The Augusta Theaters

Augusta Theater

After graduating from high school I was working at Howard Motors, the Chevrolet/Buick garage. We worked from 8:00 to 6:00 on weekdays and 8:00 to 1:00 on Saturday. One Saturday afternoon, after work, I went home and cleaned up and came back downtown to have a cup of coffee at the bakery. The P & G Bakery was located in the 500 block of State Street, our main drag and was located just across the street from the Augusta Theater. Actually, there were two theaters across the street. The Augusta was the main theater, open every night and was large and beautifully decorated. Next to it on the south was the Isis Theater. It was well decorated in a modern western motif and was open Friday night, Saturday night and for Saturday matinee. Of course, the Isis only ran westerns. 

The P & G Bakery provided first class bread, doughnuts, and other baked goods but also had a fountain and half dozen booths. I was sitting in a booth, sipping my coffee, and visiting with everyone that came along. Bob Bisagno, the son of the owners of the movie houses, came in and sat down with me and ordered a cup of coffee. He was in his 30’s, was a tall, good looking guy, and was well liked by everyone in town. Bob was the manager of the theaters and every night you could see him at the Augusta taking tickets and welcoming the patrons to the movie. There was a small alcove off the lobby and every night, Bob’s parents, Dave and Aline, were sitting on the couch and greeting the patrons, also.

As an aside, I should tell you a little about the family. Mrs. Bisagno had been the piano player for the silent movies back in the old days. The old movie house was still there, in the next block, but was locked up tight and no longer used. The Bisagno family still owned it. Dave, the old man, had been raised on a farm north of town. He was short, maybe 5’ 7″ or 5’8″ tall with very broad shoulders, and big, powerful hands. One of the local legends was that Dave’s hands were so powerful that using a pinch-grip, he could hand-walk the rafters of a barn from one end of the barn to the other. One time, I saw a couple of old boys that had grown up with Dave and asked them if it was true that he was so strong. They swore that it was.

Bob graduated from Kansas State College at Manhattan and did a hitch in the Air Force before coming home to work at the movies.

Bob and I drank coffee and talked for a few minutes and then he changed gears and asked me if I’d like to work for him as a relief projectionist at the Augusta Theater. I was both flattered and flabbergasted. I had never considered such a thing. The relief projectionist or, operator, would give the regular man a break by working two nights a week and would be available to cover illnesses and vacations. Bob explained the job, the wages, and what would be expected of me. It sounded interesting. I asked a few questions and we shook hands and had a deal. I think I was eighteen at the time.

I don’t remember how long I trained before going solo. The regular operator, Lee, soon started going to the lobby and leaving me in the booth alone. It wasn’t very long before I worked a couple of nights by myself. There were a number of things to learn. Most reels of film lasted 18 to 20 minutes so the features normally had 4 to 6 reels. One of those super-duper blockbuster movies could have up to 8 reels. To get a reel ready, you placed it in the upper projector film housing and then threaded the film through several sprockets and then past the aperture plate which sized the projected image exactly to your screen. Then you went through a couple of sprockets and past the exciter lamp that picked up the sound which was imbedded alongside the 35mm image frames. The light source was a carbon arc with a parabolic reflector behind it to focus the light exactly on the aperture plate for maximum illumination. You had to set the carbons so they burned at the correct rate and you had to check them periodically when changing reels. There were 2 projectors and you switched back and forth between them. When a reel was about done, a mark on the film would show up in the upper right hand corner of the screen. That was the “get ready” cue and you got yourself in position with a hand on each of the 2 switches (one for the picture and one for sound). In a few seconds, the second cue appeared in the upper right hand corner of the screen and you hit both switches at the same time for a near seamless transition to the next reel. You had to learn to splice film, trouble- shoot the equipment, operate the curtains and lights and other chores that soon became second nature.

I learned at the Augusta Theater and then learned at the Isis Theater next door and got to work relief there and ran”B” westerns. Then I got to go to the drive-in and learned that equipment. All 3 movie houses had different projectors and sound systems so there were new things to learn at each job. The regular operator at the drive-in was an Electrical Engineer and that’s the work he did during the day. He was offered a job in another town so I was asked to be the full-time drive-in operator. I was tickled to death and accepted before Bob finished getting the words out of his mouth. I kept working at the garage, too, so I was pretty busy. At the drive-in, I kept the booth clean and repaired speakers while the movie ran.

The drive-in was about a mile and a half north of town on Ohio Street. Ohio Street was a busy road that serviced the farms north of town and served as a secondary way to get to El Dorado or Towanda or Wichita. The drive-in was on the east side of Ohio Street but on the west side was Garvin Park and our City Lake that served as our water reservoir. Across from the drive-in entrance and a little bit south there was an entrance into the park. At the time, I was driving a baby blue 1953 Ford convertible and generally had the top down during the summer months. I’d get off work on those beautiful summer nights, go into the park and head for home on the road that ran along the edge of the lake. It was rare to see another car at that time of night and I enjoyed tooling along, under the stars by myself.

One time, I had the night off and Bob Ford and I were going to go horseback riding. Since we both worked during the day this was the only chance we had. The horses that Bob had access to were only about 1 ½ miles from the drive-in. We got there and were saddling up and Bob says “I’d sure like to see that western movie that’s starting over at the drive-in tonight”. “I’ve been looking forward to going horseback riding tonight,” I says. “Well, let’s do both,” he says. I figured that since I worked there I might get away with it. We rode on over and when we got to the ticket booth, Bob bought himself a ticket. Right beside the concession stand there was a patio area with 4 benches on it. We rode on in and as we were sitting down, Bob Bisagno, the owner/manager came up and asked what we were doing. I told him we came to see the movie. After we all talked it over, Bob said it was ok but I’d have to come back in the morning and clean up after the horses. That was fair so we sat down on a bench to watch the movie and held onto our reins. We wanted to be able to control the horses so they wouldn’t get hurt in case some idiot blew his car horn. We watched the movie with no incidents and rode the horses back to the barn and put them up. The next morning, I got up early and went out and cleaned up the asphalt and then went to work at the garage. Another memorable experience and nobody hurt.

Dave Thomas
December 11, 2013


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