The Village Theatre – Part 2

On Wednesday evening, January 17, 1940, guests arriving for the opening of the Village Theatre were given an inaugural program welcoming them. The program began:
“We Greet You >> >>
The Village Theatre was conceived with, and is hereby dedicated to, a single purpose. That purpose being to bring to the people of Claremont significant motion pictures, presented with dignity and good taste. It is with this one concept that we, the management, welcome you to our theatre, that you may view the finer films of America and Europe, of the past and present. It is our constant wish to give you the entertainment you desire.”
Owner A. L. Reeves and manager Richard L. Bare, developed a policy statement for the theatre they shared with the patrons on opening night. They stated “a solid stand against ‘block booking,’ double features and the mass production of and distribution of motion pictures.” They had a decidedly “art house” approach to the endeavor.
The policy stated that they had “faith in the discrimination of this community” and their intention was to “gear our presentation of motion pictures to the desires and wishes of our patrons, not to the dictates of the film companies.” They acknowledged that there would be barriers to their approach and restrictions by the motions picture trade would stand in their way. They were, however, steadfast that they would not be “forced into the playing of inferior or in any way undesirable motion pictures.”
Reeves and Bare stated that they would individually choose each motion picture. They intended to preview each film, weigh critics’ reviews and judge them against community tastes. They knew their methods could not hope to be infallible, but they also hoped their method of selection would “reduce the possibility of undesirable and inconsequential pictures being forced upon the public.”
Because the duo were not going to play double features, it gave them the opportunity to present a full program for the public with the inclusion of short films. They believed that many exceptional short films went unseen by the public due to the proliferation of double features.
In the program they tout what they believed to be a new and revolutionary way of film selection which they inaugurated for the first time at the theatre. It was called the “booking ballot.” The method was intended to involve the public in the selection of the films. Each patron would receive a booking ballot which listed films that were available for showing. It was divided into three classifications: current, imported and revival films. The moviegoer was asked to check those films they wanted to see and either hand it to a theatre employee or mail it in.
Today, surveys and algorithms capture our tastes and preferences and direct us to offerings. The booking ballot was a paper and pencil precursor to such contemporary ways of discerning the public’s desires. Reeves and Bare asked the movie going public to help them “select only the finest. Our screen can become the road to the four corners of the earth, the window through which can be seen the limitless wonders in art and drama. Tell us what you want to see, as we are guided by your selections, not by those of anyone else.”
Reeves’ and Bare’s commitment to cutting edge ideas also led them to installing what was then state-of-the art equipment in the new theatre. They turned to the National Theatre Supply Company for installation of projection equipment that improved illumination and gave a clearer picture, thereby “making visible more detail without squinting, and production of a picture vastly more steady with removal of flicker common to motion pictures in the past.” The National Theatre Supply Company also installed its new Simplex 4-Star Sound System. The new loudspeaker system featured even distribution of sound frequencies and uniform coverage to every seat in the theatre.
The program also featured a section called “Introducing Imported Films.” Throughout the program, and again in this section, Reeves and Bare take swipes at Hollywood and the movie mill they believed churned out a few successes and many “inconsequential films.” Therefore they devoted an entire page in the program to foreign film. Their thesis was that the producers of France, England, Germany, and Russia exported only a small portion of their yearly output. Thus, America was privileged to see only the finest productions from abroad.
They made the case that France was sending the greatest number of exceptional films based on the finding that each year several French productions are listed in all the “ten best” selections. In 1939, the British, however, had placed five pictures in the National Board of Review’s selection of the ten best from any country. This list included the theatre’s opening night feature, To the Victor.
Reeves and Bare reported that all foreign language films distributed for American audiences would have English translated subtitles, which they said would “make the story intelligible to all.” They promised to screen many imported films throughout the year and announced that “Ballerina,” a French film, would be the first of such presentations on January 30 through February 1.
Appealing to the Claremont Colleges was part of their marketing plan. In the section, “To the Students of Claremont,” Reeves and Bare welcomed the college students with the wish that they consider the Village Theatre their theatre. They appealed to the language students with their offerings of foreign films and to all students in general—“Thus to the students who are responsible for much of the colorful vitality that is the essence of Claremont itself, we open our doors, lay out the welcome mat, and say: ‘This is your theatre—please make it your own.’”
The program also acknowledges and thanks the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and other community members who contributed to the project. Specifically, they single out Miss Lela Ackerman, long-time secretary of the Chamber “whose efforts in our behalf have been untiring and invaluable.”
To be continued.

John Neiuber


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