Between 1975 and 1977, I suspect I visited The Wildey Theater at least once a month. I saw some of the greatest movies of the 70’s there. When my older brother Ed was away at Boy Scout camp in 1976, I was thrilled to go out with my folks on a school night to see a re-release of THE STING. I also saw ROCKY, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and yes, even STAR WARS. There was more to The Wildey than emerging cinema classics and glorious 1930’s art deco re-design of a turn of the century opera house. The first double-feature I ever saw was at The Wildey: FOOD OF THE GODS with EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, both written, produced and directed by drive-in master Bert I. Gordon. Ed spent his allowance from our weekly chores to take me to that show for my birthday.
In the days before STAR WARS, when it was rare for a movie to open on more than a couple hundred screens, we used to have a cool tradition of … I don’t know if anyone else has coined a phrase for it yet, but let’s call it Regional Cinema. With these regional movies, someone would raise a pocketful of money and shoot a movie, and then shuffle their one print around a few towns in their area. John Waters’ earliest efforts are good examples of this. Some movies, like the original versions of GONE IN 60 SECONDS and WALKING TALL, would catch the interest of a larger distributor who would crank out a few more prints and slowly role it out state by state.
Others, like RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, would never escape the midwest, the same way Giallo movies would never escape 42nd Street and Hollywood Blvd. I recall KDNL, then a local UHF television station, airing commercials for RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK. The big selling point was “Featuring Dawn Wells from Gilligan’s Island!” ten years after Gilligan was off the air. Here’s how cool The Wildey Theater was: not only did I see RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK there, I also saw SASQUATCH: THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT in the same year! For a seven year-old to have not one but two Bigfoot movies play in their town within one year, well … is it any wonder I ended up a nerd?
When my cousin Freddy and my aunt Connie visited from New York, my Dad took Freddy, Ed and me to see SINBAD & THE EYE OF THE TIGER. The film featured Ray Harryhausen animation and naked Jane Seymour, and the evening featured Freddy doing a goofy impression of Trog, one of Harryhausen’s monsters. Until this moment, movies had always been like church to me: sit there, shut up and enjoy it and allow others to enjoy it too. Freddy’s Trog impression made me laugh so hard that I wasn’t making sound and my ribs hurt. He introduced me that evening to the great Grindhouse tradition of “audience participation.” I’m not talking about muttering and giggling with your friends and annoying other paying folks, I’m talking about making a bad movie good (or a good movie great) with spot-on one-liners delivered loud enough to crack up the whole theater.
My family moved around a bunch of times, but ended up back in the St. Louis area in the early 90’s. I visited The Wildey in 1992, and found it boarded up, but with signs of potential restoration work under way.
I snapped a few pictures out front, then wandered down an alley between The Wildey and the Quality Meat Market, and climbed up an I-beam to reach the fire escape.
The door at the top of the fire escape was open, allowing me to sneak into the balcony. I took a few more pictures, but they were pretty blurry from the low light.
I stood and listened to the voices of elementary school friends for a bit before climbing back down the fire escape.
I went and peered through the glass doors out front … and a man inside waved to me! He came, opened the door, and asked if he could help me. I told him a little bit of what you have just read here. “Well, we’re just starting to get the
place cleaned up,” he said, “but you’re welcome to take a look-see if you like.”
I spent the next half hour meandering around and snapping the occasional picture where I thought the light beaming in from the balcony might be strong enough. I stood dead center in the seats an clapped a few times, but heard barely an echo. This nearly century old theater had cleaner acoustics than most modern multiplexes — and unlike a multiplex you’d damn sure never hear the movie next door drowning out your show at The Wildey. I’d like to tell you that I could still taste the popcorn or smell the cleaner that they used to sop up the Cokes we rugrats spilled, but that would be inaccurate. What came back to me was how many times I’d been scared and thrilled, heartbroken and tickled, amused and amazed in this hall.
As a child I had wanted to climb up on the stage. All those years later, I was able to feel the stage creak under my feet, before discovering there was a way down behind the stage — as a kid I’d never imagined there was anything back there!! Backstage I found remnants of what must have been dressing rooms from the opera days, and I found an old ticket booth. It was too dark to take pictures, so I touched everything I could reach, hoping for tactile memories to fill in where photos could not. Later I asked the man about the ticket booth. He was unsure how long the booth had been down there, but guessed it had been a long long time. I agreed with him, because I don’t ever recall there being an outside ticket booth. I only recall hoping I lived in Edwardsville long enough to work in the Wildey when I grew up.
I took the photo on top in the summer of 2008. If you want to know more about The Wildey Theater, they’ve made it easy and fun: http://www.wildeytheatre.com