The Alhambra

The Alhambra was a special place to all of us that grew up in Knightstown in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was originally called an “Opera House” and was used exclusively for stage shows and plays in it’s early days. It held 800 people so it was one of the biggest auditoriums in Eastern Indiana. When movies became popular it became primarily a movie house. It was truly a historic building and it’s a real shame it wasn’t saved.

I have received two excellent articles about the Alhambra from kind folks who used to live in Knightstown. I am so very grateful to Jerry Mercer and Wayne Kelly for sharing their creative works with us.

The Alhambra by Jerry Mercer

It was a place of miracles; a place of adventure; a place of romance. It smelled of popcorn and was perhaps a little stale and musty also. It was the gathering place for a small midwest community that was getting over the war and enjoying peaceful prosperity. The Alhambra was a classic theater, ornate and dramatic with dark red velvet curtains. The theater was across from the town square, a half block from main street, which was also Highway 40, one of the major highways across America in the forties. Did Highway 40 stretch all the way to Hollywood? I don’t know, but the Alhambra brought Hollywood to us……in Technicolor!

Movies had come a long way since the silent screen and its piano or organ accompaniment. One of my first memories of cinema magic was when Dorothy landed in Oz and suddenly everything turned to color. The movies had entered their golden age. No longer were we content with black and white and primitive synchronous soundtracks. Now we had to have realistic color and, in the next decade, even three dimensional pictures. OK, so you had to wear the goofy glasses, but it really did seem like a flaming torch was coming right out of the screen into your lap!

I remember big Christmas parties for all the kids in town. Everyone got a candy cane and we were allowed to sit through about three hours of cartoons. What could be more fulfilling for a pre-teen? Television would soon answer that question, but it was still a struggling industry, still in black and white. No, the Alhambra was still the place to be on Friday night, Saturday for the matinee, or Bank Night when they gave away dishes. It didn’t cost much to “go to the show”. I think it was a quarter. Of course in 1949 and 1950 a quarter wasn’t something to sneeze at, but all the same, it was a small price to pay for the entertainment on the big screen.

We boys knew all the cowboy stars and also Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan. We probably even recognized the more glamorous stars like June Allyson, Dorothy Lamour, and Lana Turner, but they were just girls. The men were pretty forgettable for us unless they could ride a horse, swing on a vine or take Mount Suribachi on their own. We all knew about Suribachi. We’d been brought up on Movietone newsreels that actually showed the Marines raising the flag on that worthless piece of rock that has become legend. We saw all of those scenes the War Department allowed and all the movies under the water, on top of the water and in the sky above. We all wanted to be marines or sailors or GIs or flyboys. We wanted to be like our dads or uncles or older brothers. The movies showed us how. The movies didn’t always depict the negative side, however. We were patriots. We fought the Nips and the Krauts from our own foxholes and from trees in our yard and we usually won. We always took some losses, but the movies explained to us why those losses were necessary.

Walking out of the Alhambra was always a surprise. If we went in during the afternoon it might still be light out or it might be dark. You just couldn’t tell after being in the dark so long; especially if it was a double feature. One night we came out and the sky was glowing a few blocks away. We walked with Mom down the street and there on the roof of a burning barn was Dad with a garden hose in his hand, spraying a futile stream of water on the blaze! I think we were hurried home at that point. Usually we simply walked out into the night and walked a few blocks to our home. Later that night as our eyes grew heavy, we imagined ourselves on an island infested with snakes and crocodiles and Japanese. We imagined ourselves skipping along with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman. Or maybe we imagined we were being carried off by those weird flying monkey things! It awakened our imagination in any event and it molded our individual ideas for the rest of our lives. We became the product of what we saw on the big screen at the Alhambra, good or bad. I was told recently that the Alhambra is gone. What a shame to lose an edifice like that, one that meant so much to us and helped form our life opinions. But, like many other material things, the Alhambra will live on in our minds and hearts, one of the treasures of our youth.

J. Mercer

Alhambra Memories by Wayne Kelly

Generations of Knightstownians used the Alhambra Theater as the “great escape.”
Youngsters dreamed of becoming cowboys, movie stars, soldiers of fortune, detectives or police or firemen. Teens held hands and traded kisses along the “great wall” at the rear of the auditorium. Young men and women dreamed of futures filled with romance and adventure. Oldsters relived their lives or dreamed of “‘what might have been” as handsome and beautiful Hollywood stars danced across the silver screen.

As a youngster, like most Knightstown kids, I was a devoted Alhambra fan. When my brother and I were 7-8 years old we used to earn show money by collecting newspapers and bottles for sale to the junk recycler, Andy Judt. We tried not to miss a change of shows. Entrance was nine cents and a box of popcorn was five cents!

The characteristic theater marquee was a beacon for movie goers. The glassed poster boxes on both sides of the entrance described the current showings. The box office was a tiny closet that housed a ticket sales person who resembled one of the mannequin fortune tellers one might see in a glass cage at an arcade. She sold tickets pulled from two reels: one color for children and another for adults. Money was carefully stored in a cash drawer that slid under the counter.

On entering the theater it was customary to stop at the small refreshment stand to the left of the big, double-doored entrance. A taste-tempting selection of candies beckoned from the glass display case. If that did not work, the tantalizing aroma of fresh popped corn was the clincher.

The short walk up the gentle incline to the ticket taker was an adventure, too. Walls on both sides displayed large posters of Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Clark Gable, Veronica Lake, David Niven, Claudette Colbert and a host of others.
The ticket taker collected the tickets, carefully tearing each in half so patron had a receipt. From there it was a few steps across a crimson carpet decorated with gold swirls into the inner sanctum of the 800 seat auditorium.

Lighting was dim and only bright enough to find a seat. Many youngsters headed for the front row where they would crane necks upwards watching the action from as close a position as possible. A gigantic, deep red curtain covered the stage area where the screen lay concealed until the projectionist in the upstairs booth opened them. Then a few slides of local interest, perhaps a News of the Day newsreel, a short subject, perhaps a cartoon and finally the featured film.

Not everyone sat in the auditorium . There was the “balcony” where adults could pay extra and sit in a smoking area in comfortable lounge chairs. Usually, the theater owner, his friends and Knightstown businessmen had first choice at the special seating.

Sunday and Monday were usually major productions while Tuesday/Wednesday and Thursday/Friday/Saturday were “B” movies. In those days Hollywood required smaller theaters to screen a number of “B” movies each week in order to get a major production. This process kept film land churning out movies for many years on studio lots that were actually small cities within Los Angeles and the surrounding area. They had their own doctors, restaurants, commissaries, fire and police departments. Many of the employees and their families lived on the lots.

A “B” feature was usually produced each week by the six or seven major studios of that day. The need for quick film making was real, too. Thousands of theaters across America had insatiable audiences and the 10-25 cent admission price fueled one of America’s largest industries.

Near the end of World War II, as I recall on Wednesday night, a cash drawing was held. The theater manager would pull ticket stubs from a box and a few lucky patrons walked away with cash in their pockets.

Manager Alfred (Mick) Richey ran a tight ship, too. He did not tolerate talking or disruptive behavior. When he walked down a darkened aisle, flash light in hand, for a first warning it meant once more and the violator would be ejected. To make sure they behaved, Richey would often hide behind the stage curtains and watch those he had warned. There was no second chance. Just ejection.

It was to this “theater” that I was drawn. The Alhambra had always been a magic place, a retreat where I could dream of the future. The Knightstown Alhambra had been a part of the community for many years, and I was drawn to this tradition.
In the spring of 1951 I was hired as a ticket taker. It was a dream come true. Not only did I feel it was a prestigious job, but I got to see every movie. And I did not miss many over the next 18 months.

Richey was responsible for keeping the facility running smoothly. The Alhambra was owned by Harry Watts who, it seemed to me, maintained a low profile and let Mick manage the day to day operations.

Attractions were booked weeks ahead and at each screening change large metal boxes containing the film reels were left next to the theater’s front door. The heavy metal cans would contain four to six. 18-in reels.

Collecting tickets was indisputably the easiest job I ever held. I soon became familiar with all operations and started visiting the projection booth after the theater had emptied from the first screening and I was waiting for the latecomers to go home. Lon Craig (who was also the local lawn mower repair guy) was the chief projectionist and always glad to have company.

He was friendly and allowed me to sit in the booth and watch the loading of the giant, carbon-arc projectors. His skill at changeovers from projector to projector was amazing. Remember those little buttons that would flash in the upper right hand portion of the giant screen? There were two and were called “cue” buttons.

The first button was for turning on the projector that contained the next reel and the second was for actually switching projectors. Hollywood always made the changeover in scenes that involved switching scenes, camera angles or the screen fading with some other cinematic device.

For a few weeks I watched him operate the twin projector system and he began showing me how to perform the job. In the fall of 1951 Richey asked if I would also like to hire on as a relief projectionist. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Craig stepped up his instructions and within a couple of weeks I was working under his supervision. I clearly recall the first night I had the booth to myself. I was terrified but fortunately did not make any mistakes.

I worked a couple of nights during the week and usually a shift on Saturday. I held the job until I graduated from high school. At one point in my senior year I even hosted a Saturday afternoon cartoon festival to raise money for the Class of 52 senior trip.

Lots of Alhambra memories and I am sure every theater-goer has his or her own story to tell.

Here’s a gallery of pictures of the demise of the Alhambra, how sad…!!! The pictures were sent to me by Reid Brenan,,, Thanks Reid..!!!
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My most sincere thanks to Jerry and Wayne for the articles….!!! If anyone wants to contribute some memories or thoughts to this page I surely would welcome them.

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