An usherette’s tale: ‘New’ Silverton theater a memorable first job

June 2012 Posted in Arts, Culture & History

Cheryl Arbuckle in her 1930s usherette uniform.Editor’s note: Long-time Silverton resident Cheryl Arbuckle was an usher at the “new” Silverton theater in the 1930s. Here she shares a few memories…

By Cheryl Arbuckle

Once more let’s journey back to the mid-1930s when the Depression was at its depths and jobs for any age were so few and far between.

Our little town of 2,500 was struggling to keep families fed, children educated and households intact.

Those were my teen years when the transition from childhood to adulthood is a challenge in itself but, in a way, it was probably the best decade of my life for gaining the basic education to live the years to follow.

I had just turned 11 when my family moved to Silverton; this little village tucked in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

The population was composed mostly of Norwegian families drawn by the similarities to their native land, both in terrain and climate.

It was sustained not only by agriculture in the rolling hills to the south but the logging in the mountains to the east, which in turn supported a flourishing mill in the heart of town.

This was not a “strip town” along a main highway but a compact community of two or three downtown city blocks composed of grocers, dry goods stories, meat markets, theaters, a (combined) city hall and library, and schools – first grade through high school.

Cheryl Arbuckle reads the essay she wrote about working at the movie theater.   It was located along an idyllic stream called Silver Creek, and even boasted its own hospital. It was truly a self-sustaining community, and to this day remains fiercely proud of its heritage.

One of the first major steps of growth in my life was my first job at the age of 16.

To regress a little, our Silverton Theater had burned to the ground a couple years before and a real state-of-the-art movie house constructed in its place on a main intersection downtown.

It was the pride of our small downtown. The first two usherettes hired were twins who created all kinds of confusion for a time until the townsfolk became accustomed to seeing the same face selling them tickets as was seating them in the theater.

When these girls were ready to go on to school, there had to be two more hired as replacements; I became the fourth usherette in this new edifice.

Since the theater was open only in the evenings and on weekends, the high school was the pool for new employees.

Our working hours on weekdays were from 6 p.m. until closing time (10:30-11 p.m.) on one night and the next night we switched so one got off when the box office closed at 9-9:30 p.m. while the other stayed late.

Saturdays we worked from 2-4 p.m. for the kids’ matinee – then back at 6 p.m. for the regular evening hours. Sunday we were open from 2 p.m. till closing at 10-10:30 p.m.

While these were the theater’s open hours, we were to be ready and on the floor, wearing freshly laundered red slacks, white satin blouses and with every hair in place, so our time began an hour before the doors opened. …

All this for $10 a week.

We had no concept of refreshment bars in theaters at that time. If you wanted refreshments, candy had to have been purchased at a store and brought in.

I don’t ever remember any soft drinks – probably no one could afford them.

We did boast a coat check area in the lobby and our work shift was not over until all coats had been claimed and the marquee lights turned off.

Our varied duties taught us various skills and certainly responsibility.

We started our employment by standing at the door taking tickets and then when the houselights dimmed we hurried up the side ramps of the theater with flashlights in hand to quickly survey “the house” and ascertain where empty seats were available.

We met each group of customers waiting to be seated. The trick was to be sure how many seats were available in a row or together.

How embarrassing if you attempted seating three people and found only two seats were vacant in the middle of a row – one small body had popped up from nowhere (probably the floor) and was occupying that third seat.

As we became more familiar with our job, we were soon recruited to cashier part time and part of my job was as stenographer/secretary to the owner, Mr. Adams.

The same movie ran Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; Wednesday was double feature night and, for a time, Family Night. The movie would continue to run Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with a kid’s matinee Saturday afternoon.

Kids’ Matinee – now that was an experience! With admission being only 10 cents, I think every kid in town attended. Vandalism is not a new thing – not by a mile. Most of the kids were just kids – rowdy but OK.

However, one little boy was my nemesis. One of the usherette’s tasks was to fold up all the seats after the Saturday matinee and pick up any papers from the floor. After a few times of finding knife slits in the seats of the beautiful theater upholstery, we started a search for the culprit. …Sure enough, it was my troublemaker.

When he arrived the next Saturday, I collared him, seating him right in front of where I stood at the top of the ramp. At his first false move, out he went.

Mr. Adams was a firm but fair taskmaster and I have been forever grateful for his help with my first faltering steps as an employee.

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