Thursday, April 24, 2008

Baldwyn Businesses - The Ritz Theater

-click to enlarge-

by Carl Houston

Mr. Claude Gentry was one of the best guys I ever worked for. His businesses were both theaters in Baldwyn, an insurance agency, and a small grill with short orders. I worked at the Ritz for a long time. It was probably the hottest place you could work, but you got free popcorn and got to see free movies - over and over.

The projection booth upstairs in the theater is the "hot" place I am referring to. The heat was generated by carbon-arc lamps on the 35 MM projectors that shone the film onto the huge screen. It was over one hundred degrees in there in the summer, but a high velocity fan pulled cooler air (and all of the theater smells) through the projection booth. It was just right in the winter. Besides myself, projectionists were Arch Young, Billy Taylor, Wayne Stone, Roy Strickland, and a couple of others I can't recall. I think that Jim Greene was also projectionist there later. Correct me if that isn't right, Jim.

Across the street from the Ritz, the Lyric theater was another busy place. It only operated on Friday nights and Saturdays. Usually "B" westerns were shown there exclusively, but like the other, a newsreel and five minute cartoon plus some local advertisements led off the main movie.

Rarely were first-run features seen in Baldwyn, it would be about 3-6 months or longer before a "blockbuster" movie made it to town. No problem. The atmosphere in the little town was too laid back to worry about that. "Gone with the Wind", "Love Me Tender", and several other hit movies demanded an extra day of run to satisfy the crowds.

The Walt Disney classic "Song of the South" (1946) that now is shelved and locked up due to being too controversial for modern times was a very big hit with ALL the citizens of Baldwyn. When Br'er Rabbit always got the best of his foes, the entire theater crowd would go wild. See the sidebar of this Blog to preview some of that movie.

One day I was sent for at school to come up to the theater and run a part of the movie "The French Line" for the city commissioners to evaluate a song and dance number "Lookin' for Trouble" that Jane Russell did. The costume she wore was too "skimpy" and had too many "holes" in the front so it did not pass the 1954 Baldwyn censorship statutes. I had to cut that entire number out, show the movie four times, then splice it back in when we shipped the rental film back.

Incidentally, this is the theater where one local guy got more attention than anyone in any movie ever did. Harold "Snowshoe Rabbit" Murley emptied the entire patronage - upstairs and downstairs - once when he brought his pet coach whip snake "Henry" into the movie. One person saw it was real and alive and his screaming "live snake!" while running out on the tops of the seats to escape sent the message to evacuate. And so they did. Everything stopped, Claude turned the lights on and Harold was able to find Henry and leave the theater. It was quite some time before Harold was allowed back into the Ritz, and it had to be without his pet.

Although most of the movies shown at those theaters were of good quality and had a high rating, there were some young couples that sat through them twice and never saw them. You know what they were doing, don't you? That's right. Everything around you gets distracted when you're sixteen and in love. I can assure you of that.

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The city censors wanted the Jane Russell number shown twice before making up their minds....they seemed to enjoy it. You can see it at:


  1. Is there a name list to the top picture that Mrs. Walker is in? She is the only one that I can remember.

  2. Carl,
    You are correct about me working there...also Lanny O. worked there. We would split the duties on the weekend between the Ritz and Lyric. I recognized the two big projectors immediately. Just looks for the spots on the movie and change projectors...Threading them in 10 seconds or less when the film broke was quite a challenge with everyone in the theater screaming and throwing things at the screen. You didn't mention at that time the balcony was reserved for special people and in the summer the smells were terrific from people working in the fields.

    Everyone seems to remember Harolds snake deal, how about when he brought the mouse to school with a thread tied to his hind leg in the library ?

    Jim G

  3. There were some western movie stars that came to the ritz in the late 1940, I think it was Johnny Mack Brown, the Alabama football star and at least one other. Can anybody think of who it was? Billy Bob might know.

  4. Carl, do you remember some nights when I would come and sit with you during the movie? It was sure hot in the machine room. We would sit outside and you would go in every few minutes and check on the machines and fill it up with film and come back?
    "Tina" P

  5. Alfred Michael, who played basketball and was one of my high school heroes when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, ran the projector at the Lyric Theatre, and I would sometimes join him in the projection room to watch him work. It was all very fasacinating, but also very intimidating, and I think I never recovered from a fear of machines and technology.

  6. It cost 25 cents to get into the Ritz, and you could stay all day on Saturday if you wanted to, just don't come out! The Lyric cost less. You could catch bo=th movies, have popcorn and a cola for under a dollar in those days -If you didn't have a girlfriend to buy for, they usually met you inside the movie!

    Who could ask for anything better?

  7. Carl, I remember very well spending half a day on Saturdays in the early fifties watching the movies at the Ritz and then crossing the street and catching the ones at the Lyric. All for 50 cents, including drink and popcorn.

    Thankfully, by the time I got into the theater business, we had the platter system with continuous play with no reel changes.

    I ran "Song Of The South" in 1986 on the big screen in our 492 capacity auditorium (Disney always demanded the biggest house). We had great crowds and I forget how many weeks we ran it, although it did finish up in one of our smaller houses.

  8. RC, I vaguely remember someone like Lash LaRue making an appearance in front of the Ritz one time. He did an amazing routine of tricks with that bullwhip!

  9. David Heflin sez: The two "picture shows" were so-o-o important for our agers. We counted Saturdays in dread for school starting, but then we soaked up every Fall and Winter Saturday also Mr. Caude attempted so many special offerings---sorta like a performing arts's center. Some examples: "Prince of Peace" free to all school kids, Baldwyn "premier" of "Gone With the Wind" coupled with a parade, and political speakers. Remember the special night for adult women and the following night for men. Two guys (Huey Bates?&Jim Bill McGee?) tried to slip in as women? I think the title was "She Should Have Said No." The Ritz was so special with weeknight classics. My mother was the Senior Sponsor at Jericho, and she brought the class in for their only party followed by coke floats at our house (they were hauled in a pick-up). David Norman provided a shocker late one night, silent footage of German Death Camps. Did you see it?

  10. Hi Dave;

    I saw a lot of extra movies when projectionist. I showed some films to the Lion's Club and other civic clubs we ha din town. Don't recall the concentration camp movie.

    Another thing we had to cut was the famous line at the end of "Gone With The Wind". On the second night, the audience knew I was was going to cut the audio off at that point, so everyone in the theater, it seemed like, yelled the Clark Gable line at the top of their voices. They wanted to be sure it was heard!

  11. Lash Larue was there and also Sunset Carson..The older guys will remember him.


  12. I believe that Johnny Wayne miller also an the projectors at the Ritz. I set up there several times with him that we had our own refreshment. I also remember Sunset Carson coming to the Ritz and I believe that he shot someone in the cheek while doing some his his crack shooting in one of the neighboring towns.