In the 1930s through the 1960s, almost every small town had a movie house. Those theaters were a great source of entertainment for area residents and some even offered up live entertainment on occasion.
Today, the number of small town theaters is dwindling. But in Webster City, efforts are under way by an enthusiastic group of volunteers who hope to reopen and operate the Webster Theater.
Since its closure in March 2013, people have stepped forward to donate money, time and their talents to the project. Bob and Mary Long of Webster City are two of those volunteers. They helped out at the recent Muscle Day held last weekend at the theater. They were among the 40 or so volunteers who cleaned, de-cluttered and painted parts of the building.
Bob and Mary Long of Webster City present their donation to members of HERO, Jeff Pingel, Deb Brown and Kay Ross. The donation is in memory of Bob Long’s father and mother, who once managed the theater.
Percy Long in front of the Corral Drive-In
The Long family - including Bob's brother Gary and his late brother Doug's children - also donated to the project, purchasing two seats in honor of Bob's mother and father
A personal connection
The Long family has a very personal connection to the old theater. His father, Percy, managed the Granada Theater (later to become the Webster) and the Isis Theater across the street.
Percy Long and his wife Eileen moved their family to Webster City in 1933. They lived in an apartment above the Granada Theater. The only window opened in the apartment onto an air shaft. Bob Long remembers that their living space, without air conditioning, was very hot in the summer. He said his mother took he and his two brothers to the Twin Parks on most days to beat the heat.
During that time, the Granada was undergoing a renovation. Bob Long said he can remember the crews of workers tearing out the orchestra pit at the front of the theater. Balconies on either side of the theater were also removed. A small room upstairs served as Percy Long's office and was located right next door to an equally tiny projection room. The Long children often visited the projectionists and watched movies through the little window where the films flickered on the movie screens. But the viewing from that spot was not ideal.
"It was hot and noisy," Bob Long said. "So we didn't stay long."
In the basement of the movie house, Percy Long had a slanted work table where he painted signs and pictures to promote the movies that were showing. Bob Long said his father's work table had a wooden box filled with brushes of different sizes.
"He hired high school boys to go to the neighboring towns to post the signs," Bob Long said. One of those boys was Art Downard, who would later own the theaters.
Bank Night was a popular event at the movie theater. On Wednesday nights, between the first and second shows, Percy Long would go up on stage with a basket holding ticket stubs from all of the days since the last Wednesday. Someone from the audience would be called to the stage to draw the winning ticket. The prize was china. Later on, the prize was changed to cash. Bob Long said that if the winner wasn't there, the cash would build up and they would draw until a there was a winner.
"I remember huge crowds of people outside the theater," he said. "They were waiting to hear the winning number. The police would divert traffic from that block."
Across the street from the Granada, stood the Isis Theater. That movie house was located where the Second Street Emporium is today. Bob Long said the Isis showed second level movies. Saturday afternoon were generally cowboy films and an episode of a continuing serial.
"I think the admission was 10 cents for kids and sometimes, you could get in free if you had 10 Wonder Bread wrappers," he said. A bag of popcorn or a candy bar was five cents.
"There was a lot of cheering for the good guys and booing for the bad ones," he said.
The Longs left Webster City in 1939 and Percy Long managed theaters in Jefferson and later Perry. They returned to Webster City in 1945 to once again manage the theaters. In the late 1940s, the Corral Drive-In was built on West Second Street where the former Beem Industries building stands today.
Percy Long left the theater business in 1949 and became the secretary of the Webster City Chamber of Commerce. It was during that time that the first "Greater Webster City Days" was born, as was the "Main Street USA" moniker. Percy Long died in 1952.
His wife, Eileen, went to work for the theater on weekends in the concession stand or selling tickets in the box office.
Bob Long's wife Mary also worked at the theater. She started working as an usher in 1950. At that time, theaters were much darker and more crowded. An usher with a flashlight would direct patrons to their seats, according to Bob Long.
"The theater was so great back in those days. It was always crowded, almost every movie. People had cars but they never left town to go to a movie," said Mary Long.
Bob Long returned to Webster City after four years of service on the USS New Jersey during the Korean War. He brought his mother to work one Sunday afternoon. She relieved Mary in the box office. Bob's mother suggested he give Mary a ride home. The couple's first date was to a movie at the Webster Theater. They were married two years later.
"We still enjoy good movies and think watching them on the big screen - while sharing a box of popcorn - beats watching movies at home," he said. "We both hope the reopening of the Webster Theater is a big success."