What’s Showing at the Ritz?

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What draws movie goers like a title of Devil on Wheels? The movie short was part of a safety presentation put on by the Oklahoma Safety Council and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

The divide between rural and urban did not used to be this wide. There has never been a time when farmers and city folks did not depend on each other, but there used to be a time when the relationship was a bit closer. There was a time when the folks who labored out in the fields and on the prairies looked forward to going into town, and the business owners in town anticipated the arrival of their rural customers.

Back down the line

In this visit, we are going to stay here in my home town of Alva, Oklahoma. I was not born or raised here (I moved to Alva during my college years), but I have lived here longer than anywhere else, so this is home now.

A bit about me: I rather enjoying being alone – not all the time, but I do not have a problem being left to my own devices. One of my favorite times to let my mind drift is when I am traveling. When I am out on the open road, I would say about 90 percent of the trip is in silence. No phone, no radio and no passenger.

In the remaining 10 percent, when I do turn my radio on, it’s a short list: baseball, classic country music, old-time radio programs, and, once in a while, politics. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my dial never leaves the AM side.

Like a history class on an end gate

As I drive through America’s heartland, I look at the small communities and start to wonder: Why did they begin? What lead to their downfall? What do the remaining inhabitants do for a living? I wonder what main street looked like back in its prime. What did the town look like back when everything was right with the world, before technology and improved transportation took people and business to the next town over?

These are the times I wish I could find a time machine. But then I see a closed-up hotel or shop and I reach back into my memory and reflect on a time when I got to experience something now long gone and I am thankful that I took the time to do that.

When harvest was over and the fields were plowed, the man I once worked for – Harold Meyer – had me do odds jobs around the farm until it was time to unfold the spring-tooth cultivator and work the ground. I might be tasked with walking the pasture fence there at the home place or spraying weeds or one of the many other chores that have to be completed on the farm.

Many times on those hot summer afternoons, he would pull up in his pickup, let the end gate down and hand me a cold Dr. Pepper or RC Cola. We’d sit on the end gate together and just visit. I have fond memories of these visits. He always took time to get to know me personally and I appreciated that.

You never could predict what we would end up talking about. It was like going to history class in a way, but I had a teacher who learned it by living it, not reading it from a book. I used to be amused how the little things that we take for granted today brought so much joy to Harold as a child and young adult, something even as simple as a nickel soda.

Eggs and milk on the honor system

I learned plenty during these visits. For instance, I learned not to throw the baby out with the bath water (if I ever do find that time machine, it better have a shower because I don’t think I could do the once-a-week bath!). Harold would tell me stories of how the people living in town would travel the mile or so to his family’s farm to purchase fresh milk, cream and eggs.

If the town folk showed up and everybody was in the field or gone, they helped themselves, got what they needed and left payment in an old cigar box in the milk room. If they didn’t have the money, they’d write down what they got on a piece of paper and pay when they could. I remember Harold looking at me and asking, “you couldn’t do that anymore, could you?”

Over the years, as I crossed paths with people in town and Harold’s name was mentioned, many times a smile would slowly creep across that person’s face and they would start to tell me stories of going to the Meyer farm as children to get eggs and milk. I wonder if Harold knew what those trips to his family’s farm meant to those people. It was that relationship I was speaking of earlier; it was a lot closer back then.

A four-theatre town

The conversation eventually turned to what the town of Alva was like when Harold was young. He’d recount all the businesses that existed (many are long gone) and how the money spent in town went down the same roads the townspeople used to shop “in the city.” Once I asked what children and young adults did for fun. He said they’d go to dances and play cards, or go the movies in town.

As a young man, Harold liked westerns. As he got older, he said he really enjoyed the Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Those happen to be my favorite movies also; it must be why we got along so well. The town of Alva supported four movie houses when Harold was young: the Ranger, the Ritz, the Rialto and the Pix. The Ranger, Ritz and Rialto were owned by Homer Jones. Today the Rialto is the only one left; it is still owned and operated by the Jones family.

A second-story sign above the Ritz marquee identifies the meeting of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows.

The Rialto sells drinks and popcorn all day long; many people stop by during the day to get a drink. When I was in there one day, Jesse Jones, Homer’s grandson, told me about old pictures he had of the Rialto being built. I asked if I could look at them, and he told me I could take them home and scan them.

Warning of the dangers of driving

Among the pictures were several showing early Alva and the Ritz theatre. The first picture is kind of a side view. The main movie being shown is Devil on Wheels. It was released in 1947, so I assume that was the year the picture was taken. The first thing I noticed was all the bicycles parked out front.

As I got to looking at the picture, I noticed at the end of the row of bicycles there was a wrecked car hooked to a tow truck. I found this odd. Then I noticed some patrolmen outside the theatre next to the kids in line. I was a bit bamboozled. I thought maybe there had been a wreck in front of the theatre.

I asked Jesse about this and he said, “Look at all the titles of the movies.” He thought the wrecked car and police were doing some kind of presentation on the dangers of driving. When I googled the main movie, it all made sense: The movie is about youth street racing!

The Mighty 4 Unit Show

The Bell Hotel is the tallest building on the left. If you look close, you can see the big lighted sign on top. That building has just been restored and is now apartments. Alva is lucky that our downtown square is pretty well preserved and still houses many businesses. Left of the bicycles is a Sinclair gas truck making a delivery. You can also make out many of the local businesses that were there in 1947, and the meeting place of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

The second picture is of the Ritz from the front. These pictures were taken the same day, I think. Notice the clock above the marquee: It reads 11:35. The marquee above the theatre reads, “Mighty 4 Unit Show.” I wondered if that meant there were four screens or if they showed four movies in one viewing, but neither made sense.

The Rialto theatre in the early 1950s. Not much has changed since then, thankfully. It looks almost exactly the same, except that the parking meters have been removed. The McLellans store is gone. That space, now part of the Rialto, houses the concession stand.

I looked up the other movies and answered my own question. The other three movies listed were Drunk Driving, Highway Mania and Priceless Cargo. They are all “shorts” (movies that last less than 40 minutes). I really learned a lot from these two pictures. I had always heard of a movie short – the Three Stooges made a bunch of them – but I never knew when they were shown. From this picture, I assume they were shown just before the feature, maybe the same time the newsreels were shown. Maybe some of you readers can help me out on this. At the lower part of the marquee it says, “Sponsored by the Oklahoma Safety Council and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.” That explains the men in uniform. The very bottom reads “Thurs April 21 Matinee-Night.”

Next door to the Ritz is Hester’s Drugs. There is a guy standing in the doorway, watching the kids. Above his head is an advertisement for soda and candy. If you look real close (I can make it out when I enlarge the picture) up to the left of the word “Devil” on the brick wall there is an Ex-Lax thermometer. That would be worth a good bit today. 

Field trip with a focus on safety

Then there are the kids. If you notice, everybody in line is a child. There are actually two lines: one to the left and one to the right. What’s interesting is the one on the left looks to be all boys, and the one on the right is mostly girls.

When I continue to examine the picture, I notice a few dressed-up young ladies around the kids. There are three up by the front doors; one is behind the guy walking to the right. She looks to be handing something to the children, as they have their hands out. I finally came to the conclusion that, with it being 11:35 in the morning, these kids are on a school trip and those young ladies are the teachers.

The patrolman at the right door is handing out pamphlets. What I found interesting is when you take into account all the factors surrounding the picture, the year – say, around 1947 – and this being right after World War II, when Americans began to hit the road after the war, it all kind of makes sense. It was also the beginning of the hotrod era. 

There is one thing in this picture I am glad is not around anymore, and that is the parking meters! I don’t know when they got rid of them, but I am glad they are gone. There are a couple of things I can see when I enlarge this picture that you may not be able to see. One is by the left door – an advertisement for the movie My Dream is Yours, showing at the Ranger theatre. That movie was made in 1949, so the picture was taken in 1949 or later.

Then, if you look at the walls next to the doors, you can see a bunch of pictures. I zoomed in: Those are pictures of actual auto wrecks. I thought that was interesting. One last detail about this picture: Look at the fellow with the tie on, right below the words “night” and “Ritz” on the right side. The man extending his hand to the young lad is Homer Jones, owner of the Ritz, Rialto and Ranger theatres in Alva. How many movies have you been to where the owner greets you at the door?

Cool your heels at the Rialto

The Ritz was built in 1933, and the Ranger was built in 1939. Many theatres closed in the 1950s due to the impact of television, but Homer’s grandson Jesse is still running the Rialto today. I do not know when the original Rialto was built but the current building was completed in August 1949.

If you ever make it through Alva, go to the downtown square; on the north side you will see the Rialto. If you don’t have time for a movie, grab a soda and some poppin’ corn. I have seen many movies at the Rialto; it is one of the things I am thankful I took the time to experience. With internet streaming, Netflix and other movie steaming services, who knows what downtown Alva will look like in 50 years.

I am typing this at the end of May and the wheat is well on its way to turning golden. I would say overall the crop is pretty good. I don’t think it will set any records, but I have seen worse. We are kind of dry but hopefully that will turn around.

It seems that these visits go by too quick. I haven’t had any major adventures to tell you about; I keep trying to get some lined out, but it seems I can’t get anything nailed down. As of today, I am still scheduled to go cut wheat around Denver in early July. Hopefully that works out. I get itchy feet here at home. I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I did and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit, remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the backroads. FC

Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email: americantraveler76@yahoo.com.

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