RUPERT — When 100-year-old Clara Shelton was a young girl, she’d take her little sister to the movies at the Wilson Theatre as a special treat; 10 cents would get them both inside to watch a silent film.
Shelton celebrated her centennial birthday in October at the iconic theater, which turns 100 years old this year.
Daniel Ward Wilson and Mennie Wilson started construction on the flatiron building in 1919. The theater opened to a packed house in 1920 in the vaudeville era; silent movies soon followed. The Wilsons ran two theaters on the Rupert Square.
The theater was built before Rupert had a city hall, which came more than a dozen years later, City Clerk Bayley Maughan said.
Shelton recalls a blind man named Frank who operated a little store off the theater lobby where he sold treats to enjoy during the movie.
“You could get six pieces of candy for a penny,” Shelton said. “And a lot of times people would try not to pay him by giving him a token instead of a coin, but he always knew the difference.”
As a child, she didn’t get to buy treats often because her family didn’t have the extra money.
“But it was really special to get to go there and watch a movie,” she said.
The first movies she saw at the theater were silent films and the words appeared underneath on the screen. Talkies soon followed and Shelton remembered that westerns soon became plentiful.
“When the talkies first came out, they were kind of unbelievable,” she said.
Shelton’s sister, Ardena Snapp, 92, of Rupert remembers those days too.
“Sometimes when we went to the Shirley Temple movies, they would let me in for free because I had naturally curly hair and they thought I looked like her,” Snapp said.
During high school, she said, taking a date to the movies “was the thing to do.”
“Going to the movies was our social life,” she said. “And it was a wonderful place to go and such a beautiful building.”
Her husband, Gene Snapp, 92, said his father had a creamery across the street from the theater, so he spent a lot of time inside the flatiron-shaped building.
Her husband’s brother was friends with the theater owner’s son, and, when he was 12, he got a job at the theater delivering handbills and show cards.
“The job kept me out of trouble, at least most of the time,” he said.
He delivered the show cards once a month to Rupert homes and placed the handbills on the windshields of cars around town.
“They paid me in tickets instead of cash,” Gene Snapp said. “I had more tickets than anyone in town. I sold some of them, gave some of them away, and went to all the movies. A lot of my friends profited from that deal.”
Tuesday and Friday nights were family nights and many families took advantage of the opportunity for an inclusive price of 25 cents.
“The theater would be full of people, and the families would visit with each other,” he said.
Matinees were held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“I never missed any of those,” he said.
The chairs, he said, were not the plush seats that grace the theater today, but were hard wooden chairs that people had to stand up from every so often to take a break.
He chose his seat in the middle of the rows at the front, because he did not have glasses yet, and his family would sit halfway back in the middle section.
There was a stage in front of the screen where many community productions were held, including his elementary school Christmas plays and Rupert Lions Club productions, and there was an orchestra box.
“They also used to give out sacks of candy at the theater on Christmas,” he said. “I really looked forward to that.”
Like Shelton, he also remembers seeing lots of western movies, at least one a week along with adventure pictures.
He can’t pinpoint a favorite movie, he said, but if forced to choose one, a western would definitely win.
His older sister, Ina Snapp, also worked at the theater selling tickets in a booth at the front of the show house.
Gene Snapp also remembers Frank Deno, who ran the treat shop.
“He sold chocolates that had pink or white inside and if you bought a pink one, it was free,” he said. “It took me the longest time to figure out how he knew what color it was.”
He later learned that the sightless Deno placed the pieces of chocolates, depending on the inside color, at certain points on the tray so he could keep track of them.
Deno also sold Milk Nickels, chocolate-covered ice cream bars on a stick, and every so often a moviegoer would get one with the word “free” printed on the stick, and then they didn’t have to pay for it.
What was Gene Snapp’s favorite treat at the Wilson Theatre?
“Any of them,” he said. “They were all my favorites.”
When he was in high school in the 1940s, students Dale Mendenhall and Richard Cook operated the theater’s projector.
During the matinees, the kids would love to sit in the balcony, he said, but only certain ones were allowed the privilege.
“That’s because some of them would act up,” he said.
The story of a young and rowdy Lou Dobbs throwing a live chicken off the balcony is true, he said. Dobbs later went on to become a talk-radio host and news anchor.
A downward slide and restoration
In 1990, Dago Martinez purchased the building and it became a church along with stores. The main lobby contained a small cafeteria.
Gene Snapp was sad to see the theater deteriorate in later years.
“When something starts to deteriorate like that, at some point you have to make a decision to fix it up or tear it down,” he said. “I was really pleased with the decision they made. They have done a really good job with it.
The city of Rupert purchased the building in 1999 and in 2000 the Rupert Renaissance Arts Center Inc. leased the building from the city at a cost of $10 a year for 25 years. The committee began remodeling and restoring the building.
The theater project was chosen after the group distributed a survey asking residents what improvements they’d like to see in the city. The theater topped the list.
The project was launched with an initial donation of $100,000 from former Rupert resident Robert F. Orr, who died in 2019, after donating nearly $1 million to the theater and surrounding plaza over the years.
Many private donations and grants followed.
The theater would take the next 20 years to complete through the tenacious determination of a core handful of volunteers, including Rupert artist KriSan Hardcastle, who helped recreate many of the plaster decorations, and Earl Corless, who died in 2015.
Hardcastle worked on the proscenium, sconces, the medallion over the stage, and other decorations throughout the building.
She went to an early committee meeting where there were sign-up sheets for different projects and she added her name to what she thought would be construction.
But instead of wielding a hammer, her artistic talents were put to use and she spent countless hours researching photos to recreate the designs inside the theater, which included working with Corless to make the molds for the plaster pieces.
Her hours of research very likely topped the time she spent creating the work, she said, but she stopped counting.
“It was the longest art project I’ve ever been involved in,” Hardcastle said. “And I love hearing people’s reactions to walking into the building for the first time now. They can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
She stayed focused on the job she was working on to prevent the scope of the project from overwhelming her.
The outside of the building was restored, and storefronts were constructed to help fund the theater.
Original stained-glass windows were also uncovered during the renovation along the new grand staircase. Meeting rooms where wedding receptions and other community events can be held are upstairs.
Hardcastle, who is afraid of heights, remembers braving the scaffolding and having to move from it to a ladder — at dizzying heights — to work on the intricate finishings.
One secret many people don’t know about the theater is that the upstairs area above the auditorium is oddly reminiscent of an upside-down sailing ship, she said, because of the way the rafters and wooden beams look.
“For several years Earl also let me go onto the theater roof to shoot photos of the city’s fireworks,” Hardcastle said.
At first, the derelict building caused her imagination to run a bit wild, she said, and she would envision what a great spook alley it would make.
She often worked late at night but didn’t feel scared.
Later as the theater was brought it back to life, those early spook alley visions vanished, she said.
She also cleaned the theater for two years and went onstage during the theater’s first melodrama.
Often people would wave to her when she was carrying her artists’ brush, she said, but they would look past her when she was toting the toilet brush.
Constantly being at the theater put her in contact with many people who stopped by to recount their experiences at the theater.
One man remembered, as a misguided youth, dropping things onto a bald guy’s head and later commiserated about how the man must have felt, as he saw his own hair disappear, she said.
“Everybody had stories to tell like how they’d open the exit door and let their friends inside,” Hardcastle said.
The theater’s restoration was officially complete in 2019, she said, but it’s hard to know when a project is truly finished. There are always other details that need attention.
During the reconstruction, it remained in almost constant use — attesting to the important role it plays in the community, she said.
“The productions are fun, but it is the most touching thing to see how lives are changed during them, especially for the teen,” she said. “A production is a loving environment and you see the positive effects that it has on others and you see their lives change because of it.”
Corless’ vision, Hardcastle said, was to create a place where race and age didn’t matter and all types of people could come together to be on stage and perform.
That has been accomplished, she said.
“It’s a place where we can show our talent and respect our differences and our sameness,” she said.
Relationships are formed between people, that wouldn’t exist otherwise, she said.
“It’s sacred ground and it’s touching the heart of Rupert.”
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