By Bob Amick
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER | Meeker’s first movie theater, the “Princess,” came to Meeker with the building of the Rio Theatre by Harlan Coulter in 1920. When Glen B. and Dixie Wittstruck purchased the theater in 1936, it was renamed the Rio Theatre, possibly reflecting the Spanish name for river, since the White River was an icon of the town and county.
When I was growing up on our family ranch next to the K-T ranch six miles east of Meeker, I became friends with Richard Wittstruck, whose father and mother, Glen and Dixie Wittstruck, owned and operated the Rio Theater. Glen was originally from Nebraska—if memory serves—and was quite a showman. He and Dixie often traveled to Denver to book “pictures” (as the movies were then called) for ensuing months. They drove black Cadillacs up until 1958 when they bought one of the new Lincoln Continental Mark III models in white with a roll-down rear window which Richard and I thought was very cool. Dixie was the daughter of Richard Magor who owned the Sleepy Cat resort and another property which was later owned by Bill Gooseman.
Glen and Dixie’s home adjoined the Rio Theatre building, and was adjacent to the Joy Motor Company’s Ford Garage. The home was light tan and brown with a fence and gate off the Main Street entrance, and was very well built with plush wall-to-wall gray carpeting and a fireplace. The Wittstrucks enjoyed having tropical fish and an aquarium with variety of Caribbean species including Betta or Siamese fighting fish which I always found fascinating to watch. Their home was attached to the west wall of the Rio Theatre and a doorway from the lobby area into their home permitted direct access into the theater.
Photographs of the interior design Art Deco Moderne style of the Rio Theatre are rare and as yet not located. The Denver Public Library Western History and Genealogy archive was able to provide the only known photo of the exterior of the building, taken in 1967. Consequently, a verbal description of the aspects of the design and accommodations is all that is currently available for this historic and iconic structure that was unfortunately demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Rio Blanco County Abstract Company.
The Rio Theatre, while not large, was built with red brick and would accommodate several hundred patrons. The building extended from the Main Street entrance all the way to the alley. There was a “cry room” attached to the ladies’ restroom on the east side of the lobby, with a glass window so mothers could attend their fussy infants and small children and still watch the movie. A speaker was installed so they could hear the sound behind the glass window. The concession stand was on the east side of the lobby where popcorn and soda were vended and the stairway to the projection booth was next to the entrance to the men’s restroom. The projectionist at the time was Gerald Dickman, who later became the postmaster in Meeker. Charles Rigby (son of Percy Rigby, local attorney at law) served as a custodian and cleaned the theater after the shows.
The projection booth was small and crowded but was fascinating as we often got to watch how the films were prepared for showing. Two projectors with carbon arc lamp housings were present and had a manual cutover switch so one projector could be cued up with a film while the other one was running.
The projectionist would fire up the carbon arc lamp, and adjust it, then watch for the film cue mark (a small round circle on the film) and when the cue mark came up near the end of the reel, would step on the cue switch and start the second projector and douse the power to the first projector. Then he would pull the film out of the first projector housing, put it on the rewinder reel, and load the next film in sequence onto the projector so he could start it up when the current reel ran out. Films usually ran for about 15 minutes per reel, and took about four to eight reels depending on the length of the film as I recall. Most feature films were about 90 minutes but some major films such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” ran longer.
Occasionally a film would break and of course the lights would come up and the projectionist would have to pull the reel and splice it, then reload it and start the movie again.
Comparison of 20th century film and projection technology offers quite a contrast to modern movie houses which are all computerized and use either continuous large film reels, or more recently have all now converted to all digital and use digital projectors with optical disc recordings. Some say that photographic film still offers the best resolution and color rendition but digital has evolved as the state-of-the-art. There is something to be said, however for the quality and nostalgia of the story telling that went on with the older films that we don’t often see in today’s high-tech computerized special effects films.
Film “trailers” (which were the equivalent of today’s TV advertising commercials) were spliced together and shown before the main feature and included ads from local merchants, previews of coming attractions, news reels and a cartoon. Thus a menu of “news, sports, cartoons and a feature film” would offer nightly entertainment for locals, much as modern television does and given the isolation of a small town, was a highlight for youth and adults of the community.
A monthly show calendar or “playbill” was issued and mailed to local residents so you could be sure to attend films which were of interest. Films were advertised in the Meeker Herald as well. There were typically three films per week, which showed in repetition on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, another on Wednesday and Thursday and then on Friday and Saturday which were usually the big family and action film dates. Often Westerns would be shown on Friday and Saturday and sometimes there would be Saturday kids’ cartoons and family film matinee.
Walt Disney’s True Life Adventure nature series of films about animals in the desert and mountains, narrated by Rex Allen, were always especially fascinating.
Sunday through Tuesday would usually feature the big family films and epic shows such as “The Ten Commandments.” I still have a collection of Rio Theatre playbills from the ’50s in some of my memorabilia.
The ticket booth was on the east side of the lobby and prices were around 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for kids but gradually increased later in the ’50s. Folding doors separated the lobby from the right and left theater entrance aisles to keep light from the outside doors from hitting the screen if the movie was already being projected.
The outside of the theater featured a yellow plastic neon illuminated triangular-shaped marquee where clip-on letters advertised the featured films and shorts or short subjects such as cartoons and newsreels prior to the beginning of the main feature. It was necessary to climb out a window at the rear of the projection booth to take out the lettering and change the yellow background marquee which was angled so it could be read from the east and the west with a vertical neon lighted sign with the letters RIO.
Playbills were displayed on the outside of the lobby entrance featuring upcoming films and also inside on the hallway near the ticket booth. Another playbill sign was mounted on the outside of the Meeker Hotel and today serves as a bulletin board for community events. Playbills have become a form of collector’s memorabilia; considerable art work was expended on making them attractive and exciting to patrons.
A beauty salon operated by Lorraine Findlay was also present adjacent to the theater entrance on the west front side of the building. A realtor’s office was located on the west front side
The decor of the theater was classic “Art Deco” from the 1920-1950 era and featured some interesting period light fixtures on the sidewalls that were dimmed during the film and then turned up with rheostats before and after the movie. As I recall they had some red diffusers with arrow patterns on the side. A stage in front of the screen also had a piano in the corner. Music from 45rpm records was always played before and after shows and my most memorable recollection was Dean Martin’s song “That’s Amoré” with lyrics that included “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré.”
Glen was always progressive and brought new innovations to the theater. When the first wide screen or CinemaScope ® films were produced in 1953, Glenn remodeled the theater, taking down the older standard 4×3 format screen and installing a new 16×9 aspect ratio CinemaScope ® curved screen, and stereophonic speakers to accommodate the new sound format. The screen was curved out slightly from the center to the edges to enhance the visual effect of depth. Due to width limitations of the theater, the screen curtain had to be removed in order to extend the screen all the way to the right and left sides of the theater. Black masking draperies with electric motors were installed and permitted masking the edges of the new wide screen when conventional 4 x 3 format films were shown. Top and bottom masking was also required to accommodate the wider anamorphic projection screen image correctly. Existing projectors were outfitted with add-on Panavision anamorphic lenses which used prismatic optics to widen the compressed image on the 35-mm film to fill the16x9 ratio wide screen. This wide screen technology has carried forth in the form of modern high definition television curved screens using the new 4K high resolution imagery which now approaches the quality of the original projection film images of the 1950s. The first CinemaScope film produced in 1953 was “The Robe” starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The first CinemaScope film to debut at the Rio was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in 1954, starring Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn and other notable actors including a dancer from the New York City Ballet. The house raising scene was one of the most spectacular dance scenes of the film enhanced by the CinemaScope camera to show some amazing choreography.
Glen and Dixie sold the theater to Dr. Willis and Jean Scott in the late ’50s and moved to Sarasota, Fla. Glen and Dixie later returned to Meeker in retirement in the 1970s and owned the home on Sixth Street just west of the old high school building (now the preschool/admin building). Glen passed away in 1981, and Dixie later married M.F. “Brandy” Brandborg and lived in Meeker for a time until later moving to Grand Junction where she passed away a few years ago.
Richard Wittstruck later went to Georgia Tech and followed an engineering career. He is now retired living near Tampa, Fla., and I believe his sister DeDe lives in Michigan. I spoke with Richard on the phone last year when the class reunion was being planned and they were looking for students who had been in that class.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for length. The original version includes a detailed, and very interesting history of the movie industry. You can download the original piece by clicking here: the-rio-theatre2