Our favorite Christmas characters  Yuletide TV specials continue to draw nostalgic audiences

Our favorite Christmas characters Yuletide TV specials continue to draw nostalgic audiences

(Image courtesy of Classic Media)

December 2022

Cover Story

Our favorite Christmas characters

Yuletide TV specials continue to draw nostalgic audiences

by Corbin Crable

The holiday season is a time for nostalgia, savoring warm memories created with friends and family – and often, red-nosed reindeer, abominable snowmen, and an elf here or there.

Christmas TV specials are as old as the medium of TV itself, and everyone has his or her favorite.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Many of the specials that Baby Boomers and older members of Generation X will remember from their childhood were produced by Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment, who cornered the market in stop motion animation. Think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus – well, you get the idea. In stop motion animation, inanimate objects are moved slightly between photographed frames in order to give the object an appearance of motion. Rankin/Bass TV specials gave us some of our most beloved Christmas characters come to life, all thanks to this effect, which the company called, “Animagic.”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is among the earliest televised Christmas specials, having been telecast every year since 1964. Telling the well-known story of Rudolph’s embracing of his glowing red nose after being labeled an outcast by his peers, Rudolph was voiced by Canadian voice actress Billie Mae Richards, while American musician and actor Burl Ives lent his voice to the narrator of the special (the doll crafted for the character was made specifically to resemble Ives).

While Rudolph’s story had a happy ending, most of the original puppets used in the 1964 production did not. Most of the original puppets were not properly stored and deteriorated as the years passed; of the surviving puppets, two – one Rudolph and one Santa – were taken onto the TV program Antiques Roadshow and were appraised at a value of between $8,000 and $10,000. According to the Associated Press, in 2020, the pieces sold at auction for $368,000, and later donated to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta.

Cementing its place in pop culture history, in 2014, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned a postage stamp of Rudolph.

Landmark mall shopping Mall

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

When the special finally aired in 1964, it became such a hit that it has been rebroadcast every year since, making it the longest-running Christmas special in history. courtesy of Wikipedia

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Commissioned and sponsored by the Coca-Cola Co., A Charlie Brown Christmas was special for many reasons – chief among them, it was the first Peanuts TV special to feature Charles M. Schulz’s beloved characters, who had delighted readers on the comics page of their local newspaper since 1950.

The TV special was also unique in that non-actor children voiced Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and their pals, with the youngest, only 6 years old and unable to read, having to been fed her lines one sentence at a time (shockingly enough, the voice recordings were completed in just one day). A California-based children’s choir lent their voices to “Christmas Time is Here” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at the beginning and end of the program, respectively.

The program’s jazz soundtrack, composed by Vince Guaraldi, has sold millions of copies worldwide. A Charlie Brown Christmas has since become synonymous with appreciating one’s blessings during an increasingly commercialized holiday season, with no better symbol than the small sapling tree he finds in a Christmas tree lot.

Against the expectations of the show’s producers, the program was an instant hit, airing on CBS on Dec. 9, 1965, to an estimated 14.5 million viewers. The next year, it would win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” has remained one of the most popular family programs of the holiday season for more than 50 years; one of the animators, said it was the best special he’ll ever make – This show is going to run for a hundred years,” marveled Ed Levitt upon its release and glowing reception. In 2012, the program was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2012 as a “culturally, historically”: important sound recording.

Mr Bulky Candy store

A Charlie Brown Christmas

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the program’s title character learns the true meaning of Christmas.
(Image courtesy of Getty Images)

Mr Bulky Candy store

Small Christmas tree Charlie Brown Christmas

Unlike his friends, Charlie Brown sees big potential in a small Christmas tree. The tree portrayed in A Charlie Brown Christmas
has been sold as a novelty decoration. (Image courtesy of Getty Images)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Children’s author Dr. Seuss and veteran animator Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame paired up in the mid-1960s to transform Seuss’ classic book How the Grinch Stole Christmas into a short TV Christmas special.

For the animated special, according to Toonopedia, animators spent more than a year penning thousands of cells, background drawings, and character drawings. Jones himself said he animated the diminutive, soft-spoken Cindy Lou Who (voiced by June Foray, best known as the voice of Rocky the squirrel in Rocky and Bullwinkle) to somewhat resemble the Grinch, while Max, the Grinch’s perpetually suffering canine henchman, was designed with Porky Pig’s character in the Duck Dodgers cartoons in mind.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas made its debut on Dec. 18, 1966, amid a spate of other animated holiday specials, following on the heels of other animated Christmas specials released during the mid-1960s (and, not coincidentally, the birth of color television).

Continuing the tradition of the inclusion of employing big names with big voices, Boris Karloff headlined the small list of voice actors, with Karloff pulling double duty as both the Grinch and the Narrator. Audiences from the previous generation would remember Karloff in his iconic role as Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1931 horror classic Frankenstein. Many viewers mistakenly believe that Karloff also sang the special’s “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch,” but that designation goes to vocalist Thurl Ravenscroft. If Ravenscroft’s deep bass voice sounds familiar, that’s because audiences knew him as the voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal. Ravenscroft voiced Tony for an entire five decades.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas consistently remains in the top 10s of Best Family Holiday TV Specials.

 

Orange Julius

Grinch and Cindy Lou Who

He’s a mean one, and the Grinch may have fooled darling little Cindy Lou Who….

Orange Julius

Grinch

….but he doesn’t fool the viewer. (Images courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Tall Cascading Fountain

Frosty the Snowman

Coming off the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman led the way for Christmas TV programming
in 1969. (Image courtesy of Rankin/Bass)

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Another Rankin/Bass production, Frosty again told the story of a beloved character made popular in a Christmas song, and, like Rudolph before it, employed the voice of another famous actor, Jimmy Durante, as the narrator of the story. June Foray, best known as the voice of Rocky the squirrel in Rocky and Bullwinkle, voiced the human protagonist and Frosty’s companion, Karen. Unlike Rudolph, Frosty was done in traditional, 2D animation.

Durante was no stranger to the Frosty mythos, having recorded the song in 1950. The animated tale about the snowman come to life was an instant hit, giving rise to multiple sequels, including Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976), Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), Frosty Returns (1992), and the straight-to-video The Legend of Frosty the Snowman (2005).

 

Glamour Shots

Mickey’s Christmas Carol

Like the Dickens original story, Mickey’s Christmas Carol redeems Scrooge at the end – a Christmas
miracle. (Image courtesy of CBS)

Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Those younger Generation Xers likely will recall one of Disney’s best-loved contributions to the animated half-hourlong Christmas specials, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, an adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens tale as told by Mickey Mouse and pals. With Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge McDuck appropriately enough, as Ebenezer Scrooge; and Goofy as Jacob Marley, the special was the first original Mickey Mouse theatrical cartoon in three decades (Mickey hadn’t been featured on the silver screen in an original production since 1953). The only original voice actor in the film was Clarence Nash, who lent his voice to Fred (Scrooge’s nephew), portrayed by Donald Duck.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol received mostly positive reviews upon its release on Dec. 16, 1983, showing in theaters directly before a re-release of the full-length 1977 Disney animated film The Rescuers. Those naysayers who gave the program negative reviews were soon put to rest, however, when it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film the following year.

Although your family likely had one or perhaps all of these Christmas specials in your home video library, they can also be viewed on most streaming services as well. So pop some popcorn and get your TV ready for a journey back to the Christmases of your childhood.

Hey, wanna go to the mall?  Shopping malls exist as snapshot of America during one moment in time

Hey, wanna go to the mall? Shopping malls exist as snapshot of America during one moment in time

(Photo by Patti Klinge)
November 2022

Cover Story

Hey, wanna go to the mall?

Shopping malls exist as snapshot of America during one moment in time

by Corbin Crable

“All right, I’ll pick you up at the food court entrance 3 p.m. Have fun and be safe!”

The words – or something like them – are familiar to anyone who grew up in America’s suburbs during the late 20th century, when going to a shopping mall with your friends (and without parents in tow) was a rite of passage for young teens and tweens.

Shopping Mall

The shopping mall, that ubiquitous symbol of American culture, consumerism, and, if you were of a certain age, unbridled freedom, is older than you might think. According to a 2018 article by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, the first enclosed shopping mall opened in 1956 in Edina, MN, designed by Austrian architect Victor Gruen. It was an invention that heralded the peak of the Baby Boomer generation – soldiers returning home from fighting overseas in 1945 settled into what would become known as suburbs, got married and started a family. The purchase of items such as television sets and electric washers and dryers showed us that these weren’t merely conveniences of the modern era – they were indeed status symbols. And where else would these new families, whose numbers exploded in the 1950s, spend their money than in the shopping mall – that logical next step in the evolution of commercialism and post-war America? After all, more shoppers meant more retail spaces and department stores were needed.

“Gruen wanted to import the pedestrian experience of modernist, European cities like Vienna and Paris into America, where the automobile was king,” Bogost wrote. “By creating places for community in the deserts of suburbia, he hoped to lure people from their cars and into contact with one another. The malls would be for shopping, yes, but also offer food, relaxation, and green space. … (It was) A place to gather, a place to shop, a place to relax, a place to live.”

Landmark mall shopping Mall

Landmark Shopping Center

In its day, Landmark Shopping Center was the epicenter of retail industry in Alexandria, VA. More recently, it was featured in the filmimg of “Wonder Woman 2:1984” (image courtesy of nostalgicvirginian.com)
Younger Baby Boomers and Generation Xers well remember the mall as all of these things and more, the experiences invariably tied to the names of stores that still exist both inside and outside its concrete walls, as well as those that have long since disappeared from our lexicon.

The mall was a world unto itself, a place where one could purchase goods and services in real-time and, more importantly to younger people, a place where they could put their finger on the proverbial pulse of what was hot and popular, a place where friendships began, blossomed and eventually died.

The decades that made up the second half of the 20th century saw the number of malls in American cities grow quickly; in fact, more than 16,000 were constructed in the 1980s alone, according to Business Insider. Those years gave rise, of course, to products, names and brands that populated these malls, as well as interior design and fashion trends that wouldn’t be seen again. Chances are, you recognize a few of these features, products and merchants from the shopping malls of yesteryear.

Mr Bulky Candy store

Mr. Bulky candy store

Along with the food court and the arcade, Mr. Bulky candy store was a popular hangout for the kids. (image courtesy of yelp.com)

Pop-star appearances

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, it was common to enjoy mall concerts by young up-and-coming musical stars – none as memorable as 1980s pop sensation Tiffany, queen of the mall tour. Her performances at American malls throughout the ‘80s launched Tiffany to stardom (and her smash hit “I Think We’re Alone Now” could be found in teens’ cassette players throughout the country).

Smokers

Strolling through your local mall with a thick cloud of smoke swirling in the air above your head used to be the norm in malls, as were ashtrays stationed next to benches and rest areas inside the mall. But public opinion began to change in the early 1990s as more malls began to ban smoking in food courts, inside stores and restrooms.

Orange Julius

Those mouth-watering, thick, creamy drinks were synonymous with malls. The beverage – a mixture of ice, sweetener, orange juice, milk and powdered egg whites – has been made and sold since the 1920s at stands across the U.S. Orange Julius is still made and sold by Dairy Queen, which has owned the rights to the drink since the late 1980s.

Orange Julius

Orange Julius

Orange Julius was a mall staple in the 1980s, with its uniquely flavored smoothies on tap. (image courtesy of Pinterest)
Tall Cascading Fountain

Tall cascading fountain

This tall, cascading fountain was the talk of shoppers at Metcalf South Mall in Overland Park, KS. The mall was demolished several years ago. (image courtesy of Facebook)

Sharper Image

Did anyone actually ever buy anything from Sharper Image? I only remember going into the store to try out every cool gadget – especially the massaging chair. Sharper Image, that gift store for the rich guy who seemingly has everything, went bankrupt in 2008 after a little more than 30 years in business; it has since relaunched, and its expensive luxury items are now mostly sold via catalog and third-party retailers.

B. Dalton Booksellers

Much like the very first enclosed mall, the first B. Dalton bookstore opened in Edina, MN, in 1966. The chain, which sold hardcover new-release books alongside paperbacks, was specifically designed to cater to customers living in suburbs. By 1986, at the business’ peak, B. Dalton had 798 locations open in the U.S. The B. Dalton name was sold to Barnes & Noble in the late 1990s, and the last location closed in 2013.

K.B. Toys

Named for the Kauffman Brothers – that’s Harry and Joseph – the company was originally a candy seller but entered into the toy industry in 1946, more than 20 years after its founding. It focused solely on its shopping mall locations for the remainder of its existence until the company went bankrupt and liquidated in early 2009. But let’s face it: what you remember most about K.B. Toys were those adorable electronic pig and dog plushies that barked, oinked and walked on a little platform outside the store.

Fountains

These water features were everywhere you turned when you went to the mall, whether they were gurgling and babbling lightly or shooting jets of water into the air, illuminated by colored lights below. As a child, you might have plunged your hands into the water or tossed a coin or two into the fountain to make a wish.

Glamour Shots

Glamour Shots

Tease up that hair and pick out the classiest gold lamé outfit you can find, because it’s time to look 1980s gorgeous at Glamour Shots. (image courtesy of Reddit)

Suncoast Motion Picture Co.

As more movie and TV viewers opt for the digital experience in relaxing with a good show or film, this retailer that sold physical media such as DVDs and vinyl records (and even printed reproductions of movie scripts) seems almost quaint by comparison. Owned by the same parent company that owned music retailer Sam Goody (remember putting on a set of bid headphones at Sam Goody to listen to cassettes and vinyls?), today only three Suncoast stores remain open – one of them in Omaha, NE.

Payphones

If you needed a quiet place to talk to your crush for a dime (or, later, a quarter), you likely just looked to the bank of payphones next to the restrooms, down a separate hallway and away from the hustle and bustle of shoppers. Payphones can still be found, of course, and, according to Slate.com, there are still more payphones in the U.S. than McDonald’s locations or public libraries.

Arcades

Going to the mall with a pocket full of quarters could mean only one thing – a day of playing games like Pac-Man or Space Invaders with your friends at your mall’s video game arcade. Throw in a cup of delicious Orange Julius and you’ve got the perfect Saturday afternoon as a kid in the 1970s.

Free samples from Hickory Farms

Did you spend all that money at the arcade and now have none for the food court? Not to worry; there was always a Hickory Farms store somewhere in the mall, where a teenager stood at the entrance armed with free samples of smoked sausages and cheeses. Bring a trenchcoat and fake mustache along in order to disguise yourself when going back for seconds!

Glamour Shots

The photography studio that transformed awkward teenage girls and housewives into awkward wanna-be models in sequins and jean jackets peaked in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, but fear not, lovers of teased hair; as of two years ago, five Glamour Shots studios were still open in the U.S. and offering the makeover of your dreams (or nightmares). You know what they say – the higher the hair, the closer to God.

 

Movie theaters

Movie theaters began popping up in malls in the 1970s and offered something different to do with your friends. Just be on the lookout for that pesky usher as you sneak into “Nightmare on Elm Street,” you rebel, you.

Mallwalkers

Out of the way, young people! The teenagers might rule the mall during its operating hours, but before the stores open for the day, the halls belong to the older folks who get their exercise by joining a group of like-minded fitness enthusiasts and doing laps around all levels of the mall before things get busy for the day. You could usually find them clad in sneakers and track suits. Just don’t get in their path, and be sure to wave if you happen to see them.

Do you still frequent the shopping mall where you live? What do you remember from its heyday? What are the sights, sounds and tastes that you miss? Write to us and let us know! You might be featured in a future column by the editor.

Movie Theater

Movie Theater in Mall

Customers check out the offerings at a movie theater inside a Houston mall in the 1970s. (image courtesy of Facebook)
Mall Arcade

Mall Arcade

Leave the shopping to Mom and Dad – you had levels and villains to conquer at your local mall’s arcade. (image courtesy of Totally Rad Times)

Trick or Treat! Halloween costumes have a colorful, creative history

Trick or Treat! Halloween costumes have a colorful, creative history

(Photo courtesy Charlie Vandermeer/Reminisce)

October 2022

Cover Story

Trick or Treat!

Halloween costumes have a colorful, creative history

by Corbin Crable

Whether you’re suiting up the kids or grandkids in Halloween costumes to traverse their neighborhood for sweets and treats this Halloween, you’re participating in a tradition richer than a fun-size Three Musketeers bar.

Though the holiday itself traces its roots to the ancient world, the tradition of donning a costume on Oct. 31 dates back to the late 19th century, coinciding with the rush of immigrants arriving in America from European countries like Ireland and Italy. According to a November 2009 History.com article, in those countries and others, the act of dressing in costumes and going from house to house asking for food or money was already considered a tradition. So, we have European immigrants to thank for bringing this custom to us from across the pond. For women specifically, the holiday was linked to wishes for romance.

“Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors,” the article states.

Keep that bad juju away

In those years, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, costumes were designed to ward off evil spirits – take a glimpse at any number of photographs from 1900 to around 1920, and you’ll see costumes designed to horrify. Still, the Halloween holiday was designed to be a celebration of community.

“Before it evolved into the family-friendly, party occasion we know it as, October 31 was deeply linked to ghosts and superstitions,” Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne said to CNN in 2020. “It was seen as a day ‘outside of normal,’ when you act outside of society’s norms.”

Added fashion historian Nancy Deihl in the same CNN article: “(People) wore scary, frightening get-ups, which were made at home with whatever was on hand: sheets, makeup, improvised masks. …Anonymity was a big part of the costumes. The whole point of dressing up was to be completely in disguise.”

 

Classic vintage hommade pirate costume

Until the 1950s, popular children’s costumes included generic characters such as pirates, cowboys and clowns. (Image courtesy of Click Americana)

You don’t want these ‘tricks’

Along with religious and community leaders, media such as newspapers stressed the importance of bonding with one’s community members at this time of year. Halloween parties in the first two decades of the 1900s focused more on food and generally socializing with one’s neighbors.

All of that changed with the arrival of the Roaring ‘20s, however, since the well-intentioned community parties were now plagued by acts of vandalism (the “trick” part of the phrase, “Trick or treat”), and, according to History.com, the ensuing years continued with a focus on community togetherness, though community and civic centers were no longer the places that hosted large Halloween parties – now, they took place in classrooms and in the home. Costumes were still worn, with the more popular choices being clowns and cowboys. Sometimes, Bannatyne said, people began working on sewing and crafting their costumes as early as August – after all, you couldn’t readily find them in stores just yet.

The Rio Theatre in Overland Park, KS

Dracula is never out of style

Adult Halloween costumes – such as Vampira and Dracula, shown here in 1966 — began rising in popularity in the 1960s. (Image courtesy of Dotty Bouchet/Reminisce)

Kids hit the streets in search of treats

The Halloween holiday became noticeably more kid-centric at the dawn of the 1950s and the Baby Boomer Generation. The time was ideal for the holiday’s transformation. As American soldiers returned home from World War II and into the arms of a robust U.S. economy, they started families, and with those families came a new generation of consumers.

“…The centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived,” according to History.com. “Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.”

Halloween costumes, until the 1950s, had portrayed generic figures – animals, soldiers, goblins and ghosts – but with the 1950s also came the rise of television and the mass media’s role in hyping up the holiday.

“With costumes more mainstream, mid-century costumes included more mass market costume items based on TV characters and generally became less creepy to have wider appeal,” according to an Oct. 31, 2021, article on www.atomic-ranch.com. “The rise of suburbia, also a mid-century phenomenon, helped to make trick-or-treating in costumes more of a widescale practice. Concern for safe alternatives to wandering the streets was also a concern and gave rise to the increasing popularity of haunted houses.”

lobby of the original Glenwood

Cowboys & Indians

Though pop culture characters dominated Halloween costumes in the late 20th century, a department store catalog from 1974 shows
that traditional figures such as cowboys and Indians were popular. (Image courtesy of Click Americana)

The Screenland Armour

Homemade costumes are the most creative

Homemade costumes such as these – a milk carton, taken in the late 1970s — seem to be getting more scarce, but they’re a creative alternative to mass-produced options. (Image courtesy of Lisa O’Brien/Reminisce)

Costumes of colorful TV, movie characters all the rage

In the 1950s, the first companies to mass produce Halloween costumes were founded. Bannatyne said that companies like The J. Halpern Co. (in Pittsburgh) began “licensing images of fictional characters like Popeye, Olive Oyl, Little Orphan Annie and Mickey Mouse.” The company Ben Cooper had a major role in the manufacturing of costumes, decorations, and other Halloween-themed items, eventually owning an estimated 80 percent of the costume market, according to Slate.com.

Costumes bearing the likeness of favorite children’s characters largely took the place of costumes and characters that, until now, had been enjoyed by adults. And costumes no longer had to be made by their wearer – the commercialization of the holiday meant that costumes of pop culture figures and other characters were now not only widely available, but affordable, too. And kids were in the spotlight for this holiday, once viewed as a time for community building.

Be sure to include Dad and Mom, too

As the 1960s and ‘70s gave way to the later part of the 20th century, adults decided they wanted in on the fun once again, and Halloween costumes for adults began a climb in popularity. As in decades past, these costumes weren’t designed to frighten others. Fewer masks were used, and instead, wearers conveyed a sense of whimsy, Deihl says.

“Grown-ups, in particular, started ditching masks and full-on coverage, opting to show their faces,” she says. “Costumes became a way to play a lighter, special version of oneself: showing the world you ‘were’ Wonder Woman, or Luke Skywalker, or what have you.”
Deihl says that modern costumes have moved away from the creative spirit of their vintage predecessors, mostly because so fewer people make their own costumes by hand and instead opt for one of the more limited options available commercially.

The atomic-age sign of the Glenwood

Amazing rubber masks

An advertisement for Halloween costumes, which likely was published in a comic book in the mid-20the century.
(Image courtesy of Click Americana)

And don’t forget the decorations

The Halloween parties where you wore your costume changed with the decades as well. Though Halloween parties in the early 20th century were community-focused and took place in places like classrooms and civic centers, more parties were held at home as the century progressed. Much like Halloween costumes, the market for Halloween decorations, décor and games exploded starting in the 1920s and stayed strong throughout the 1960s. Incredibly affordable, something as simple as papier mache black cats or die-cut grinning jack-o-lanterns could add a fun, spooky splash of character to any gathering.

These decorations remain highly collectible, too, says collector Jennifer Fischer.

“The heyday of vintage Halloween collectibles covers the period from the 1920s to 1950s and 1960s. Vintage Halloween collectibles can be broken down into several main categories — noisemakers, postcards, papier mache lanterns, party decorations, books and candy containers, and costumes and accessories,” Fischer states on her website, www.vintagehalloween.com. “Most Halloween collectibles can be found on average from about $20 to the $300 range, with some items running in the hundreds to thousands that are typically more popular, scarce or rarer items. Within each category of collectibles there are more moderately priced pieces and those that bring in top dollar.”

Like Halloween decorations, vintage Halloween costumes themselves remain available for purchase from sites like eBay and Etsy. And, though they’re a quick, affordable way to disguise yourself for the holiday, a DIY costume can show family and friends your own personal style.

I think people would express themselves much more individually if they crafted their own costumes like they used to,” fashion historian Deihl says.

Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, KS

Batman is always a popular choice

A Batman costume from 1955. (Image courtesy of Pinterest)

Let’s go to the movies Vintage movie venues have entertained audiences for decades

Let’s go to the movies Vintage movie venues have entertained audiences for decades

(Photo by Patti Klinge)

September 2022

Cover Story

Let’s go to the movies

Vintage movie venues have entertained audiences for decades

by Corbin Crable

Streaming services, be advised – you can’t keep a good movie theater down.

People have predicted the death knell of movie theaters for years, but they continue to be a draw for those who love a good, old-fashioned moviegoing experience. Those experiences you remember vividly from your youth remain available at small, independently-owned venues throughout Kansas, Missouri, and the rest of the country. They have a long history, whose richness matches the loyalty of the customers who visit them regularly. In this issue of Discover Vintage America, we take a peek behind the curtain of just a few.

The Glenwood Arts and The Rio Theatre – Overland Park, KS

This year, twin brothers Ben and Brian Mossman celebrate 40 years in business as the Fine Arts Group, which has owned and operated independent movie theaters in the Kansas City metro area since 1982.

The Mossman brothers’ current theaters – both located in Overland Park – are The Glenwood Arts and The Rio. Like most businesses, the theaters closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic; the five-screen Glenwood Arts has since reopened, and the single-screen Rio remains temporarily closed.

Over the years, the Fine Arts Group’s theaters have come and gone, though they’re still spoken of lovingly by former customers – The Fine Arts Theatre, The Englewood, and Red Bridge, just to name a few.

Glenwood Lobby

Lobby of the new Glenwood Theatre

The lobby of the new Glenwood Theatre features neon signage for a retro feel. (Photo by Patti Klinge)

Glenwood Arts and The Rio

Both the Glenwood Arts and The Rio offer guests a moviegoing experience that simply can’t be found with large chains like AMC or Cinemark. Before the Glenwood Arts Theatre moved to its current location in the Ranchmart Shopping Center and merged with the shuttered Leawood Theater – which had been owned by Kansas City-based Commonwealth Theaters since the late 1960s before it closed in the 1990s – the Mossmans were able to salvage multiple items, including the original Glenwood’s colorful, atomic-age marquee (which remains in storage). Step into the lobby of the Glenwood Arts and you’ll see original film posters from classic movies like “Duel Au Soleil” (1946) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) among portraits of old-time movie stars like Ava Gardner and James Dean. A neon sign simply reading “Refreshments” buzzes above the concession stand, a large wooden plaque bearing the visages of the twin gryphons of comedy and drama hangs outside auditorium number one (it’s just one of the relics the Mossmans brought over from the Glenwood Arts Theatre in the now-defunct Metcalf South Shopping Center at 95th and Metcalf – that theater operated from 2002-2015, and bore the name of its predecessor, the original Glenwood, which operated from 1966 to 2000). The Glenwood Arts retains the Leawood Theatre’s original seats, and its crest appears splayed across the lobby’s teal-and-purple carpet.

The Rio Theatre in Overland Park, KS

The Rio Theatre in Overland Park, KS

The Rio Theatre in Overland Park, KS, remains closed until more staff can be hired, among other reasons cited by the owners. (Image courtesy of The City of Overland Park)

Our customers are valued

“Our customers are valued. We try to give them information or strike a conversation with them,” says Ben Mossman, president and co-owner of The Fine Arts Group. “We don’t say, ‘Give us your money and go in.’ In one sense, it’s a step back in time. We have artifacts that dictate that. Our theater is neon and glass brick.”

The clientele of both theaters skews older, and though they’re returning to the Glenwood Arts, it’s been a slow climb to get back to attendance numbers that justify adding more showtimes to the theater’s roster.

“Our clientele was more reserved in going out into a group function. They were the first to stay away and the last to come back, mostly due to their age and whether they had health issues,” Mossman notes.

The Overland Theater, which originally opened on Christmas Day in 1946 and would later become The Rio, remains a favorite local landmark of moviegoers. Located near downtown Overland Park, the theater hosted Theatre for Young America in the late 1970s and was sold to the city in 1987. The Mossmans would eventually purchase the building in 1993, and after a years-long renovation process, the thater reopened on June 30, 2000.

“The theater had been brought to life again with all its old style and much of its original material intact,” according to the Johnson County Department of Parks and Recreation. “The revitalized façade features new peach-colored porcelain tiles, neon lighting, aluminum trim, rebuilt poster cases, and a recreated marquee and glass block ticket booth.”

Rumors about the fate of the still-closed Rio have swirled on social media for months, leading followers to speculate whether the theater will remain permanently closed. Mossman says the Rio will reopen once business at the Glenwood Arts is high enough to warrant opening the single-screen location and spending money on its electrical and heating/cooling bills, and upkeep. Another issue is the need for more employees – like so many other small businesses across the country, the Fine Arts Group has had difficulty finding employees in recent months.

“We can’t get help,” Mossman says. “We couldn’t even add showtimes (at the Glenwood Arts), but we don’t have enough help.”

lobby of the original Glenwood

Lobby of the original Glenwood

The lobby of the original Glenwood. The ornate chandelier has since found a new home at the Glenwood Antique Mall in Overland Park, KS. (Image courtesy of Pinterest)

The Screenland Armour

The Screenland Armour

The Screenland Armour’s exterior neon sign illuminates the night sky.
(Image courtesy of Visitkc.com)

The Rio has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005.

Mossman says he is heartened to see that even as streaming services rise in popularity, audiences still value a traditional moviegoing experience in a vintage or vintage-style theater.

“There is still a great number of people who want the experience of going out to the theater instead of staying home and eating kettle corn,” he says.

The Aztec Shawnee Theater – Shawnee, KS

Like other theaters in its proximity, The Aztec Shawnee doesn’t only specialize in films – it’s a venue that hosts other events as well.

One of the theater’s owners, Chris Calkins, says he had driven by the shuttered theater “hundreds, if not thousands of times,” in recent years and, in 2017, decided to purchase, renovate and reopen the location with the help of his brother and a mutual friend.

The Aztec Shawnee, which reopened in December 2020, has become a hot spot for a variety of guests and groups, from music lovers to wedding parties to receptions and birthday parties.

“The theater does mostly live bands on Friday and Saturday nights with some weekday and occasional Sunday classic movies,” Calkins says. “Our original goal when we first started planning was for the main focus to be on movies with some live entertainment from time to time but then after doing more research, we figured out that a small venue like ours could never compete with the big megaplexes on movies. to do that.”

Instead, Calkins says, the Aztec Shawnee shows a handful of classic films throughout the year – this summer’s offerings have included “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” This fall, classic horror fans won’t want to miss the original “Frankenstein” on Oct. 5 and 12, as well as “Bride of Frankenstein” on Oct. 19 and 28 (The venue’s first movie last year was a screening of the 1931 horror classic “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi). A complete list of all films and live musical performances being hosted by the Aztec Shawnee, meanwhile, can be found at www.aztecshawnee.com.

Besides films, Calkins says the Aztec Shawnee’s frequent collaboration with local businesses is one of the many features that sets it apart from other venues.

The atomic-age sign of the Glenwood

The atomic-age sign of the Glenwood

The atomic-age sign that stood outside of the original Glenwood Theatre welcomed visitors with a splash of color. (Photo by Patti Klinge)

“On most Friday and Saturday nights, you may find a food truck out front, and we allow the food truck food to be brought into the theater,” he says. “We have also teamed up with McLains Market right around the corner from us on a program where you can order from a specialized menu right from your phone in the theater and they will deliver it to the theater with no delivery charge.”

Calkins adds, “All of these classic movies have been a partnership with Shawnee Town 1929, and if you happen to be a member of The Friends of Shawnee Town, you can call them and get into these movies for free. So far, we have only been charging $5 to see movies at Aztec Shawnee Theater.”

Like other local theaters, the operation of the Aztec Shawnee is a labor of love for Calkins and his family.

“Just the beauty of the inside of the theater keeps people coming back,” Calkins says. “It is definitely a family affair, as at almost any event you will find several family members working the door or the concessions or just mingling with the crowd.”

The Boulevard Drive-In – Kansas City, KS

For a real drive-in experience, the Boulevard Drive-In has been welcoming motorists to its grounds since 1950.

Run and operated by the Neal family, the drive-in remains one of only a handful of drive-in theaters still open across the country. According to the theater’s social media pages, the theater almost closed in the 1970s, but owner Wes Neal was able to save the business by offering weekly swap-n-shop events – and it wasn’t long before sales of antique and vintage goods had saved the theater from closing.

Today, the theater still shows first-run films, the venue instantly recognizable by its sign, which the Neals say they believe should be on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more, including the Boulevard’s seasonal film calendar and swap meet schedule, visit www.boulevarddrivein.com.

And be sure to catch a flick at The Screenland Armour – North Kansas City, MO
The Armour Theater, built in 1928, during the era when “talkies” were the new fad in film, was bought in 2008 by developer Butch Rigby and renovated in 2012 by Adam Roberts and his business partner and brother-in-law Brent Miller. The two renamed the venue The Screenland Armour.

Specializing in independent and classic films – with a few first-run movies thrown in for good measure —  the Screenland Armour celebrated an expansion in 2018, adding two screens, new projectors, sound systems, seats, and even a pizza shop (because what else would you pair with their extensive beer list?).

There are still vintage touches at the Screenland Armour, including its neon exterior signage and vintage arcade games. Be sure, too, to visit the Screenland Tapcade in the Crossroads Art District, featuring a full-service restaurant, arcade games, and regular trivia nights.

Visit www.screenland.com for tickets and showtimes.

Author’s disclosure: Corbin is the social media manager for The Glenwood Arts Theatre in Overland Park, KS.

Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, KS

Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, KS

The sign at the Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, KS, advertises the venue’s weekly swap shop. (Image courtesy of Pinterest)

The Gem Theatre in Kansas City, MO

The Gem Theatre in Kansas City, MO

The Gem Theatre in Kansas City, MO, is another example of the beautiful Art Deco style used in the old theatres. Opened in 1912 as the Star Theatre. it was renamed Gem Theatre around 1914 and got a facelift in 1923. The Gem Theatre was built for use by African-American audiences and had a seating capacity for 1,414. Movies continued until the mid-1970s and then went to live performances. Since 1997, after a detailed renovation to create a 500-seat performance space which removed most of the original interior, it has been a venue for the American Jazz Museum located across the street. (Contributed by Chuck Van Bibber; Photo by Patti Klinge)

One-room schoolhouses still educate visitors Schools housed generations of young learners in 19th, early 20th centuries

One-room schoolhouses still educate visitors Schools housed generations of young learners in 19th, early 20th centuries

(Photo by Kyle Bush)

August 2022

Cover Story

One-room schoolhouses still educate visitors

Schools housed generations of young learners in 19th, early 20th centuries

by Corbin Crable

As a new school year begins across the country, it can be easy to forget that one-room schoolhouses, those relics of education from centuries past, remain places of knowledge for students and history enthusiasts alike.

Single-room schools could be found in rural areas both in the United States and abroad – by 1919, according to Forbes.com, around 200,000 dotted rural landscapes in all; these institutions served an important role in molding young minds, especially in 19th- and early 20th-century America. The differences between one-room schoolhouses and the schools of today, of course, are vast. In those one-room schools, students of varying ages – usually grades 1 through 8 — would learn from one teacher – typically, a young woman; most schools could accommodate as few as six or as many as 40 students, according to the “America’s Story” project from the U.S. Library of Congress.

“The teacher’s desk may have been on a raised platform at the front of the room, and there would have been a wood-burning stove since there was no other source of heat,” according to the America’s Story site. “The bathroom would have been outside in an outhouse.”

One Room SchoolHouse

Teachers in one-room schools

Teachers in one-room schools were usually young women. (Image courtesy of Ancestry)

Tutoring the younger kids

The youngest of the students usually would sit at desks in the front of the classroom, while the oldest sat in the back of the room. Rarely did the older students need to be reminded to help the younger ones, as it was expected of them. And besides, according to the America’s Story site – the older students were all too eager to help their younger counterparts with their studies.

“‘Limited’ by one teacher, the students often helped with the teaching; older kids or those who mastered material more quickly would help others. A student who was advanced in math, for example, could simply do math with the older kids,” writes Brandon Busteed in a 2020 article on Forbes.com (Busteed’s father attended a one-room schoolhouse in Elgin, NE). “Because there was more fluidity in the learning, the one-room schoolhouse became more of a community-based education where everyone had to pitch in to some extent.”
Not only did these one-room schoolhouses make up the nucleus of a child’s education; quite often, they were the social and civic epicenter of the small towns in which they were located.

“The schoolhouse was the center and focus for thousands of rural communities, hamlets and small towns,” according to a website memorializing the Gunn School in Holt, MI. “Often, town meetings and picnics were also held there. They hosted plays, dances, box socials, spelling bees, and Christmas pageants.”

one-room schoolhouse at Deanna Rose

One-room schoolhouse at Deanna Rose

The one-room schoolhouse at Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead in Overland Park, KS, allows kids of all ages to visit the past. (Image courtesy of Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead)

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series painted a vivid picture of life inside a one-room schoolhouse in the 1800s. (Image courtesy of Ebay)

Fourth-graders visit a one-room schoolhouse

Fourth-graders visit a one-room schoolhouse

Fourth-graders visit a one-room schoolhouse in Ottawa, KS, to get a glimpse of how students received their education in the early 20th century. )Image courtesy of The Old Depot Museum)

“When I was your age…”

Students in one-room schoolhouses likely would have learned from The McGuffey Reader, first published in 1836. The readers taught students from grades 1-6 how to read using the phonics method and heavily utilized the slates and chalk that each student received at the beginning of the academic year in requiring students to replicate certain sentences or other vocabulary words.

The separation of religion and education was still a distant concept during the time of the one-room schoolhouse. In addition to the McGuffey Readers, students also learned reading from the Bible, which their teacher used alongside other teaching aids. In fact, many teachers opened their school day by leading the students in prayer, according to the Fort Hays (KS) State University Archives, which published an oral history project in which former students and teachers from schoolhouses in the region were interviewed about their experiences.

The earliest McGuffey Readers incorporated passages on national unity, piety and righteousness, and some remain in use today in evangelical Christian homeschooling, author Johann Neem writes in the summer 2018 edition of The Hedgehog Review.

No matter what their school day was like, Forbes’ Busteed says, those studious children grew up into the parents and grandparents who lightly admonished their kids and grandkids by reminding them how privileged their educational experiences are and saying, “When I was your age, I had to walk miles to school in the snow.”

“To this day, he loves sharing stories about it with his grandchildren,” Busteed says of his grandfather, “mainly bragging about how he had to ride his pony several miles to school (including through severe snowstorms).” 

Closures of schools continue, but lessons remain

Though class hasn’t been in session at most one-room schoolhouses for many decades, some 200 remain open to mold the young minds of students in remote areas, according to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

But those schools struggle to remain open, many instead being absorbed by other school districts nearby as families move to more populated areas for better job opportunities. One such school was the Glen School in Sioux County, NE, which had only three students enrolled as of a decade ago. NPR’s Neenah Ellis first visited the school in 2005 and met the last three students attending the school.

“The boys at the school — Travis, Luke and Nick — were all the sons of ranchers, their futures more secure than most,” Ellis shared in her broadcast on NPR. “But still, in just a few years, when they graduate from high school, these boys will be faced with hard decisions: Do we stay and work the ranch, or do we leave? And if we leave, can we come back?”

Contemporary students get to hear voices from the past

Contemporary students get to hear voices from the past

Contemporary students get to hear voices from the past while visiting the one-room schoolhouse in Hensley Township, IL. (Image courtesy of Museum of the Grand Prairie)

The Bichet School

The Bichet School

The Bichet School, built in 1896 and located in Marion County, KS.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Glen School’s lone teacher, Mori Hourt, had many of the same responsibilities as an educator at a larger school – “It’s her job to get the boys ready to move on, whether that means high school, college or something else,” Ellis writes.

Within mere months of Ellis’ first visit to The Glen School, the decision came down from the school board to shutter the school. It closed in 2006, one of the last few remaining in the rural farming communities across the nation.

“After 120 years, there would be no school in Glen,” Ellis writes in the conclusion of the article that accompanies her broadcast. “The boys would finish in town. … No one was surprised at the closing of Glen School. They’d all seen it coming for a long time.”

Although the number of one-room schoolhouses continues to shrink every year, the students of today can still indulge in a taste of what life was like for those students of yesteryear. The Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, KS, for instance, allows students to tour the Franklin County one-room schoolhouse and replicate a typical day in the life of a student in 1910. Students dress in period-style clothing, with girls wearing pinafores and boys in suspenders. They recite the Pledge of Allegiance to start their day and receive lessons in subjects like reading, penmanship and music. They even use traditional pens and inkwells, as well as slates for their lessons.

It’s all a part of keeping the culture of one-room schoolhouses alive for children and history buffs alike as trends in education evolve and change, says Mori Hourt of The Glen School.

“You know, I think eventually education is going to have to stop and look at the example set by a one-room school and say, ‘Oh, my, maybe they weren’t deprived,’” Hourt said. “Many, many things have been done correctly in a one-room school and the results are there to read in history, if you just turn the right page.”

The McGuffey Reader

The McGuffey Reader

The McGuffey Reader was the gold standard for teaching students in one-room schoolhouses how to read throughout the 19th century. (Image courtesy of Etsy)

student wearing a dunce cap

Student wearing a dunce cap

The idea of a misbehaving student wearing a dunce cap and sitting in the corner originated in the one-room schoolhouse, according to Ancestry.
(Image courtesy of Ancestry)