Almanac: Soldotna’s big screen — Town’s 1st movie house takes on new character

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part story told in reverse  —  the unusual history of the metamorphosis of the Soldotna structure known today as Beemun’s. Part one covered the history from the current time back through the fire of 1990 to the mid-1980s when the building was a bakery and was not yet square. Last week, part two started in the mid-1980s and worked back to the late 1960s. This week examines the building’s origins.

By Clark Fair

Photo courtesy of Beemun’s. In the early 1970s, as business boomed, Soldotna Drug owner, Earl Mundell, had a Quonsetlike addition attached to the main structure.

Redoubt Reporter

Rich King’s very first job upon coming to Alaska in 1973 was working for Earl and Alice Mundell, adding a perpendicular Quonset-style wing to the grey tin Quonset hut known as Soldotna Drug. Joining the two structures correctly was tricky, King said, but his on-site boss was able to work out the details on a lunch table.

To supervise the project, Mundell had hired Wiley Graham, whom King said was “sort of a jack-of-all-trades” — a Cat-skinner, an electrician, a welder, a pilot, a carpenter. “Wiley was the only person who was smart enough to figure out how to do that back then. He engineered the whole thing on a napkin over at Glady’s (Café). It was Wiley Graham and Earl Mundell scratching their heads together. We’d go to Glady’s for lunch, and those two would hash out what was going to happen.”

The aspect of the architecture that generated the most difficulty was the 8-foot, concrete-block retaining wall that framed the first story of the addition, and upon which the Quonsetlike second story rested. Graham devised a means of joining the straight walls and arched roof of the addition to the curved northern wall of the original building.

At the same time, the original Quonset’s freshwater well was capped, and Soldotna Drug hooked up to the city’s water main in order to power its new fire-suppression sprinkler system.

With the extra retail space, business at the drugstore continued to boom, so two years later Mundell began construction on a larger separate building on the adjoining property, and in 1976 Soldotna Drug was moved across the parking lot.

In 1977, the Golden Nugget Bakery opened in the older building, and in 1983 the national chain, Pay ’n Save, bought out Soldotna Drug.

But before all of this expansion and change — before Soldotna Drug even existed, in fact — the original Quonset served another purpose — as the central Kenai Peninsula’s first full-time movie theater.

It was not, however, the first theater in Soldotna.

The origins of public cinema in town date back to 1957, two years before statehood, when Alaska Road Commission worker George Denison began showing commercial films in the Soldotna Community Building. Denison built a 4-by-4-foot projection box to house a pair of 16-milimeter projectors, and he installed a wall-sized screen on one end of the large, flat room.

“Our ceiling wasn’t too high,” wrote Denison in “Once upon the Kenai.” “In fact, we had to constantly try to keep folks from standing up. We had enough break-downs to allow sessions for stretching.”

Photo courtesy of Beemun’s. By the mid-1970s, the wing of the drugstore began to take on a more commercial appearance. Note that the windows to the left and right of the front doors have been filled in.

At first, Denison borrowed commercial films from the Army in Wildwood, according to then-wife, Shirley.

“But then there was the discussion that that wasn’t really legal,” Shirley said. “Those films were to be used only for the troops. They weren’t supposed to be shared with anybody else. I think it was just a few months before they shut that down.”

George then began renting films from a supplier in Anchorage, and the Community Building continued as a venue until the following year.

Shirley (now Henley) made it clear that owning and operating a theater had been more George’s dream than her own. She said she had more than enough to do teaching high school and caring for their daughters. Still, she went along with George’s idea, at least at first.

From Joe Faa, who then owned the old Howard Lee homestead — the center of which is now Soldotna Elementary School — the Denisons purchased a piece of land just south of East Park Avenue and ordered a 40-by-80-foot Quonset-style building as a do-it-yourself kit from an East Coast company called Timber Rib.

“It was about the cheapest thing we could afford to build,” Shirley said.

George hired builder Robert S. “Bob” Oehler to put it all together. Oehler began the project but failed to complete it, necessitating the ironic hiring of Joe Faa to finish the job in time for the planned grand opening on Sept. 6, 1958.

Outside, the building was fairly nondescript — a gray half-cylinder, with four windows and a set of double doors below a brown-painted awning on the lower portion of the front, and above were three blacked-out windows and a white rectangular sign bearing red lettering — SOLDOTNA THEATRE.

Inside, through the double front doors, was a ticket window to the right and a second set of double doors straight ahead. In the lobby, to the right were the restrooms, and to the left were a concessions stand and a set of stairs leading to two small upper rooms — the projection room, built high so that films could be projected out over the heads of the audience, and a cry room, which George claimed was the first on the peninsula and maybe one of the first in the Territory of Alaska.

The concessions stand was manned almost exclusively by local teenagers, who worked for about 50 cents an hour. Among the workers in the early 1960s were Louise (Grainge) Martin, Mary Alice (Grainge) Casebeer, Gary Martin, Kenny Moss and Peggy Mullen.

Many of the girls began selling popcorn and graduated to selling tickets. Moss and Gary Martin began as janitorial workers, cleaning up after the films had finished, listening to Denison’s jukebox as they cleaned and then playing pingpong on Denison’s table once they had finished. Soon, Martin moved on to projectionist.

Photo courtesy of KPC Anthropology Lab. The Soldotna Theatre was built in 1958 for owners George and Shirley Denison. After housing movies, dances, meetings, parties and live performances for nearly a decade, it was sold in 1968 to Toby Buckler, who converted the building into a drugstore.

Beyond the lobby was the main theater — a high-ceilinged, wide-open room with a huge screen and a low stage at the far end, and filling the large floor were numerous rows of used theater seats that Denison had purchased from an auction house. Two aisles divided the rows of seats, which Denison claimed could hold about 180 audience members, and more than 200 if kids sat on the floor up front.

The seats were connected in sections of five to seven, built on strips of oak flooring that would allow them to be easily slid aside on the flat concrete floor. The seats could be moved for cleaning purposes, but they also were moved on special nights for public performances, community dances, potlucks and meetings.

One of the first live onstage performers at the Soldotna Theatre was longtime Clam Gulch resident, Emil Bartolowits, who belonged to American Legion Post No. 18 in the village of Ninilchik. Post No. 18 (and the Women’s Auxiliary) used to occasionally put on stage plays to entertain the masses on the lower peninsula.

In early 1960s, the legion troupe performed “Tiger House,” a 1930 three-act mystery-comedy by Robert St. Clair. Post No. 18 paid $3 in royalty fees to the Hansen Play and Novelty Company of Salt Lake City for the rights to perform in public. According to Bartolowits, the enthusiasm from the entertainment-starved public was well worth the money spent.

“We went there and had a real good performance — we thought so, anyway,” Bartolowits said.

The full house roared with approval, as the legionnaires provided the acting, directing, costumes, lighting and sets.

In 1964 and 1965, the Soldotna Players, under the direction of Gail Smith, provided more onstage drama, with Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16th,” followed by John Van Druten’s romantic comedy, “Bell, Book and Candle.”

Longtime Soldotna resident Dolly Farnsworth also remembers the frequent dances at the theater. The Elks Club, in particular, held teen dances there, and Dolly’s husband, Jack, was often one of the chaperones.

She said that, on holidays, it was common to have parties in the big open space that the theater could provide. Farnsworth laughed as she remembered one particular masquerade party.

“Oh God, we had fun! My husband dressed as a lady, and nobody knew who he was. And he didn’t wear a mask, he just had a lot of makeup and a wig and some extra padding,” she said.

The biggest cinematic hit at the Soldotna Theatre was John Wayne’s “North to Alaska.”

“It ran for a full week,” wrote Denison. “People came from all over the peninsula and Anchorage. The first night, the cars were stacked past the Cheechako News building.”

Not everything about the theater was rosy, however. Because owners George and Shirley both worked full-time jobs, extra time spent at the theater became “a sore subject” between them, Shirley said. Since the theater income paid for the heat, lights and film rentals, she said, they kept it going but later leased its operation to Bill and Vivian Cardwell, who kept the theater in business until about sometime before it was purchased by Toby Buckler as a drugstore in 1968.

Then, over the years, the building evolved — a second floor here, an addition there — and slowly the original structure slipped away, glimpsed only on occasion through the frenetic activity of passing decades.

In the late 1980s, when the old rounded structures were covered by a squared-up wood-frame shell, the decision was made to tear out the Quonsets from the inside and rebuild something more modern. Behind one of the walls workers discovered the original theater ticket window and old movie posters, which were eventually sold or given away.

The tin was hauled off. The timber ribs were carted away to a warehouse yard. Debris was burned, and history disappeared.

But a fragment of that long history is still around. Visitors to Beemun’s today can still run their hands down the steel posts that supported the second floor of Soldotna Drug more than 40 years ago, and they can still feel the solid floor of the original Soldotna Theatre concrete beneath the linoleum.

Although progress has never stopped, the footprint of history remains.

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4 Comments

Filed under Almanac, business, Soldotna

4 responses to “Almanac: Soldotna’s big screen — Town’s 1st movie house takes on new character

  1. Marcia King

    Thank you for the walk down memory lane. Your story painted a beautiful picture of one of the awesome things we had when we were young in Soldotna. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Thank you.

  2. angie humecky-joy

    i’m pretty sure my parents, tom and loretta humecky, ran the theater for several years when i was around 6 years old. i remember helping mom make ice cream sandwiches and stocking candy bars. i also remember the film room and the crying room. just thought i’d add to the personal history of that building.

  3. Dale Junghans

    I lived in Soldotna 1960 thru 64 Gary Martin and Lou Grainge were very good friends. I would love to here from them if possible. dale50@wt.net or 979 324 1421. Enjoyed the article on the old theatre. Thanks

  4. jocele faa

    I grew up in Soldotna. sure do miss the place and all the friends. we did have fun in the theatre. thanks for this article

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