Sauk County Free Shows Fondly Remembered
By Bill Schuette
Before the advent of television in the 1950s, a form of entertainment that attracted many residents of rural Sauk County communities was attending outdoor movies. Families would journey to small towns and villages such as Ironton, LaValle, Plain, Loganville, Hillpoint, North Freedom and Cazenovia to take in a show.
These “free shows,” as most called them, began in the late 1920s and were offered once a week from June through Labor Day. Ironton held its shows on a natural slope in Liberty Square. Delbert Winn, in his book History of Ironton, notes that, “One night someone parked in the entrance to a private dwelling and after angry words on both sides, the owner went to the house and got his shotgun. The village president was called and he calmed them down and removed the gun.” One presumes that the show went on as usual without further incident.
Bob Ulrich, who grew up in North Freedom, recalled that as a small boy in the late 1920s, he'd watch the outdoor movies on a screen hung on the side of a building in a vacant lot located where the new bank building is located today. People sat on folding chairs, and enjoyed popcorn provided by a local entrepreneur who had a small stand nearby. He said that one movie in particular about a train robbery frightened him to the extent that he sought refuge in the security of his father's lap. It's possible that what young Ulrich viewed was a silent film called The Great Train Robbery, the first movie produced that had a real plot. The final scene depicted one of the cowboys drawing his pistol and firing directly at the audience.
Ulrich also remembered that after the movie, people would remain in town until 11 or 12 p.m. Dances were held in the local taverns and halls on show nights. He said the free shows would draw patrons from surrounding communities such as Rock Springs and from as far away as Baraboo.
The village of Loganville also hosted the free shows. A projectionist would arrive at sunset and put up his equipment on Walnut Street.
Since the street was inclined, he located the projector about halfway up the hill and put the screen on a rope hung between two taverns. (In later years, the screen was attached to a pipe frame built onto a trailer.)
The downward slope provided a natural theater setting and people sat on raised planks or blankets and folding chairs. Many brought their own popcorn and other snacks. If patrons were lucky and arrived early, they could park on the upper part of the hill and watch the show from the comfort of their car. The crowds were usually large.
The evening's entertainment consisted of a short comedy or cartoon, another short subject, and finally the main feature. The movie started at dusk and ran for several hours with an intermission at the midpoint. Half the people would then make a mad dash for the restrooms or for a snack. Ice cream cones were a very popular treat with two dips costing a nickel.
David Burmester, who helped his father, Al, in the grocery store they ran in Loganville, recalled that when he was old enough to assist in the store he and his brother would often dip over 200 cones during an evening. He said, “We would work up to the start of the show, sneak up until intermission, then come down and work and go back up for the rest of the movie.”
Farmers would come to town on show night to do their grocery shopping, so businessmen were therefore quite happy to support the shows. But as time went on, people did the majority of their weekly shopping in larger surrounding cities, and the village grocery stores ended up selling mostly ice cream and pop. “It was a lot of work with very little profit,” noted Burmester.
Village merchants each donated about $5 a week to help defray costs of the movie. In the spring, Burmester remembered, the first businessman contacted by the projectionist said that he would go along with the program if the others did. Then the projectionist would tell the rest of the merchants that the others had said yes, so the first ones agreed too. No one wanted to be left out when sponsors’ names were read over the loudspeakers at halftime.
Another method of revenue enhancement was to take up a collection at intermission. The projectionist would become quite distressed, however, when people would leave for refreshments just when he wanted to pass the hat. When that happened, he would restart the film to draw the crowd back, and then suddenly stop it to take up the collection. When stones began appearing in the basket, a flashlight was carried to monitor what people were putting in.
Another problem patrons had to deal with on show night was apple bombs. A few of the village's more rambunctious youngsters thought they would create a little excitement by placing firecrackers inside apples from a nearby tree, and tossing them into the crowd. After a few minor injuries from flying applesauce, the projectionist threatened to terminate the movie if the mischief didn't stop.
The free shows continued through the mid-50s in Loganville, until the state of Wisconsin decided that the village could no longer use the street as a theater because it was too close to the state highway. Television was also beginning to draw many away from the shows and their time had come.
However, while they lasted, the free shows provided an evening of good family entertainment. Neighbors would get together and gossip, kids had a ball chasing each other up and down the hills and around the parks, and all had a thoroughly enjoyable outing. The films usually weren't much good but that didn't seem to matter. It was the atmosphere that is so fondly remembered by those who were fortunate enough to spend a night at the movies under the stars.