A History of Community Theatre of Terre Haute 1947-1991
by Jane Cunningham Hazledine
The Foreign Film Series, initiated in 1954, was an innovation for the Wabash Valley and immediately met with resounding success. Perhaps it is because those devoted to this medium were often a different group of people from the mainstream theatre patrons, that the films have been treated as an “extra,” though now this series is very much a part of the Community Theatre program. Unfortunately, many records are skimpy, often non-existent. As indicated in the previous text, the purchase of a former movie house gave CT the capability an innovation in the Midwest at that time. It was often considered “avant garde” or “arty” by the uninitiated.
The uncontested founders of the film series were George Mayrose and Bob Wiandt. They were totally dedicated to showing films of international acclaim heretofore inaccessible in this area. A trip to the Von Lee Theatre in Bloomington, Indiana, the nearest source of information, revealed the hazards of the project: the mechanics of film procurement were frequently unreliable and delivery unpredictable. Undaunted, a little committee forged ahead, scheduling six films between February and May, 1955. Films were presented for single weekends, one showing nightly at 8:15, Friday and Saturday. Short subjects of comparable quality preceded the main film. In order to make it a refined and unusual event, no refreshments were sold or permitted. The empty screen was enhanced with interesting lighting accompanied by suitable music prior to the movie. Professional projectionists were hired to run and maintain the expensive equipment, a practice which continues today. Initially, season tickets were sold for $4.00; single admission was 80 cents.
Sadly, the very first film, that delightful English comedy Genevieve, was grounded in a snow storm somewhere between Minneapolis and Terre Haute, forcing the substitution of the second film, which was, fortunately, available. The original offering was shown later. It has always been the responsibility of the film chairmen to see that the box office was staffed and that the film was in the theatre for the projectionist. In earlier days, the projectionist customarily arrived about an hour prior to the showing which allowed time to run through the film to mend breaks or flaws and to check the equipment. Carolyn Toops recalls there was often much running around at the last minute to locate the heavy canisters and haul them to the theatre in the nick of time. Were they at the bus station, freight office or the airport? Sometimes there were embarrassing flaws during the showings. Niki Lee, another devoted chairmen said, “It seemed as if something always went wrong.” On at least one occasion, the film simply did not arrive at all, forcing someone to wait at the theatre and break the sad news to patrons.
Other problems plagued the series during the early years. Not once, but several times, the film was made for the then new wide screens, apparently not so labeled, and the CT screen was one of the older smaller ones. This resulted in a very sad showing as the images were compressed, making the people look like stick figures, skinny and tall. It was truly comical but totally unacceptable; however, the group suffered through it all because they believed in the project.
A special Friday matinee showing of Romeo and Juliet was almost a complete sell-out. Just prior to curtain time, the committee discovered that the film speaker was damaged. Ingenuity and twenty frantic minutes enabled them to complete the engagement by converting connections to the sound system used for the plays. They claimed no one knew the difference. Many of the shortcomings, poor sound, blinks of sound, poor light, old lenses, the little screen, and the shipping problems have now been corrected, but the program has survived and prospered because of the dedicated perseverance of the chairmen and their committees.
From time to time the film project was in jeopardy. More than once when attendance lagged, the board of directors pondered discontinuing the whole series. Interested persons always came to the rescue and pledged time and support to ensure its survival. There have been a number of unusual events. Warren Loveless, another of the faithful who served as chairman three years, is particularly proud of the “Old Hollywood Nights.” In conjunction with the ISU Artist/Lecture series, these CT events were held at the ISU Tilson Music Hall utilizing the fine pipe organ there. Dennis James, internationally acclaimed organist played original music he had written for the old silent classics. On one such occasion, James’ wife, Heidi also accompanied on a piano synthesizer.
A special Syrian film was shown for the St. George Syrian Church. On another occasion, a special showing of a film was presented under the sponsorship of the Jewish community.
Another film was shown at the theatre for the Swope Art Gallery because it was only available in 32mm, a capability the gallery did not have. The special showing of Gilbert Wilson’s Moby Dick is cited in the 1955-56 chapter of this history, as are details of all these events. Extra films were presented occasionally.
A Saturday afternoon Children’s Series was presented for three years in 1964, 1965, and 1966. Other special children’s films were booked from time to time – not as a series. Some films were given special showings to accommodate students. In a couple of instances, a film was shown prior to the season as a sales tool by granting free admission to season ticket holders. For several years in the late 1980s, a Sunday matinee was offered during the months of December, January, and February to accommodate those who prefer to go out during the daylight hours in winter weather. The Friday showing was eliminated during this period. The popularity of the Sunday matinee prompted adding this to the entire schedule in 1990.
Occasionally speakers were retained to make comments on the films. In 1986, chairmen Patrick and Regina Harkins procured a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to finance authoritative speakers from around the state to lead discussions following the Saturday screenings. This has proven popular and enlightening and is presently being continued, supported by the Indiana Arts.
The publicity was good. Special bulletins and posters were often circulated. Newspaper publicity was bought for a number of years, not always resulting in better attendance. Curiously, sometimes the upcoming films were not announced in the individual play programs. The number of films offered has varied from a maximum of twelve to a minimum of six. No other Indiana community theatre presents a regular season of both live drama and international films; and the occasional international films shown in Indiana civic theatres show only 16mm films. The current CT film committee was astonished and pleased to be the envy of the Notre Dame film series in being able to show 35mm films. Initially, the program was called “Special Film Series,” the following year, “International Film Festival.” The third year it bore the title “Foreign Films.” This name prevailed for several years until “International Film Series” was adopted and has continued most of the time. The series retains that title today.
The following are some of the dedicated souls who played a vital role in continuing to make artistic foreign and domestic films available to the people of the Wabash valley. Several of these served valiantly for many years.
George and Patty Mayrose, Bob Wiandt, Elmer Porter, Robert and Susie Dewey, Gladys Miller, Niki Lee and David Lee, Eugene and Lucille Dyche, Peter Bruning, Ernestine Blum, Ruth Graft, Barbara Weinbaum, Carolyn and Earl Toops, Bill Ashbrook, Hermine Haslem, Paul Bronson, Ernestine McDougal, James Bash, James Thielman, Kip Mabry, William Munns, Kay McAleese, Louis Curcio, George Dean, Morris and Dorothy Blumberg, Jessie McCune, Joel Warren, Jane Poths, Henry Reifsnyder, Nell Elperin, Fred Nation, Ira and Peg Campbell, Robert C. Smith, Marie Louise Gee, Joann Spann, Bunny Cohen, Barbara Miescher, Jane Angell, Sharon Pittman, Judy Barneby, Clarence Hull, Nathan Hull, Ron and Nell Elperin, Jack Lyle, Albert Fyfe, John and Lucy Moore, Gene England, Ray Miller, James and Judy Hatch, Warren Loveless, Ron La Roche, Bob Koob, Ann Mason, Bari Lynn Gilliard, Colleen Coleman, Arvid Perez, Sharon Russell, Patty Smith, Gary Godfrey, Peter Parshall, John Benton, and Patrick and Genie Harkins.
In 2009 the International Film Series was discontinued.
In the early 2000s The International Film Committee explored various approaches in an attempt to increase attendance and broaden the appeal of the series.
- They chose a variety of films from many countries.
- They devoted one weekend to a single filmmakers with newly restored films from Jean-Pierre Melville.
- They selected one English language film.
- They explored a connection with a company called Emerging Pictures.
Unfortunately, none of these attempts proved successful.
In 1954, when CT started the film series, the films it screened could only be seen in 35mm. Gradually these films have become more readily available without specialized equipment and rental services. Also, the advent of such new forms of distribution as NETFLIX and the wide availability of DVDs of foreign films the International Film Series no longer provides a unique service. As a result of these changes International Film Committee and the CT Board reluctantly decided that the series was no longer filling a need in the community and should be discontinued.