Monday, April 28, 2014

The Varsity Was the Smallest

One of the laundromats near Loras College used to be a movie theater. Rich and Kay Manternach managed that theater, the Varsity at 1111 Loras Boulevard, during the 1950s.
The Varsity movie theater circa 1954. Photo contributed by Rich and Kay Manternach.
The Varsity movie theater circa 1954. Photo contributed by Rich and Kay Manternach.
Rich says, “Ray Duttle was the guy who originally put up the buildings on Loras, a theater and a grocery store.”

“My father, Gus Manternach, had a grocery store on Locust Street. He bought the new building on Loras from Ray Duttle, and opened Manternach’s Market.”

“Paul Weitz bought the theater. Weitz ran it for a while, but then sold it to my dad for about $14,000.”

“A man named O’Rourke, I can’t remember his first name, leased the theater from my dad. O’Rourke had a fire in the late 1940s, and he decided to get out of the movie business, so he subleased the Varsity to me.”

“That sublease from O’Rourke was kind of a thorn in my side,” Rich says. “I could have gotten a better deal from my dad. The Varsity had been completely renovated after the fire, though. It had a new screen, new drapes, and fresh paint.”

“I was at Loras College on the G.I. Bill around that time, from ‘48 to ‘52. I majored in economics with a minor in accounting. Since I was getting into the movie business, my thesis at Loras was The Monopolistic Practices of the Movie Industry.”

“You see, all the big movie theaters in Dubuque, like the Strand, Avon, and Grand, were owned by one person,” Rich says. “The smaller theaters, like the State, RKO Orpheum, and the Capitol on the north end, were owned individually.”

Kay says, “The Varsity was the smallest.”

"Well, wasn’t the Capitol about the same size as the Varsity, Kay?” asks Rich. “Up by your neighborhood by 22nd and Central, on the corner where Hartig's is?”

Kay says, "I thought the Capitol was a little bigger, but I could be wrong."

Rich says, “The Varsity had 205 seats. When you first walked into the theater, we had a box office up front, a popcorn machine, and there were steps up to the projection room. Inside, the seats sloped down toward the screen, which was all the way in the back.”

“Tickets were 14 cents for a child and 40 cents for an adult," Rich says.

Kay says, "The Varsity only ran evening movies. The only matinees were Saturdays and Sundays. We were closed on Wednesday nights."

"We had two changes of movies each week,” Rich explains. “Movies would run for three days, usually one main feature and a cartoon, maybe short subjects and previews of coming attractions.”

“They were all second-run films, sometimes the third and fourth run, because there were so many theaters in Dubuque,” Rich says.

“We had From Here to Eternity, with Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra and . . . who was that guy who died, Montgomery Clift?” asks Rich.

Kay says, “Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful, I think that was the first movie we ran. That was a big hit.”

"And Frankenstein was a big movie, a big draw.” Kay says. “One Halloween we paid someone to dress up as Frankenstein, but we hadn't advertised it. When the time came, Rich lowered the lights, and Frankenstein came down the middle aisle, and the people shrank toward the walls. I remember that."

Rich laughs, "Since Kay is younger than me, she remembers quite a bit!"

Rich and Kay Manternach. Photo by Michael May.
Rich and Kay Manternach. Photo by Michael May.
Kay says, “Gregory Peck and To Kill a Mockingbird. James Cagney was popular, and we had a couple of his movies. There were a lot of musicals, which they don't have today."

Rich says, "I liked The Three Stooges. Kay didn't like them, but they were so crazy!"

Kay says, "Oh, you know what else was popular? The cowboy movies. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I remember those."

Rich says, "I know one thing that kept people coming back. The Strand was noted for serials. They'd show The Lone Ranger for 15 minutes, and then the following week they’d have the next episode.”

“They'd get all the kids in there on Saturday afternoons. Their mothers would give them 15 or 20 cents to go away, to go to the movies down at the Strand. Kids from all over wanted to go.”

“The cartoons were good back then, too. Bugs Bunny and, uh . . . ." Rich looks at Kay.

Kay says, "Road Runner."

Rich says, "Popeye, you know. They were good back then. I loved 'em.”

"Cartoons and features were separate,” Rich continues. “Our distributor was out of Des Moines. They'd have a salesman who'd come around, and he'd want to sell you the films.”

“If it was The Lone Ranger or something, it'd be $12.50, or maybe $15 for a three-day showing. Higher-grossing movies would be around $17.”

“If it was something like Gone with the Wind or From Here to Eternity, they put it in on a percentage basis, like 20% or 35% of the gross,” Rich says.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
“To keep you honest on that, they'd take the number off of your ticket stock. They had a key to the theater, and they'd come in and drop off the reels in steel cases with handles.”

“Long films would have four or five reels, in 35 mm. We had two projection booths. The projectors were Simplex. You had to switch reels over with a pedal on the floor,” Rich says.

“As the film would progress near the end, there'd be a dot on the right hand corner, and that was when you'd start the other reel going. When the second dot came, you'd hit the pedal, and that switched you over to the other machine.”

“If the film broke, you'd pull the reel out and restart it on another reel. When you got through, you'd take that over and splice it with glue. They had a splicing machine, and you'd just glue it up there and put it back in, and it didn't delay the movie.”

“Simplex projectors were popular,” Rich says. “They had carbon-arc lamps. You had to put the carbons into them and they were self-fed. I don't think they use those, anymore.”

"I did everything upstairs.” Rich says. “I was in the projection room most of the time. They had a buzzer downstairs in case of trouble. Once in a while Kay would say I dozed off."

Kay says, "He'd fall asleep and the screen would go dark, and the buzzer wouldn't wake him up. We had a broom downstairs, and I’d take the broom handle and bang on the ceiling.”

"I worked full-time in an office after I graduated in ‘52,” Kay says, “but I'd go up to the Varsity at night and sell tickets for Rich, because I was free help."

Rich says, “I'd give her popcorn, but no money.”

Kay says, “Yeah, he didn't pay me.”

“Before the Varsity, Kay worked at the RKO Orpheum, where Five Flags is now.” Rich says, laughing. “She used to get me in free!"

“I worked at the Orpheum for about a year and a half when I was a kid,” Kay explains. "I was 15. I lied about my age to get the job. We wore uniforms. I was an usher.”

“It was fun,” Kay says. “A big deal. 40 cents an hour. We got two free passes a week and all the popcorn you could eat, if you saved the original box.”

“My sister Phyllis helped me at the Varsity, too,” Rich says. “Phyllis was held up at gunpoint one night when she was working as cashier.”

Rich pulls out an old newspaper clipping about the robbery. “They got away with $65. The police never caught them.”

Kay says, "The Varsity was a good family theater. We had a good clientele. A lot of youngsters."

"We never had any controversial films,” Rich says. “Dubuque was a very Catholic town at that time."

"I can remember a lot of the guys,” Rich says, “guys I went to high school with. There was one guy, I won't mention his name, he used to come down . . ."

Kay says, "Don't say his name. He’s very well known, today."

Rich continues, "He would sneak in after they closed the box office. I'd go down and politely ask him to leave, because, you know, he had money. I'd see him up at Timmerman's. He'd come up and pat me on the back, and we were still good friends."

“Another thing,” Rich says, "we never had central air. Back then that was not uncommon. When I grew up my folks just had a window unit on Alta Vista, and Kay's house never had it.”

“When we finally put air conditioning in at the Varsity, that was a big plus on hot summer nights. Everything is changed, now,” Rich says.

Kay says, “Yeah, we had a lot of traffic, but it got to the point where TV just killed the neighborhood theaters.”

“A franchise called Jerrold’s brought cable TV to Dubuque in the late ‘50s, and they started robbing the picture attendance,” Kay says. “We had to close the Varsity soon after, because we really couldn't make ends meet.”

“A lot of people started going to Cinema Center on the west end. Oh my God, that was a beautiful theater!” Rich says. “Both of my kids worked there."

"I went to work for Rainbo Oil Company. I worked in the office for them for a couple or three years, and then I managed a Super Station up there on 20th and Elm,” Rich says.

“Then Rainbo sold that property and it became a Pizza Hut, so I worked for a company out of Des Moines. I was in sales for most of my time.”

The Varsity laundromat at 1111 Loras Boulevard in Dubuque.
The Varsity laundromat at 1111 Loras Boulevard in Dubuque.
“My father’s market stayed open into the ‘60s, and he turned the Varsity into the laundromat,” Rich says.

"When they put the laundromat in, they had to raise the floor, you see, because it was sloped. They put in some side windows. The upstairs stuff was taken out, the Simplex projectors, and somebody must have bought them, but I don't know.”

“I don't know,” Rich says again. “Where were we when they did that, honey?”

Kay shrugs.

“We were probably cryin’ the blues,” Rich says, laughing.

Michael May is a librarian at Carnegie-Stout Public Library where he shows free movies and selects titles for the Blu-ray and DVD collections. His email address is

Thanks to Bryce Parks at for including this article in the April 24--May 7, 2014 issue of 365ink.

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