“It was the end of an era. It was a wonderful little theater, and the Finins were wonderful people who worked hard.”

– Jeanie O’Dierno McReynolds

Rarely has a piece of wood signified as much as it did at the Thursday, Oct. 25 meeting of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie when the program featured the former Walworth Theater and Showette.

When Walworth resident Jim Jurgensen displayed a wooden armrest from one of the theater seats he obtained during the theater demolition nearly 30 years ago, the audience of 60 people was awed by the tangible item from the downtown village institution.

Many audience members during the 90-minute program shared photographs and recollections. While they were not as tangible as the armrest, everyone was keenly interested in them.

Society president Nancy Lehman of Walworth Township opened the program, which was at Golden Years Retirement Village, by telling about the history of theater and Showette, which was a soda fountain and lunch counter adjacent to the theater.

Before they were torn down, the theater and Showette were on the south side of the downtown square next to the current A Gathering gift store and On The Square Antique Mall.

Lehman related that Constantine Papas of Chicago built the theater. His business model was based in part on the attendance of people from metropolitan Chicago and northern Illinois spending their summers in the area.

Architect Robert Chase of Janesville designed the theater and Showette. His original drawing of the theater was displayed at the meeting, and the rendition little resembled the actual building, which was shown in a photograph provided by Stan Fairchild of Walworth.

 

First film debuts

On April 25, 1947, the first movie in the new theater was shown. The film, titled “Ramrod,” starred Don DeFore, who was supposed to appear in person but did not.

Louis Simonini of Saunders Theater in Harvard, Ill., was the first manager, but he was replaced in 1948 by Tom and Dorothy Finin, who moved from Decatur, Ill., with their children Jean, Carol and Tim. For the next 26 years Tom managed the theater and Dorothy the Showette.

After Constantine Papas died, ownership changed to John Papas and Spiro Papas, and they contracted with Standard Theaters based in Milwaukee to operate the theater. Tom Finin arranged for Standard to provide first-run movies in Walworth the same as shown in Milwaukee.

The theater and Showette, which later were owned by Delavan-area residents Ann and Harlan Seaver, thrived until 1979. The theater declined due to the advent of cable TV and eventually closed. The building fell into disrepair, hastened by a collapsed roof, and was razed.

‘Poppin’ corn’ and selling candy

Though the theater and Showette are gone, they remain vivid in people’s memories, as evidenced by the stories told during the program. Barb Krohn Nieman of Walworth had several, since she worked at both places on and off for 14 years, beginning in 1954 at the theater snack counter for a year as her first job.

“It was fun,” Nieman said. “I popped corn and sold candy and ice cream. The most popular were Jujubes, Juicy Fruit gum and Milk Duds. Then I moved into the Showette, where I was trained by Gloria Nieman, and sold hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and fountain drinks such as cherry vanilla phosphates and green rivers.”

Gloria Nieman’s daughter Debbie was in the audience.

A pizza oven was added in 1956, Barb Nieman recalled, and the two sizes sold for 70 cents and $1.50. She said Sunday nights, when travelers passed through the village on their way back to the Chicago area, were busy, as were evenings after local ball games.

Nieman reported “things got a little hairy” when young fellows came to the Showette at night after drinking beer at a place in “Slopville,” the nickname for Linton east of Walworth in Linn Township.

She also read a letter from Janet Fay, a former Walworth resident who worked 18 years at the Showette.

Among the theater ticket sellers were Walworth residents Betty Lou Edgington Austin in 1947-49 and Betty Cunningham Nichols in 1950-56, working in a tiny, unheated booth. Austin’s boyfriend (and later husband) at the time was Leonard “Buster” Church Jr., who worked many years as a movie projectionist.

Once their work ended, Church drove Austin home to the family farm, which was located northwest of Fontana where Laser Electric is now. If they arrived after midnight, they often herded the cows into the barn for her father who later milked them.

Austin’s sister, Mary Kirkpatrick of Walworth, also historical society secretary, remembered Austin bringing home theater popcorn and eating it in the bed they shared. “I told her, ‘Just don’t get it on my side!’” Kirkpatrick said. She also recalled her Walworth High School senior American history class going to the theater to see “Gone With the Wind.”

When Nichols became bored in the ticket booth she began waving at truck drivers passing in front of the theater. They parked their trucks around the corner and came to talk to her until Tom Finin intervened and sent the drivers on their way. She said she did meet her husband Ken (who was not a trucker) at the theater after he moved to Walworth from Peoria, Ill., as part of a business transfer.

Wendy Church, who lives near Burlington, often visited her father Leonard Church Jr. in the small projection booth, which was accessed by a narrow, steep and curved stairway. She learned how her father switched from one projector and reel to another during a movie by watching the upper-right corner of the screen for white circles to cue the transfer. The large projection machines dominated the booth, which also had a counter for splicing and a restroom.

Another ticket seller was former Fontana resident Debbie Levine Vanderstappen. She worked there in the early 1970s and got to know the Finins well. She described Dorothy as someone who worked hard.

 

Finins had reputation as hard workers, caring couple

Sharing that sentiment was Dennis Janis of rural Burlington. He grew up in Walworth and accompanied his father Hank delivering milk as part of his Walworth Dairy business in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Mrs. Finin was the hardest worker I ever knew,” Janis said. “I learned my work ethic from dad and her. The Finins did not make a lot of money, but she was the most dedicated worker I’ve ever seen.

“She split a hot dog and cooked it on the grill and toasted the bun,” Janis said. “I can still taste it. I also liked the suicide Coke with all the flavors in it. I loved the Showette, and it broke my heart when the theater came down.”

Janis, who admitted he overindulged in Slopville with friends Tom McReynolds, Joe Booth and Doug Renk, recalled being thrown out of a movie after Renk succeeded in producing a loud pop by stepping on an inverted paper cup. Tom Finin escorted Renk, Booth and Janis to the door due to guilt by association.

Many in the meeting audience recalled Finin patrolling the two theater aisles with his flashlight. Jurgensen pointed that out, in addition to his family going to the Showette for pizza and a vanilla shake on Saturday evenings before going home to watch the Lawrence Welk TV show.

Finin was helpful to Sue O’Dierno Hoyt, who recently moved to the area from Iowa, and her sister, Jeanie O’Dierno McReynolds of Fontana, during a Sunday matinee when the sisters were only 6 or 7 years old.

“One of us had to go to the bathroom, and the other was supposed to stay in her seat so we would know where to sit,” Hoyt said. “But when the one came out of the bathroom the other was in the lobby, so we didn’t know where our seats were, which had our new winter coats. Mr. Finin helped us find our seats – and our coats!”

McReynolds told about being given a quarter by her father to go to a movie. With admission 20 cents that left a nickel to buy candy, and she chose Guess What taffy.

She was saddened the day she biked with her son Tommy to see the deteriorating theater.

“I remember all the emotion I felt then because it was the end of an era,” she said. “It was a wonderful little theater, and the Finins were wonderful people who worked hard.”

The steps in front of the theater were a popular place to hang out. Bob Pearce of Walworth Township spent noon hours from the nearby high school there with his friends, who occasionally yelled loudly at drivers going the wrong way on the one-way streets around the square. He said one driver stopped and did not move due to the yelling.

Lehman also lounged on the steps, but she was there to watch the traffic. She was impressed by all the new cars on haulers from the General Motors factory in Janesville. She remarked she could identify the different models.

Stan Fairchild, whose late wife Sandy worked at the theater candy counter in high school, recalled the Showette parking lot filled with cars after a sporting event. “The Showette was so packed you couldn’t get in,” he said. “I will never forget the hamburgers made there.”

 

Local businesses chip in

When former Walworth resident Patrick Romenesko, now of Elkhorn, was a child he visited with Santa Claus, portrayed by Curt Hubertz of Fontana, in the theater lobby. Joining statements by several others at the meeting, he remembered attending the free movies for kids on Saturday afternoons.

So children would not have to pay admission to those movies, area businesspeople paid for the films. When Bill Bowie of Delavan Township was a Walworth businessman he solicited donations for the movies from businesspeople. And, he said he ate at the Showette because of the good food.

Janet Alley, an Elkhorn resident who grew up in Fontana, said she often viewed movies at the theater. On one occasion six white rabbits, which were obtained from the Luth farm east of Walworth, were being given away. “I was so happy I won one because my other rabbit had died,” she said.

Richard Rasmussen of Walworth Township offered a unique perspective from his days at Big Foot High School.

 

Rivals tout local amenities

“The Walworth and Fontana kids were in competition,” he said. “The Walworth kids envied the Fontana kids because they had the lake and beach, but the Fontana kids were more envious of the Walworth kids because we had the theater.”

When Walworth dentist Tom Beci and his family moved to the village in 1976, “the theater was a big selling point,” he said. “We probably went to see a movie every other week.”

 

‘Slopville’ patrons weren’t the only ones up to no good

A handout at the meeting told about James Marsden of Fontana being arrested for breaking into the theater and Showette and stealing money in February 1957. Dave Nieman of Walworth related that Marsden was apprehended after Walworth police followed the tire tracks of his car in the snow to his residence.

The ingenuity of Jack Cunningham of Walworth was displayed when he stated he drilled a hole in the Showette jukebox and inserted a wire to select records to play for free. “I don’t think Tom Finin ever found out about it,” he said.

Cunningham’s brother Herb, a former Walworth resident, recalled being one of three boys going one Halloween to the Showette wearing masks. He said a man named Zimmerman ordered the boys to leave and brandished a butcher knife. When rushing out of the Showette one boy grabbed a rack of potato chip bags and dragged it outside in the street, where cars made a mess of the chips. Finin chased Cunningham, but he got away by running behind Buckley’s Tearoom.

Lynn “Gabby” Jensen of Fontana recalled winning a rabbit in the 1950s. One winter she was at the theater and could not go home after a blizzard hit. She spent the night there, and Tom Finin brought her lots of popcorn. When she grew tired of eating it, Dorothy Finin showed up with “an armful of candy,” Jensen said.

Bonnie Cornue of Linn Township met her future husband Dick at the Showette, where he often went for a hot dog, fries and Coke for 75 cents. She also told about a high school homecoming celebration featuring a snake dance around the downtown square. The dancers entered the front door of the theater and exited the back door – while a movie was being shown.

As a youngster Steve Schnitcke of Walworth stopped in the Showette one day to buy a Coke from Dorothy Finin. No one else was there, so he could not resist spinning all the seats of the stools from the front to the back, creating a lot of noise. When he reached the last stool, waiting for him was Finin with his Coke and a firm request to leave.

Mary Kay Nordmeyer of Walworth Township was young when she went to the movies with her friend Karen Anderson, whose mother Betty worked at the theater. Nordmeyer said she and Karen sat in the front row and played with their dolls. She also recalled the aroma of pizzas cooking in the Showette wafted all the way down to the front of the theater.

Nordmeyer’s husband Harvey, however, described the first time he smelled pizzas as “terrible. But, before the night was over I had to try them, and I sure acquired a taste for them not long after,” he said.

Pat Magowan of Walworth said she sent her two children to the theater knowing that no one would hurt them. Dave Woodrich of Walworth Township watched the theater construction from a window of Walworth High School when Lillian Kelling was teaching a civics class. The last movie Harold Bonner of Walworth watched at the theater was “Jaws.”

 
 

1 Comment

  1. Blake Porter says:

    Here’s a great memory. 1979, during a snow billiard, my 11 year old brother and I hiked through a blizzard 3 miles to the theater to see James Bond, Moonraker. We were the only ones in the whole theater!
    They still played the movie for us. How awesome was that!

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