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Country editors boy, p.21
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.21

           Hal Borland
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  For the first two weeks Mr. Gromer ran the projector himself. Then he decided that he had more important things to do, such as counting the cash, or taking tickets, or keeping order among the younger customers. Besides, he was a restless man, and running a movie projector is a stay-put job. So he came down to the News office late one Friday afternoon. He was a big, broad, red-faced man with a booming voice. “Will,” he shouted to Father, “I want someone to run my moving picture projector. You know anyone, or am I going to have to advertise?”

  “Offhand” Father said, “I’d say you will have to advertise.” Then he grinned. “What kind of a job is it, anyway?”

  “Simple,” Mr. Gromer said. “Nothing difficult about it. Anyone who can turn a crank can do it, if he has any mechanical sense at all.”

  “That sounds easy enough.”

  “Well, it’s easy all right, but it’s got to be somebody responsible. He has to watch what he’s doing. That carbon arc can be dangerous, and the film burns awful fast if it gets started.” He paused and looked across the shop to where I was making ready to print envelopes on the little job press. “How about that boy of yours?” He asked. “He must be handy with machinery, and I guess he tends to business, doesn’t he?”

  Father turned and motioned to me. I went over to them. “You probably heard what Mr. Gromer was saying,” Father said to me. I nodded, and Father left us, went over to the job press to finish the make-ready I had started. And to leave it to me to make any arrangement with Mr. Gromer.

  “Well,” Mr. Gromer said, “how about it?”

  “I’d like to try it if—”

  “Fine, fine! Tomorrow afternoon, and—”

  “No, I can’t work Saturday afternoons till after football season. I can work Saturday nights. But—”

  “When is the end of this football season?”


  He thought a moment, frowning. “Well, I guess I can run the afternoon shows till then.” He turned and shouted to Father, still at the job press, “What do you think would be a fair deal, Will?”

  “You two work it out,” Father said.

  Mr. Gromer turned back to me. “Since you won’t be working afternoons for a while, let’s see how it goes evenings. You’ll see the show for nothing, of course.”

  “Mr. Gromer, I like to know what a job is going to pay before I take it.”

  Mr. Gromer frowned, then shouted to Father, “I’ve got a tough customer here, Will. He wants to know how much I’ll pay before he does a lick of work.”

  “Good idea,” Father said, but he kept out of it.

  “Since you’re only going to be working half time,” Mr. Gromer said, “we’ll have to start at half pay.”

  “All right. How much will that be?”

  “Well, let’s see. This isn’t really work, you know. You just stand there and turn the crank, keep the carbons set right.” He hesitated, waited. I waited too. Finally he asked, “How much do you think you’re worth?”

  “A dollar a show,” I said, setting it high so I could bargain.

  “A dollar a show! Good Lord Jehoshaphat! Will,” he shouted, “I guess I’ll have to advertise! This boy wants all my profit just for standing there turning a crank.”

  “Write out what you want in the ad,” Father said, still at the press. “It’ll cost you twenty-five cents a line.”

  “Holy Moses! I sure walked into a den of thieves.” Mr. Gromer turned toward the door, then shook his head and turned back to me. “Seventy-five cents,” he said. “And if you let the film get on fire even once, out you go.”

  “Seventy-five cents a show,” I said. “A dollar and a half when I work both afternoon and night.”

  Mr. Gromer made a grimace of pain, but he said, “All right. Come over to the yard about nine o’clock tomorrow morning and I’ll go over to the hall with you and show you how to run the projector.” Then he turned to Father and shouted, “Better let this boy run your business, Will. He’ll make a go of it. He sure knows what makes the mare go!” And he left, with a completely surprising wink at me.

  I met him at the lumber yard the next morning and we spent an hour in the projection booth, going over the details of the job, setting the carbons for the arc, threading the film in the projector, cranking it at just the right speed, changing reels, feeding in the slides at intermission, rewinding. And, time after time, the necessity of guarding against fire.

  Mr. Gromer had brought the films for that day’s shows, which came by mail in flat, round tin cans the size of a reel, about twelve inches in diameter. Before he could run the first reel and show me all the routine of the job, we had to rewind that film. He showed me how to start it, on the spindles fastened to a small shelf at the side of the booth, which was built of fireproof building board. I started rewinding, and we struck the first of half a dozen breaks in the film. Mr. Gromer swore under his breath at the first break, swore softly at the second, and before we finished the reel was shouting imprecations on the projection man in Limon, who had failed to mend the breaks. I learned, eventually, that virtually every reel of film we received had at least two breaks in it, and I became an expert at mending film, if at no other phase of the job. It was old, badly worn film to begin with, and most of the men who ran those small-town movie theaters were either inept or didn’t give a hoot. And never did we receive a reel that didn’t have to be rewound before it could be shown.

  I learned the fundamentals of the job that morning, then dashed home to get a bite of dinner at noon, hurried up to school and into my football uniform, played a game of football that afternoon, went home, did the household chores, such as carrying out the ashes from the stoves, bringing in kindling and coal, seeing that the water bucket was full, running to the store for some item Mother needed. Ate supper, almost too tired to eat, and was at the movie theater by seven o’clock.

  That first evening Mr. Gromer either stayed in the booth with me or was close by all through the show. But I went through the four full reels with only minor lapses. I forgot the advertising slides which opened the show, and had to be reminded. Those slides were vitally important—they brought Mr. Gromer ten or fifteen dollars a week. Then I got the “Ladies Please Remove Your Hats” slide in upside down, which provoked laughter, whistling and stomping. But after that I ran the first reel, a comedy with Louise Fazenda, Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin, that incredibly cross-eyed zany. I had no trouble with that reel. Then I started the three-reel feature film, something presumably high society and dramatic, with Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne. The first reel went all right, but I got the third reel on next and ran it several minutes before I knew something was wrong. Mr. Gromer came hurrying back to the booth, banged on the door, and told me in a stage whisper that could have been heard down on the street that I had the wrong reel on. I stopped it, put in the slide saying, “One Moment, Please,” and switched reels, making sure I had the loops properly large and the intermittent sprocket threaded right. Then I started in again, and there were cheers and laughter as the picture picked up the story where it had been broken at the end of Reel One. Otherwise, it was an uneventful evening.

  After the first couple of weeks I began to feel like a professional. I could mend film perfectly with the cement that smelled like bananas, match frame to frame so there was scarcely a flicker. I could pace the cranking of the film exactly right without having to watch the screen. I could tell when the carbon pencils of the arc were getting too short to last through another reel, and I could replace them in no time. I made it routine to rewind all the reels after I had shown them, mending any breaks that showed up, for the convenience of the next exhibitor, hoping that eventually the fellow who had those films before we got them would do me the same favor. He never did.

  I don’t think I had seen a dozen movies before that winter. But I began to catch up with what had been made and shown over the previous five years. Some of the films we got were all the way back to the Al Christie days in New Jersey, which was around 1911
. We showed Caprice that winter, with Mary Pickford and Owen Moore, which was made by Adolph Zukor in 1913. We showed another 1913 picture, The Squaw Man, whose star was Dustin Farnum. But the highlight of that whole winter was the relatively new The Birth of a Nation, the first of the “epic” films. We ran it in the spring of 1917, and it was so much of a drawing card that Mr. Gromer held it over and showed it a third time on Monday evening. The stars were Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, but the huge cast also included Mae Marsh, Ralph Lewis, Elmer Clifton, and Wallace Reid, who played the blacksmith, and Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth. We hadn’t many Civil War veterans in Flagler, so there wasn’t much to-do about the picture’s rather obvious Southern bias. A few middle-aged people from Ohio and Michigan objected, but they were outnumbered by farmers from Missouri and the half dozen older ranchmen who came from Texas originally.

  The program usually consisted of a comedy, nearly always a one-reeler, a two-reel feature, and a serial that ran one reel a week. In Deems Taylor’s pictorial history of the movies I find him saying that The Perils of Pauline, with Pearl White, came along in 1917; but I distinctly remember showing episodes of that thriller series in the winter of 1916. Another similar serial was The Adventures of Kathlyn, starring Kathlyn Williams. The “Pauline” series, as I remember, was the pioneer in the suspense serials. It piled the perils on Pearl White and it left her, at the end of each episode, either literally or figuratively clinging to the crumbling brink of a cliff with a bottomless chasm beneath her. Sometimes she was in a roaring torrent being swept toward falls higher than Niagara. Sometimes she was trapped under a fallen tree in the path of a forest fire. Always, she was in a perilous predicament from which there seemed to be no escape. From this movie serial came the expression that still survives as the term for an incident of high suspense—a cliff-hanger. And you never knew until the next episode, next week, how she escaped. But she always did escape.

  Another series that we ran was the horror serial. It also was one of a whole school of the scare-you-to-death serials, which were almost as violent as the television fare of today. The one we ran that winter was The Clutching Hand, and its chief terror element was a mysterious something or somebody with a grisly, taloned hand that reached out of the shadows and caught someone, usually a villain, by the throat. This was technically a retribution serial, which probably was its moral excuse—that grim, throttling hand was the hand of justice. But it certainly was a nightmarish bit of justice, and if the youngsters of that era didn’t have bad dreams, it wasn’t the fault of The Clutching Hand.

  The comedies got the biggest hand, of course, except for the occasional special feature. Keystone Comedy was the big one at that time, with the famous Keystone Cops and the Mack Sennett bathing girls. Years later, when the Marx Brothers were making their mad comedies for the screen and mingling zany antics with wild, bottompinching chases of pretty girls, I thought how much they owed to those old Keystone comedies. Mabel Normand got her start there—incidentally, she is credited with throwing the first custard pie. There was a whole bevy of pretty girls in the minimal bathing suits then allowed, and Ben Turpin, Paddy McGuire and the two Conklins, Chester and Heinie, chased them all over the lot. Charlie Chaplin was just getting well started; he had joined the Keystone Company only in 1914. But he had enough of a reputation that a skinny young man with a bashful smile had begun to imitate him, even to the tiny mustache, as “Lonesome Luke” in a comedy series. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that he discarded the mustache, put on horn-rim glasses, and struck out on his own line of comedy under his own name, Harold Lloyd.

  The Western already had begun to make a place for itself. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was starring in Westerns as early as 1912. By 1914 the iron-faced William S. Hart was coming along, with his two-gun brand of heroics on horseback. Hart was a big drawing card by 1916.

  Let’s see. There also was fat, grandfatherly John Bunny, one of the drollest of the comedians of that day and a tremendous boxoffice attraction. There was Roscoe Arbuckle, called “Fatty,” who started as a Keystone Cop and became a featured comedian but was no match at all for John Bunny. Arbuckle’s popularity ended overnight a few years later, a consequence of a scandalous Hollywood death. There was an extra girl named Gloria Swanson, who had minor roles in many of that year’s pictures. There was Theda Bara and the whole category of “vampire” pictures. Theda Bara was starred in Cleopatra in 1917 and made it one of the worst pictures, the most dismal even by that day’s standards, of the era.

  And there were the romantic actresses. I doubt that it was because we were so naïve, or so young, or so starved for romance that we loved those film queens. They were young themselves, and somewhat naïve, and certainly full of romantic dreams. Mary Pickford was a major star at fourteen. Bebe Daniels and Lila Lee and Constance Talmadge were leading ladies at fifteen. Most of those girls who had the big romantic parts were under the age of twenty, and few of the glamorous bathing girls were as old as eighteen. By the time the girls reached the age of twenty-two or twenty-three they were practically old hags, at least in movie terms.

  The ones who held my loyalty and shaped my dreams at that time were the Talmadge sisters, Norma and Constance. Connie—I knew them so well that I called them by their familiar names, to myself at least—Connie was blonde, a bit dizzy, very much the comedienne, although she could carry off a serious dramatic role with the best of them. Norma, Connie’s older sister by a year or two, was brunette, just chubby enough to be cuddly, and had a sweet wistfulness that could break your heart. Norma was usually straight romance or drama, with a minimum of comic flummery. I laughed at Connie, who was the happy-go-lucky good companion; but I sighed and dreamed over Norma. When she began having Conway Tearle as her leading man more or less regularly, I hated Tearle’s guts. There was a third sister, Natalie, who also was in pictures. But Natalie never registered with me. She was just another actress.

  Inevitably, the girls in town were aware of those girls on the screen every weekend at Seal’s Hall. Not only of the girls, but of the town boys who watched those girls on the screen and compared the girls in town with them. It is hard now to know whether I became aware of girls, both on and off the screen, for the first time that winter, or whether the town girls made themselves apparent to me for the first time. As girls, that is, not just as classmates or as occasional companions at Sunday school parties and birthday celebrations. Or maybe, approaching seventeen, I was growing up. Boys, and girls too, didn’t get pushed into dating at ten and eleven in those days, and rarely did they “go steady” until they were out of high school. Anyway, I did become aware of girls as girls that spring and winter.

  Helen Hall, W. E. Hall’s young sister, was one of the first. Mr. Gromer had hired her to sell tickets at the movie house, so we were fellow employees. We sometimes met on the street on our way to work and walked the rest of the way together. She was a year older than I, a petite blonde with a beautiful smile. Within a month after the movies began running every week she began to look a little like a blonde Bebe Daniels. To me, at least. She changed the style of her hair and began rouging her lips the way the girls did in the movies. But I never had a date with her, never asked for one. There always was someone ahead of me.

  Mabel Seal was another who seemed to me to follow the movies rather personally. She was the daughter of J. H. Seal, the owner not only of Seal’s Hall but of the land with the pond on it in the north end of town. Mabel was petite too, but on the rounded side; she made me think of Norma Talmadge. She had graduated the previous spring and went with the older group when she dated. But she wasn’t much interested in dates, or didn’t seem to be. She went to Denver that spring and got a job, and married someone she met there. I kept thinking of her every time I saw Norma Talmadge, thinking Mabel Seal could have been a movie actress if she had only gone to Hollywood.

  Marjorie Miner, Spider’s older sister, who was in the same graduating class with Mabel Seal, was as blonde as Connie Talmadge, and in some
ways prettier. But Marjorie could no more have made a fool of herself, even to make people laugh, than she could have spread her arms and taken flight. She was bigger than the other two girls, and certainly never dreamed of being a Mary Pickford; but for a while she did wear her beautiful blonde hair in long curls. Then she put it up on her head again and settled for being Marjorie Miner.

  Most of the other girls in town were too big or too small, too old or too young, to be noticeably influenced by those movie stars except in minor matters. The older girls aped the film stars’ hairdos, when they could, and the younger girls tried to ape their gestures and their manner of speaking. It was inevitable. As I said elsewhere in this book, we were in a period of change, of transition from one era to another, and the motion pictures were an agent of change and an early pioneer in the processes that would, in another decade or two, be bringing a degree of uniformity to the various parts of America that thinned out and slowly dissolved so many of the local and regional patterns of life and personality.

  Change came, and was absorbed, and life broadened somewhat, I suppose. Women’s dress fashions changed as well as their fashions of hair style and facial makeup. It was that winter that the crepe de Chine shirtwaist came to Flagler, and with it the colorful camisole that made the sheerness of the shirtwaist properly, but still provocatively, modest. That, too, was the era of the hobble skirt, and that strange phenomenon was commonly seen on the streets of Denver, we were told. But nobody in Flagler apparently cared to risk either her neck or her reputation in such a skirt, since there were relatively few sidewalks off Main Street, and the footpaths and cowpaths that were common elsewhere were not exactly ideal for a woman who had to mince along in a hobble skirt. Nor did any of the girls in Flagler dare appear in the slit skirt that followed the hobble; the slit sometimes showed the wearer’s leg—it was still a limb in the cities, but we who lived close to the land and to the facts of rural life knew a leg when we saw one, and we called it a leg—the slit skirts sometimes showed a leg almost to the knee, a really scandalous exposure.

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