Copyright Shafter Historical Society
This article by Shafter resident Dolly Hei originally appeared in the Shafter Historical Society's newsletter, Spring 2015.
From the late 1930s into the '60s the Panero brothers of Delano, August and Ernie, were the cinema kings of the Central Valley. They owned movie theaters from north to south in Sanger, Wasco, Shafter, Delano and McFarland. Hollywood reigned then as the film capital of the world, and the Paneros helped bring the pictures produced there to our rural areas.
The two Shafter theaters were open weekday evenings and weekends. Saturday matinees included films starring actors like John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter, with Gene Autry and Lash LaRue in cliff-hanger serials. Technicolor was improving and the musicals were beautiful, featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Betty Hutton, Gene Kelly, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and many more stars. Movietone News brought us black and white coverage of the events of our country and the world, and there were always cartoons on the movie bills that have now become classics -- Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry and Woody Woodpecker, to name a few.
There were no more popular places to be in our small towns than the modern movie theaters, when folks were looking for entertainment. With World War II behind us and agriculture booming in the valley, everything seemed bright and hopeful. And the young girls who were fortunate enough to be hired on to staff the theaters knew what choice jobs they had, compared to much less glamorous work in the potato sheds and fields.
I came to town as a junior at Shafter High School in the summer of 1948 and didn't know a soul on campus that first day, except for my freshman brother, Jerry. That was pretty terrifying for me until an empathetic senior named Bonnie Williams took me under her wing in Mr. Arnold's steno class and made me feel welcome. My acquaintance with her allowed me to ease into school life as we walked up Central Avenue daily for a while, and I'll always be grateful to her for that. We are friends to this day. And I soon got to know other girls who remain my friends sixty-seven years later. Coming from Visalia, a beautiful city, I wasn't so sure at first that my folks had done me a favor bringing me to this dusty little town full of chinaberry trees instead of oaks, but time has proven they did and now I can't imagine calling anywhere else home. In 1949 when I met Peet Hei, five years my senior, my fate was sealed and I became a Shafter girl for life.
The Paneros' theater on Central Avenue near Five Points, which opened in May 1937, was still a state-of-the-art venue 10 years later, with its curving design features and rich decor. The front of the building had a rounded, opaque glass wall that gave diffuse light inside the lobby and a projection above with its name -- SHAFTER -- in large neon letters. The box office stood on the left side under the overhang, and inside the swinging doors there was the long candy counter to the left near the box office door. Across the lobby a wide, graceful ramp led down to the beautifully tiled bathrooms. Beyond the inner lobby doors there was thick, richly patterned carpeting that covered the floor between the lower seating and the loges above, a total of 750 seats.
If my memory is correct, there were two aisles that separated the downstairs seats, and the comfortable theater chairs were upholstered in red plush throughout. The floor sloped gently down to the front, with the very first rows being neck-breakers for patrons who had to sit there if the theater was full, or if the seats were purposely chosen, as they required viewers to look straight up at the big screen. A pair of carpeted stairs divided the loges into three sections, and they rose high in the back of the theater, giving good viewing, though not quite as good as modern stadium seating allows today. Teenagers usually chose to sit in those sections with their dates.
In later years, the rear of the building was gutted of all seating and floor levels and, with its lofty, echoey interior, served as a tire shop for Clyde Armstrong and then Bob Sperling (as well as an adjacent auto repair shop operated by Norval and Carol Winters), while the front housed the beauty salon of Jo Armstrong. Smart & Final did business out of the building for a time, too.
When the structure was demolished in 2000 to make way for the Rite Aid drugstore, I went to watch the work one day, though I was saddened to see it go.
I don't remember the Paneros advertising for their help, but perhaps they did in the beginning. All it seemed to take among the schoolgirls was knowing others who worked at the theaters, being willing to fill in for them when they wanted time off, and eventually, being hired on permanently as positions opened up. That's how I began in late 1948, learning from Syble Nelms and Betty Taylor, who paid me from their own earnings, how to work the candy counter and be an usher, with permission of the manager, Al De Witte. Al was a slight, dapper fellow who smoked big cigars and had a nice family.
We girls enjoyed seeing Nancy bring their children, Katina with her beautiful blonde curls and cute Louie in short pants, into the theater. I believe it was a couple of years later that Mary Louise joined the family. One night my candy counter mate and I decided to conduct an experiment, and we deliberately over-salted the popcorn. Yep, just as we expected, sales of soft drinks increased that evening. I don't think I ever did confess that naughty trick to Al, though I knew him for decades after. My mates and I used to compete to see who could pour soft drinks from the greatest number of 12-ounce bottles, lining up the cups and pouring all at once. I think my record was six, no doubt with some spillage.
Intermission between movies was a crazy madhouse in the lobby, with most sales being made then. I don't recall the town's boys ever being hired for the work we girls did. They earned their spending money in the potato fields and sheds. That was back in the stone age, when jobs were assigned by gender.
My starting wage was 65 cents an hour, and I quit work at the Sprouse-Reitz dime store in November to take the better-paying job at the theater. The dear little couple who ran that store could pay me only 50 cents an hour, and it was seasonal work. That's when I got my Social Security card and memorized the number immediately. Well, I felt bad about leaving them soon after I began there, but then I was so pleased for the raise in pay and to be earning my own steady money for schoolclothes and the other expenses of a high schooler. I saw a ruby ring in the window of Vernon Pierce's jewelry store and wished to have it, though it was an extravagance. I think I paid $33 for it, more than a week's wages, by far -- and of course, I still have and cherish it as much as I did back then.
Just before opening time one of my tasks was to go in to check seats and be sure everything was ready, and I remember projectionist Max Pearce broadcasting lovely recorded music on the sound system -- classics like Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and "Mood Indigo" and "Satin Doll" -- and, alone on the carpeted space between seating areas, I'd dance the length of it, inspired by the music and wishing I could dance like Ginger Rogers. It was Max's job, in the little booth high up above the loge section, to load the huge reels of film into the two projectors with their strong beams of light, being sure to get them in the right order and tend them throughout the movies. When the film broke and left the screen black, he'd soon know it by the shouting, clapping and whistling that came from the audience. A few minutes later the problem would have been resolved and the rowdy crowd would settle down as the movie resumed.
Some parents dropped their children off on Saturdays for the double feature and didn't return to collect them until a couple of cycles had passed, expecting us to babysit them for hours. And we did. At that time patrons could enter at any point in a film and no one thought that odd -- if you missed the beginning of the movie you'd just wait for it to begin again and watch up to the point where you came in, or even stay on longer, if you pleased. I remember little Virginia Bender coming in with her parents and brother. Her dad, Wimpy, was such a joker he always made me laugh as I showed them to their seats. I liked helping people find their places, using my official flashlight, and as usher I had the authority, with the backing of the manager, to oust any patron who caused a problem.
Pretty heady stuff for a 16-year-old new to any workforce! That didn't happen very often, and I'm sure I never ejected a child. I enjoyed seeing the films over and over again -- by the time "Samson and Delilah" and other major films like it had completed their runs I knew practically every line by heart.
I enjoyed the candy counter and ushering duties, but the box office scared me to pieces. A family walking up? It was my responsibility to quickly calculate how much their adult plus children's tickets would cost, take the cash and make proper change -- there were no automatic ways to do that back then, it was all head work -- so after a few nervous attempts, I left that job to cooler heads, like Bonnie Bender's. She loved being out there in the glass box, meeting the public first. I wish I could recall the prices of tickets, and whether Bonnie made more money than I did because of her superior position.
Some of my other work mates were Betty Taylor, Doris Gilwitz, Syble Nelms and Mariann Devlin, while Barbara Stone, Norma Neuman and others staffed the newer State Theater (built about 1944) on James Street, capacity 550. The manager there was a nice fellow named Bill Duerksen. There was a friendly rivalry between the girls at both theaters, each group thinking their workplace was the superior one and maintaining loyalty to it.
In writing this piece I've been talking to pals about those times and have heard some great stories. Norma told me she used to babysit for the children of Ernie Panero after he married a young woman from Shafter, Lena Hein, and they lived here in town. She said she made good money and could get her homework done as she tended the sleeping children while Mrs. Panero went to see the latest movies. Barbara recently told me she was pleased when her wage was raised to $1 an hour in the '50s while she worked at the new Del Kern Drive-In. Henrietta Ray, who worked at both theaters, told me that she was sometimes dropped off at work not knowing how she would get home. More than once the city police gave her a ride all the way out to Cherokee Strip after 9 p.m. Small town stuff -- fewer restrictions, lots of trust and no fear. And Bonnie, my school savior, said she wanted to work at the Shafter Theater, which was near her house, but her mom didn't want her out late on school nights, so she managed to get a daytime job as a soda jerk at the fountain in McClure's Drugstore on Central Avenue, and she remembers the heavy work of making ice cream in large machines there. "At McClure's, we made soft and hard ice cream. At the end of the counter there was a little glassed-in room with the two large machines where the ice cream was made. We hand packed many cartons of hard ice cream for customers. The hardest days were when we had a runon banana splits. Once one customer ordered one everyone else wanted the same. There were lunches with sandwiches and one hot item. It was a busy place. Patsy Kelly and I worked there the same summer." That experience taught her that she wanted to continue her education so she wouldn't ever again have to do that sort of hard labor.
Today there is a group of Class of '50 grads who still meet monthly for lunch and friendship, a few of us former theater workers. Our numbers range from four to 10, plus e-mail and postal contact with many more classmates outside this area. We've kept track of most of the class members through the years with our dozen reunions and the determination to not lose one another sooner than we must. We remember our departed mates and enjoy the remainder, knowing how lucky we were to have grown up in a small town in a golden age. And the Paneros helped make it an even more special time by bringing the magic of Hollywood to us.