room. Here we could use the back wall if we needed to fold up the seat and perch higher to view the film. Here, too, we sought our goodies from deep in the pails with help from the light flickering from above us.

Here, in black and white, we soaked up the love of horses, cowboy music and space travel, the impossible to imagine. With Hoot Gibson, whom my Dad had known, we saw things from the side of the Indians, understood the white hats from the black hats, and worried about the cliff hangers that were always continued until next week when no escape seemed possible for our hero and heroines.

The Liberty Theatre, though, demanded adult behavior. Perhaps it was the building itself that suggested it in its mezzanines, beautiful draperies, amber light sconces, deep plush carpets and beautiful chandelier as well as a slightly higher price for tickets.

Most young folk sought the balcony, but decorum was expected and guarded by the usherettes and management. Our group liked to get the front row balcony, for we could rest our feet on the ledge below the iron pipe barrier above the heads of the main floor group. It was frowned upon by management, but it went on in the darkness. Young suitors sought the highest row just beneath the projector room and were under closer surveillance.

There was The Karmel Korn Shop just a few stores east of the Liberty Theatre, between it and the State Theatre, where we could buy karmel korn, popcorn, gum and candy, run by a pleasant older lady. We were allowed to take our goodies into the theatre when none was sold there, but the lard bucket lunches were an unspoken taboo.

Possibly things were more adult because we, ourselves, were older. The movies were more adult in theme when we watched Fred Astaire dance with Ginger Rogers, the Hardy series with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and the more educational newscast heralded in by the repeat of the theme song and the inevitable appearance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt riding in a car and giving what appeared to be sage advice to the news media, all in black and white.

I believe the theatre at that time was owned or managed by a man named Meyers, for he had a high school-age daughter who gave theatre parties for her friends. They were younger than I.

This was the theatre where George and I had one of our first dates, but I have no idea what we saw. I was far too conscious of the boy who sat next to me in the area where more adults were apt to sit, wondering how I could be so lucky. George said that he had seen “Gone With the Wind” in color at this theatre with his dad.

We both worked at Montgomery Wards with Mary and Arnold, also employees at the building behind and across the alley from the theatre, so we double-dated. Arnold had a car for our outings and that couple eventually also married.

George, newly back from the military service didn’t yet own a car, so his father loaned George his car to take me on this particular date to the Liberty Theatre in 1946. Now, some 63 years later, I remember the moment my hand was held by a larger, stronger one, melding two hearts into one for a lifetime.

It all happened at the Liberty Theatre.

May the Force be with those of you as you reach for the goal of restoration.

Veteran newspaperwoman Dorothy Swart Fleshman is a La Grande native. Her column runs every Friday. Reach her by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it