On April 23 the Liberty Theater restoration folks held a public meeting in our library’s Community Room to hear John Kvapil from Bend relate details in the renovation of the Tower Theater there and to share memories of our long-closed Liberty Theater in La Grande.
I had to leave the meeting before really getting into the memories part, so after getting home I sent Dale Mammen an email with things that had then come to mind.
Following is the letter I sent to Dale with a few minor changes. His response was a request that it be published at a time the memory search was more actively under way. Ginny Mammen’s “Out and About” column in the June 9 edition of The Observer has done just that, so I contribute what I can in hopes that others will do likewise.
I enjoyed your Liberty Theater meeting and was sorry to have to leave before it was over. That was the part I really wanted to hear although I am very appreciative of our visitor’s contribution to our efforts in telling us about the successful Tower Theater renovation in Bend. Sorry I didn’t have much to offer but I wasn’t prepared with anything of consequence in the way of memory.
My opinion is that memory is unreliable for a factual account of anything from the past. Each one remembers it differently and some of it is remembered grossly inaccurately. Sometimes visions link themselves to other events or time schedules and facts prove them wrong every time.
Nonetheless, I could have mentioned walking down Adams Avenue from the then post office building (now city hall), being aware of the Westside wall that housed the Liberty Theater, and seeing a big portion of its front wall covered with advertisements. It seems like it was painted on the wall and later was of billboard type. An iron drop-down fire escape hung above it from the second floor. It is hazy but something was on that wall. There was a sidewalk along that wall that led clear back to the alley and the Montgomery Ward retail store. I walked it many a time.
The ticket cage, as one faced the theater building from the front, stood alone with “Now Showing” pictures of the movie boxed on short walls either side behind glass. You purchased your ticket and moved to the right and to the recessed back of the opening where you would enter the right-hand door, usually opened by a uniformed or suited person, to let you enter and take your ticket. To the left was another recessed double door on the opposite side of the ticket cage to let the people out after the show.
Inside the building, then, seemed carpeted everywhere with a soft maroon or dark-blue feeling that made you want to be quiet, voices were muffled as people decided whether to sit downstairs or up in the balcony. Those going into the theater proper early could choose where to sit in comfortable rows of seats without the aid of an usher, for the lights were up so that you could see. It was in the evening usually when the ushers in outfits and with flashlights led the way.
The plush loges were roped off near the back and cost a bit more. It was in the evening usually when the usherettes in, maybe satin, outfits and with flashlights led the way. They were permitted to remove the rope to let the ticket-holder in and then fastened it again.
Before the show began and the lights were up, you visited with your neighbors rather quietly because the interior was of such beauty that it seemed the thing to do. Soft music was quieting in itself. It was nothing like the plain atmosphere of the Granada or State theaters where kids ran around noisily and finally settled mostly in the front row seats. The Liberty was a place for grown-up behavior and you felt it rather than being instructed to it.
The balcony was a little less regimented but still demanded its own better actions of the patrons.
There was always a little awe in the air when the lights from the big chandelier hanging over the lower floor from the ceiling began to dim and the side lights gave off enough soft glow that they weren’t disturbing to viewing the film but didn’t leave you in deep darkness either. It seems like it always started with the news while people settled in their seats, all eyes directed to the big screen as images and sound appeared as the rich velvety curtain was drawn open across the stage. The light from the projection room came on and the big wheel of film turned to bring us images of world news, coming attractions, sometimes a comedy and then the main feature, filling our lives with another time and place where we lived the lives of those on the screen.
These films were a grade above the other two theaters; maybe that’s why it cost us a bit more to get in and enjoy the finery it offered along with the movies. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bing Crosby — you know, all the old favorites that were a step above Westerns, comedians, etc.
I believe “Gone With the Wind” was shown there.
The theater had a nice mezzanine up a carpeted stairway with a wrought iron railing to the second floor back behind the balcony seating. It contained sofas and upholstered chairs with mirrors on the wall.
Lace-curtained and draped windows stretched across the room and the lights from the marquee could be seen flashing off and on through the windows. At each side of the room where folks met to use the rest rooms, the ladies moved off to the left where a row of toilets were individually hidden behind doors and sinks below mirrors for a quick hair and lipstick checkup were at the ready for hand washing.
It seems that the men’s room was off to the right. I have no knowledge of its interior but was of the impression that it was totally utilitarian with none of the necessities desired by the women. When I was in the balcony more recently, I was of the opinion that part of the room had been rebuilt to accommodate a place for a big safe. I can not speak with any authority of this, but it may or may not have been there when I was a child.
As I say, memory can play tricks. If the plans can be found, I may be totally incorrect as to the location of these two rest rooms, but this is the way they have formed in my mind.
I just remember the Liberty theater as a place thick in deep carpets and covered walls to deaden the sounds of people. A place for you to act grown-up or go to one of the other theaters.
I have no memory at all of the closing of the theater because George and I moved away for the better part of 15 years and lots of happenings in our home town have no memory with me except for after the fact. Folks say that they remember sitting on wooden benches to watch cowboy shows and hoop and holler, but that seems totally foreign and inappropriate to what the Liberty stood for in my generation. Upholstered and cushioned chairs with fold-up seats were the norm even in the balcony. I would like to remember it that way.
Thanks for your efforts, Dale and Ginny and committees. I hope you are successful and that La Grande gains from its presence.
Dorothy/Dory Swart Fleshman