Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
While the academy awards date back to 1929, the year 1953 marked the first time that the Academy Awards were broadcast on the fledgling medium of television. This week in 1953, the award for Best Picture went to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. John Ford won Best Director for The Quiet Man. Winners in the top two acting categories were Gary Cooper (High Noon) won Best Actor and Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba) won Best Actress.
While a look in the Great Bend Tribune would lead readers to believe there was more public interest in a modern kitchen demonstration in Hoisington, which attracted 600 women, than in the Awards show, that didn’t mean movies weren’t of interest in the area.
Plans to build a 300 car drive-in movie theater in La Crosse were announced in the Tribune. It would be located “immediately south of the golf course. Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Larned, owner operators of the Paramount movie theater for 25 years planned to take the projection equipment from the La Crosse theater for the new enterprise, the story said. The present theater had been deteriorating for some time, and they planned to turn it into a commercial building.
According to a story on the website, History.com, the first drive-in theater was created and opened on June 6, 1933, and the owner patented the concept. In 1949, when the patent was overturned, drive-ins began popping up all over the country, reaching their heyday in the late 1950s, the story said.
Naturally, the La Crosse drive-in wasn’t the first in the area. According to the Barton County Newspaper gleanings on the Kansas library website, The Commonwealth Theaters group owned several theaters in Great Bend, and opened the Great Bend Drive-in in 1948, followed by the Ellinwood Drive-in Cheyenne Drive-in south of Hoisington opening in early 1953. They, too, eventually went out of business, though the particulars have not been forthcoming.
Another interesting website, drive-ins.com, gives a brief time line of the life of the Hil-Top drive-in in LaCrosse. The single-screen drive in with speakers (rather than radio frequency) had a car capacity of 385 at it’s height. It opened in 1953, and was destroyed by a tornado in 1966, closed in 1969. In 1971, it was reopened by Sterling Bagby, but failed and closed again in 1973. It was reportedly torn down in the late 1990s. According to drive-ins.com, there are seven theaters that are still open throughout Kansas. Kanopolis is the closest to Barton County, but Dodge City and Wichita are others within a few hours drive.
Morrison PTA movies
Meanwhile, the Parent Teacher Association at Morrison Elementary School, formerly located at 2715 18th St., voted to sponsor a program of better movies for children during the summer vacation, according to the Tribune story, PTA Group to Work On Summer Film Program for Youngsters. PTA president Rev. Robert K. Foster made the suggestion that received an enthusiastic response from the members. Partnering with then manager of the Crest Theater, Elton Kuhlman, the plan to arrange 12 movies over the summer at a cost of $1 for a season ticket was agreed on. Some of the movies were My Friend Flicka (1943), Huck Finn (1939), Robin Hood (1938), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Yearling (1946), Black Beauty (1946), the Wizard of Oz (1939) and the Five Little Peppers ( the original, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, 1939, and three sequels produced in 1940). That was a pretty good deal. And you can’t blame the parents for their efforts. After all, 50 percent of American homes had TV sets by 1953, according to the Early Television Museum. While most mom’s didn’t work outside the home, that meant more work during the summer for them. They likely looked forward to a few hours of peace and quiet as much as the kids looked forward to the movie-going experience.
Eventually all those kids grew up and their parents retired. In 2008, the Great Bend Schools disposed of the school, and today, Morrison School is no more. The school was torn down, all except the gymnasium built in the 1980s. That gymnasium is now part of the Great Bend Rec. Activity Center. For the history and photos of the old school, take a look at http://morrisongradeschool.blogspot.com/.