Publisher’s Perspective – Volume 2, Issue 2

Movies on the side of buildings used to be a big deal for us kids

Old schoolhouses in Iowa was the focus of an article on December 14 in USA Today. Written by Judy Keen, it focused in on the fascinating history of such schools, some dating back to the 1880s.

One line in particular caught my eye and caused me to begin reflecting on how the world has changed since I was a kid growing up in Iowa. Here is the line:

“In the 1940s, people gathered on the lawn on summer evenings to watch movies projected on the school’s west wall.”

The story was talking specifically about West Lancaster School #9, located in Hayesville, Iowa. But it rekindled memories for me of growing up in a neighborhood called Highland in the eastern section of Waterloo.

Watching movies on the side of a building is something I can relate to. As a kid, I can fondly recall going to a large park near our house called Big Highland Park (there was a Small Highland Park, too, hence the need for a distinction between the two) for a variety of reasons. In the summer, the Waterloo Park District offered a supervised program of games and sports at Big Highland.

But the highlight came on Saturday nights when all the kids were invited to watch movies projected on a large tennis court wall. We were all told to bring a blanket or rug to sit on, and a bottle of pop. At movie time, we would gather on the concrete tennis court, grab a good spot in front of the screen, and plunk down.

There would be anywhere from 25 to 40 kids each Saturday night, with an adult running a noisy projector. We would watch anxiously to see what cartoon figure would appear on the screen – my favorite was Mighty Mouse, that bundle of strength and energy in a tight, yellow outfit and red cape who beat up Oil Can Harry, an evil looking cat who wore a stovepipe hat, and his nasty henchmen.

Mighty Mouse usually roared onto the screen singing, “Here I come to save the day!” A roar of excitement would always go up if it was a Mighty Mouse cartoon. I think he was the favorite of most of the Highland kids.

When the cartoon ended, the projectionist would put in the night’s feature film. It was almost always a cowboy film and we all had our favorites. It could be Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Tim Holt, or any one of a dozen or more stars.

I always hoped it would be the Durango Kid, a masked figure dressed all in black who was athletic and daring. He was played to perfection by Charles Starrett, a handsome actor who had been a football star in college. The stuntman for many of those films was Jock Mahoney, an Iowan featured in the January issue of Iowa History Journal.

This was the late 1940s and very few homes had television sets, so the Saturday night film at Big Highland Park – and on the lawns of small schools around the state – was a big deal. It was the social event of the week for many kids under twelve years of age.

The first television show I can recall was the Gene Autry Show, which debuted in 1950. But my favorite from that era was “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves, an Iowan who was featured on the cover of the fourth issue of Iowa History Journal.

Of course, the popularity of movies at Big Highland and school lawns around the state faded quickly with the television explosion of the mid 1950s. By the end of the decade such events had disappeared altogether.

But the memories have endured for many youngsters of that era, now “oldsters” who love to remember “the good old days” when Mighty Mouse flew onto small screens dotting the state of Iowa and the Durango Kid beat up the bad guys.

(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)