Once upon a time, along about 1924 or ’25, McCleary opened a movie theater. G.W. “Bill” Armour was owner/manager of a theater built by contractor H.N. Palamater in the booming town of McCleary.
Over the years, the theater was used for school plays, plays put on by the Knights of Pythians, The Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Church and who knows how many others. Later it became the auction house.
In December 1925, the Ladies Aid Society put on a play called “Rebecca’s Triumph” by George Melville Baker. Home talent was always in great supply.
Lee Wills was the director of a play in 1926 entitled “Her Step Husband,” by Larry Johnson. (Wills also has held the title of mayor of McCleary.) Admission was 25 cents and 50 cents. It was billed as “The Best Three-Act Comedy ever presented to a McCleary audience – 9 characters – all legitimate actors. The Aberdeen Knights of Pythias Band and Orchestra will furnish the music.” This three-act comedy was such a big hit, the cast was invited, by the band, to take it to Aberdeen.
In February 1926, the Saturday movie was a double feature with “I Do” and “Let Women Alone” featuring Harold Lloyd. That Sunday, Harry Carey was seen in “The Man from Red Gulch.” Then Tuesday’s treat featured Reginald Denny in “Where Was I?” Again, the billing was “The greatest comedy that has ever played in McCleary.”
By 1928, major motion pictures were showing up at the little theater. McCleary won the first state showing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” At the time, these were still silent movies. Armour promised he was putting in $5,000 worth of new equipment within 30 days to allow for “talkies.” No, the cost of the sound system was not $5,000. Mr. Armour was also upgrading the theater seats, they would be installing upholstered cushion seats as well. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was ranked among the masters of the year. Other movies around that time were “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 “The Ten Commandments,” 1926’s “What Price Glory” and 1925’s “The Big Parade.” (All of these movies were remade in the 1950s or 1960s.)
In July 1929, Armour, the theater owner, was driving through McCleary in his Studebaker coupe toward Olympia. He failed to make the turn in McCleary and his car crashed into a 2-foot bulwark in front of the McCleary Timber Company. He was taken to the McCleary Hospital, but was so badly injured, he was soon transferred to Dr. Conway’s Hospital in Elma. It was reported that it was very foggy when the crash occurred at 5 a.m. Thursday and he stated he had dozed at the wheel and failed to make the right-angle turn. He died the next morning of his injuries.
At Christmas time in 1929, the local school gave free entertainment at the theater. Two recitals were offered by the children. “Santa’s Clinic,” and “A Fairy Conspiracy” were offered to the public for one night only.
Eva Gayle Porter Six remembers standing in line on the boardwalk in the 1930s, anxious to get into see the feature film, news and one or more of the “shorts.” The more common shorts were “The Perils of Pauline,” “The Three Stooges” and “Tarzan.” As Porter Six would stand in line, she would often drop her dime through the boardwalk. She said some kind grown-up would come to her aid, and she would get to see the shows. Her second-grade teacher, Mrs. McArdle, and her husband owned and ran the theater at that time. Mrs. McArdle would shine her flashlight in the face of a misbehaving youngster — or a necking couple. She tolerated neither.
Porter Six fondly remembers one talent show where Gloria Blurton won the piano playing contest even though she couldn’t play a note. All of the talent that could play was too shy to go up in front of an audience. Not Gloria. She marched up, crashed a few chords and picked up her winnings.
The building continued as a movie theater well into the 1940s. Bill James told us he used to pick a bucket of blackberries to sell to local merchants to get money for the movies during World War II. He said that people went to the movies to take their minds off hard times. Many things were rationed in those days.
Jean Willis remembered that Mel Stoney managed the theater in the early 1960s. Sometimes when the kids would get loud and disorderly Mel would turn the movie projector off, come out on center stage and scold them. He would tell them to conduct themselves in a more civilized manner, after all, this was McCleary, not Shelton, Washington! Everyone got a kick out of that.
Steve Willis, Jean’s son, said that in the 1960s when the fire siren went off in town during a movie, oftentimes the projector would be turned off and the kids would file outside to watch the fire engines race off, sirens wailing. They would file back into the movie theater and watch the rest of the movie. (A forerunner to our pause button?)
As travel to Olympia became easier the theater morphed into an auction house. Many in the area remember those days. Space does not allow for more info here at this time.
Sadly, in June 22, 2003, the building went up in flames.
If you have a memory you want to share, please do so in writing to P.O. Box 554, McCleary 98557, our email is email@example.com, or find us on Facebook at facebook.com/McClearyMuseum.
Linda Thompson can be reached at mccleary.