The Holly Theatre sparks fond memories for one local

Larry Slessler couldn't help but feel a twinge of auld lang syne when he saw the MT's Friday morning edition.

The front page carried a story about a plan by Jefferson Public Radio to restore the historic Holly Theatre in Medford, creating a new performing arts center. Its goal is to raise nearly half a million bucks by mid-March to make the purchase.

"I'd love to see that happen — I've always loved the Holly," says Slessler, 70, of Medford. "As a kid, I spent a lot of pleasant hours there. Back in the pre-TV era, going to a movie was a big deal."

The Holly, which closed in October of 1986, was one of four theaters in Medford when his family moved here from Colorado in the summer of 1949. The others were the Craterian, the Realto and the State.

Considering the city's population in 1950 was only 17,305, according to the U.S. census that year, he figures that was a lot of movie theaters.

"The Holly was definitely the most upscale," he recalls of the theater which opened in 1930. "They had loge seating that you had to pay extra for. They were considered the primo seats. We always tried to sneak into the loge seating.

"But they still had ushers in those days. They usually caught us. It was a very classy place. It was the top of the line."

In fact, on March 3, 1940, famed opera singer Marian Anderson performed before a sellout crowd at the Holly.

And that was roughly a year after the 1939 incident in which the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the black singer access to perform a concert in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promptly arranged an outdoor concert for the singer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Her performance drew 75,000.

Back at the Holly, the 1,200-seat theater was filled to capacity for Anderson, who opened with Handel's Begrussung.

"A long-sustained pianissimo note swelled to the full power and beauty of her incomparable voice," wrote MT reviewer E.E. Gore. "A hush of surprised delight fell on her listeners and was evident throughout the succeeding numbers of the program. The spell was broken only by tumultuous and spontaneous applause."

Slessler, who was still in diapers and living in Pennsylvania at the time, wasn't up for a rendition of "Begrussung" when he arrived in Medford at age 10.

His Hollywood heroes galloped across the silver screen in the form of Lash LaRue, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

"You'd see them more at the Realto, which played more kid stuff," he says. "They had double features over there."

He recalls seeing his first three-dimensional flick at the Holly.

"We were given these little cardboard glasses," he says, noting he doesn't recall the movie. "But it strikes me it was in the mid-50s."

One movie he does recall seeing was "Blackboard Jungle," circa 1956, about a New York teacher trying to survive in a rough neighborhood.

"I remember being blown away by that movie," he says. "It featured Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock.' I thought, 'Wow! This is it.' "

The point, he says, is that movie theaters were important cultural features back in the day.

"There wasn't TV in Medford back then," he says. "So your choices of visual arts were the movies or nothing. TV didn't come to Medford until I was a freshman."

He stops talking for a moment to remember the sights and sounds of the Holly.

"Most people today can't remember what it was like not to have TV — it was so different back then," he says.

He recalls it was about 30 cents to attend a movie at the Holly, while 20 cents would get him into the Realto for a double-feature matinee. He will tell you there was more gum under the seats at the latter.

Candy bars went for a nickel; popcorn with real butter was a dime, he says.

"The popcorn was fine but you are talking to an undiscerning kid who loved to eat," he says. "Someone asked my mom once if I was a good eater. I remember her answer to this day: 'My son would eat dog crap if I put it between two slices of bread.' "

In other words, theater food was just fine for the growing youngster who would become an Air Force officer and receive a Bronze Star in Vietnam.

What wasn't fine in his family was attending movies on Sunday.

"That was a real bone of contention at our house," he says. "You didn't go to the movies on Sunday."

But one Sunday he couldn't stop himself. Taking a sister along to help cover his trail, he slipped out to catch "Sons of the Pioneers" at the Realto.

"It was a fun movie, but I was in deep trouble when I got home," he says. "I think my sister ratted me out."

Reach Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or

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