Movie Theater Memories

By Jerry Benedict

In some ways, my life began with movie theaters, specifically the Missouri Theatre.

Like the Missouri Theatre, my story starts in 1927. My mom had been attending Columbia High School (now the Jefferson Middle School building). At that time, it operated as the only public 10-12th grades school for nonminority students. Then in 1927, Hickman High was completed and students could choose to finish their senior year at Columbia High School or transfer to the new school.  

Mom chose Hickman. When she graduated in 1928 the class, male and female, lined up alphabetically. Her last name was Graves which made her the first female in line and, as a result, the first female student to graduate from Hickman High School.

My mom’s full name was Etta May Graves and she went by EttaMay, all one name, not just Etta.  Of course, the Missouri Theatre was built and opened in 1928. By the time it opened on Oct. 5, 1928, Mom was working as a secretary at the University of Missouri’s administrative offices in Jesse Hall. Later she would also work for a time for Walter Williams, founder of MU’s School of Journalism, a job she loved.
Later that year, my father to be, Columbia native Gene Benedict was set up by a mutual friend for a blind date to go to the new Missouri Theatre.  He thought his date was mom’s sister, but he got the prize.

This photo was taken that year as well.  

Etta May Graves Benedict, 1928, and a commemorative pillow made from the curtains of the 1928 Missouri Theatre. Photograph courtesy of Jerry Benedict.

They were married in 1931 and eventually had my brother Norman in 1937 and me in 1946. 
Mom worked for the Lieutenant Governor, commuting each day to the capitol in Jefferson City. Meanwhile, my father became a Certified Orthotist (one who makes and fits orthopedic appliances) and formed in 1944 opened Central Brace Shop, which I would later take over and operate until 2018.  Mom then left her job in Jefferson City to work with her husband to get the business off the ground
In 1948, during the Christmas holiday mom took me to the Hall Theatre to see Disney’s Pecos Bill. She had been working and shopping all day and was exhausted when we entered the dark theater. I was in the seat beside her, rapt by the action on-screen, when Mom nodded off and a few moments later she was awakened by the audience laughing loudly at the small boy who had crawled up the few steps to the stage and was standing up patting the screen with great delight. It was me! She was embarrassed but laughing as well.
When the polio salk vaccine came out in the spring of 1954, I was in the second grade. Our class received the series of three shots in our classrooms. It was a big event for everyone, but especially those little kids.  As a “reward” all the second-graders were taken to the Varsity Theatre to see a free movie but someone was asleep at the helm when they chose the movie. It was the new release of H.G.Well’s, War Of The Worlds. This movie about the apocalyptic invasion of killer Martians sent some of the kids running up the aisles screaming. I rather enjoyed the show.  
When we went to the theater for a movie, mom preferred musicals and comedies. We saw Francis the Talking Mule at the Uptown Theatre. Dad preferred Westerns at the Broadway Drive-In Theatre, especially those with Randolph Scott or John Wayne. Those outings involved riding the pony and running down to the playground equipment at the foot of the screen prior to the movie. When the Parkade Drive-In Theatre opened, that’s where I ate my first Juicy Burger from their fancy concession stand.
I had my first kiss in the eighth grade, sitting in the balcony of the Missouri Theatre with my girlfriend. I have no idea what was showing. I recall standing in long lines outside the Uptown and the Missouri theaters to see the opening of so many popular movies and seeing my first foreign movies at the Varsity when it was called the Film Arts Theatre. After returning from Drury College in 1969 and getting married, my wife and frequented the Campus Twin at Tenth and Broadway. The twin often featured the more cutting-edge films that had broken through the old Hollywood norms, especially during 1968 and afterward.
When the Broadway Cinema opened at the Broadway Center, my brother was working for KFRU as an announcer. He stood on the roof of the overhang at their grand opening to MC the skydivers who were hired to jump from an airplane and land in the parking lot in front of the theatre. The Sound of Music was supposed to be their opening movie, but instead it opened with the Glass Bottomed Boat. That was followed by the Sound of Music, which played there for months due to its great popularity.

Later, the Forum Theatre opened and, as I remember, it was the last time I saw ushers with flashlights walk down both aisles to the screen, turn and start walking back up as the theme music started, the lights dimmed and the curtains parted for the feature film.  
Like others who grew up or spent much time in Columbia, the theaters were part of the fabric of our social lives. It’s only regrettable that they were segregated for so long. Thank goodness, if you can afford the rising ticket costs, it doesn’t matter what color you happen to be to experience the bigger-than-life images that can hold you in thrall for a couple of hours as you eat your Clark Bar and sip your Dr Pepper.  Ahh…I can smell the popcorn now.

Jerry Benedict ran his father’s business, Central Brace until 2018, when he closed it and retired in 2018. During the company’s existence, it employed s many as 14 people and had three shoe stores. Long-time Columbia residents may recall The Shoe Emporium on Broadway, near what is now Downtown Appliance.

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