The Eureka Theater foyer c. 1946. Photos via The Humboldt Historian.

A movie was a real event in my family during the 1930s and 1940s. My sisters and I planned days in advance to see a favorite film. The Humboldt Times, a morning paper, and The Humboldt Standard, an evening paper, were both published in Eureka. We took the evening paper, which arrived around 4 p.m. with a thump as the paper boy threw it on the porch. I would bring it inside and spread it out on the living room carpet to read the funnies. Among other comics were Popeye the Sailor, Mandrake the Magician, and Tillie the Toiler. The funny papers in the San Francisco Examiner, delivered on Sunday morning, were printed in color. Usually a paper doll of one of the comic strips, such as Blondie, was printed, with a few clothes. Newsprint was too fragile for paper dolls, but still we saved these, pasted them on heavier paper and then cut them out. Next, I turned to the movie section to dream over which movie my family might be able to see. Mother always saved the crossword puzzle to work during a quiet time by herself after the dishes were done in the evening, unless she had darning or mending to do.

Before Betty and I were born, our parents took our older sister, Patsy, to one of Eureka’s theaters, I think the Rialto, for a talent show. Patsy, at the age of four, was not shy. She marched right up onto the stage, sang in her perfect pitch voice “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies,” and won first prize — a miniature Singer sewing machine that actually sewed a chain stitch when you turned the handle on the wheel.

The Art Deco interior of the Eureka Theater, 1940s.

In the early thirties, first run movies, such as Shirley Temple films and “The Land of the Giants,” filmed in the town of Crannell, were shown at the State Theater in Eureka. Double feature “B” movies played at the Rialto Theater. As a child, I was not sure what was shown at the Liberty Theater, but its location in the Old Town area of Second Street was definitely out of bounds for my sisters and me. Sometimes the Standard carried ads for this theater featuring photographs of strippers like Tempest Storm, hiding her finer points behind soft ostrich feathers. The one time I attended a film at the Liberty Theater was when I was a freshman at Humboldt State College. A bunch of my friends and I sneaked over to Eureka to see a movie called “Mom and Dad.” We had to be furtive, because the mother of one of the girls was a teacher in Eureka. My friend’s mother would not have liked seeing her daughter run around town with a bunch of giggly girls to that theater. Actually, the sad little movie was a disappointment. It was supposed to be an enlightening experience about sex education, but we did not learn a thing we didn’t already know, which, to tell the truth, wasn’t much.

On Saturday mornings in the 1930s, the theaters featured serials — continuous movies that showed one episode each Saturday of a cowboy movie, such as Hopalong Cassidy, or a science fiction fantasy like Buck Rogers. The audience was enticed to come back the following Saturday for the next part of the story. Pat and her friend Fran sometimes went to these films, but they rarely took Betty and me, as we were “the little kids.”

My cousin, Mary Gillis from San Mateo, pored over movie magazines. She kept scrapbooks of special stars, including her favorite actress, Bette Davis. Mary gave us addresses we could write to in Hollywood for photos of our favorites. Soon we had “signed” photos of many movie stars.

If something special were playing, such as a Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movie — my mother’s choice — my family went to the movies. We also managed to see practically every Shirley Temple movie that was filmed — Betty’s and my choice. America’s darling was our darling, too, and I even had some “Shirley Temple” dresses, gifts from my aunt in San Mateo. On those rare nights, my mother insisted the dinner dishes had to be done and the kitchen cleaned up before we could go. Movies started promptly at 7 p.m. Adults paid forty cents for admission, students twenty-five cents, and children ten cents.


One night as we stood in line at the State Theater, I asked my father if I could have the money to buy my own ticket. He handed me a quarter. Although I was twelve, I was small for my age, and had still been getting into the theaters for a dime, if he bought the tickets. I was shocked and close to tears to find I received no change from my quarter. I felt that I had let my father down by insisting on buying my own ticket, when he could have saved fifteen cents by buying them all together. But looking back, I think now he really hadn’t minded, and that he understood how I felt about wanting to buy my own ticket. 

During the Depression the epitome of a nice figure was a “perfect thirty-six,” meaning a 36-inch bust, a 26-inch waist and 36-inch hips. Many teen-aged girls wanted to look like movie stars such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Ann Sheridan, all probably “perfect thirty-sixes.” My older sister, Pat, was a perfect thirty-six, the only one of the three Olsen sisters to attain this goal.

The new Eureka Theater opened in 1939 with a forgettable movie called “Jeepers Creepers.” Everyone, including my family, wanted to go to see the huge new Art Deco theater, even though the film might not be of interest. On opening night, my sisters and I hurried through the dishes, grabbed our sweaters, and ran to the car. Searchlights scanned the heavens and drew attention to the new theater while Dad parked as close to the theater as possible, several blocks beyond the Eureka Inn and behind the library.

As we walked to the theater, and rounded the corner by the Carnegie Library, an old car filled with high school boys rounded the corner too. Yelling catcalls, the boys blew a strange sounding whistle at my perfect thirty-six sister, Pat. Ever since the time my father had struggled with a particularly difficult automobile repair, and my little sister, Betty, at the age of two, had looked up at him with her big brown eyes to innocently ask, “Is it a sonovabitch, Daddy?” he had been careful not to swear in front of us. But when these boys burnt rubber as they tore around the corner and blew their strange sounding whistle at my sister, I heard my dad mutter under his breath, “Goddamchippywhistles!” I had no idea what a chippy whistle was, or even a chippy, for that matter, but from the look on his face, I could tell it was not good. Pat walked with her head down. She did not acknowledge by a glance that she knew those boys were even alive, while Betty and I looked with awe at our father for using such language.

We had to stand in line for tickets at the box office — a little cubicle set close to the sidewalk in front of the covered entrance of the theater. Two ticket sales girls were busy in the booth that night with the door securely locked behind them. The double line stretched down around the corner by the candy store. Finally we got our tickets and went through the large plate glass entrance doors where another attendant took the tickets, tore them in half, gave our father the stubs, and deposited the other halves in a bin.

People stood around the huge lobby, staring open-mouthed at its grandeur. A concession stand to the right of the entrance doors filled the air with the wonderful aroma of hot buttered popcorn, but we never wasted money on popcorn or candy bars. In fact, we may not have had the money to buy those treats, but we girls didn’t care. We were there to see the theater. Wide staircases rose from both sides of the lobby to broad landings. The manager’s office was at the top of the left landing; a dressing room for usherettes was at the top of the right landing. Then each staircase turned and went up further to a second story lobby that led to the balcony seats and the restrooms. I had been used to the elaborate baroque décor of the State and Rialto Theaters. Somehow this ultra-modern building didn’t seem quite right. I missed the jewel-like chandeliers of the State Theater and the ornate carvings around the stage, thinking that’s the way a theater should be. We were all disappointed in the movie, “Jeepers Creepers,” and went home feeling that somehow we had not got our money’s worth.


In the depths of World War II, a movie played at the Rialto Theater called “The Great Dictator,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin comically mimed Adolph Hitler, the German Nazi dictator. Chaplin and his cohorts all wore military uniforms and armbands with two black crosses, “the double cross,” instead of Nazi swastikas. Although we laughed until we cried at Chaplin’s antics, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to the people who had made the movie, if the Germans won the war?

Fortunately, that was not the case. But we all lived with the war every day, and agonized over our men and boys who were fighting in Europe and in the South Pacific. At the theater, before the main feature, newsreels, “The March of Time” or “Movie-Tone News,” were shown. Grown-ups in the audience waited with bated breath for these glimpses of the war. A cartoon was also shown before the feature film began — something to lighten things up a bit — to give us a laugh or two. But always in the background the monster of war hovered, ready to pounce.

Later, we went to see films in Technicolor. Among these were “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” — full-length animated Disney films — and “The Wizard of Oz.” I had read all the Oz books at the Carnegie Library. Dozens of Oz books. Dorothy and the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion were all imaginary friends of mine. I’ll never forget my disappointment with the movie. In the book, Dorothy was much younger than Judy Garland, who played the part in the film. Besides, Dorothy in the book was blonde. At that time, filmmakers took all sorts of liberties with books, and changed them around to suit themselves. Only now can I appreciate what Hollywood did to one of my favorite childhood stories. They made it into a dream by starting and ending with black and white film. The dream sequence about the Land of Oz blazed in bright, new Technicolor.

The blockbuster film, “Gone with the Wind,” or GWTW, as my city cousin referred to it, was the only movie I remember that lasted four hours. It had an intermission after the first two hours. I had spent many rainy afternoons and weekends curled up in the big chair by the fireplace, gnawing on venison jerky my dad had made, and reading Gone with the Wind. The movie version of this book was completely satisfying, as it did not change a thing.


My younger sister Betty, who was cute and fun, had many friends in high school. She embroidered a large, white sweatshirt on the front and back with big red letters: “B O” for Betty Olsen. Her friends all called her “B O”, or “Bee-oh”, and she thought it was hilarious because of the commercial on the radio for Lifebuoy Soap that supposedly stopped body odor. A deep “BEE-OHH” resounded in tones like a foghorn during this advertisement.

Some of Betty’s friends applied for jobs as usherettes at the State Theater. Betty went along, too, and was hired. The girls at this theater wore blue and white outfits of some kind of stretchy knitted fabric — not cotton, maybe nylon. Blue boleros covered blue and white striped tops over close-fitting blue pants with sixteen- inch bell-bottoms. Actually, the outfit was all one piece, except for the bolero, and fit like a second skin, with a zipper up the back. Rialto Theater usherettes wore this same outfit, but in red.

After my father died just before Christmas 1944, I worried about how my mother would manage without him. I wanted to help, and applied for a job at the Eureka Theater. I felt lucky to be hired, although I already had a part time job at Daly Brothers in their gift-wrap department, but that was just for special holidays like Christmas or Easter. The girls at the new Eureka Theater wore the same outfits as the girls at the State and the Rialto Theaters, except ours were a dark maroon color. On the day I was hired, the head usherette took me to the dressing room to show me my locker and to try on my new uniform. She thought it looked great.

Usherettes were paid the minimum wage of fifty cents an hour. I found to my chagrin, that since I was the only girl over sixteen years of age — seventeen and two months, to be exact — I was the only one old enough to close. I had to stay an extra hour, until the second show broke. By that time the last bus had already gone. Bus fare was ten cents. The cost of a cab home at fifty cents each night, took my extra pay. I worked that extra hour for nothing, but I felt I needed the job. The taxi company, consisting of a little shed-like building and one cab, was right across the street from the theater. After closing, I walked across the street, and Blackie, the driver, drove me home. I didn’t even have to tell him where to go after the first couple of nights.

However, the problem of working the last hour merely to pay for a cab ride home did not last long. One night when the other girls were changing into street clothes, and I stood at the theater door with tickets and a change purse, a group of five or six boys from Arcata High School, including Dale Hoosier and Frank Powers, stopped by. They did not seem interested in buying tickets, but just wanted to talk to me. Me? Mousy little me? The girl who was scared to even look at a boy at school? The one who wore glasses, and had been called “Four-eyes” by some ill-mannered boys?

The author at HSC, not long after her short-lived but eventful experience as an usherette at the Eureka Theater.

Well, they talked and kidded around, and it was kind of fun. But with no warning, one of those boys picked me up and whirled me around in a circle in the lobby just as the manager came down the broad staircase from her office. She became very angry, and sent them on their way. Then she fired me. I was aghast. For the first time in my life, I had been having a positive experience talking with a bunch of high school boys. They really seemed to like me, even though I wore glasses. Perhaps the usherette uniform I wore had something to do with their interest in me. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t done a thing wrong — except not know how to handle those boys. I felt devastated. I didn’t want to go into the dressing room where all the other girls were still changing, and have them know I had been fired. In my eyes, being fired was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. I choked down my tears and asked the manager if I could finish my shift. She agreed. I didn’t cry until after my cab ride home.

Years later, Marilyn Mellon Daugherty told me she, too, had worked at the Eureka Theater and had also been fired, so I was not alone in my anguish. Marilyn’s brother had been visiting from Southern California. One evening, he gave Marilyn a ride to work. When she went into the dressing room to change into her uniform, the head usherette told her she was late. She showed Marilyn the schedule indicating she should have been there at 6:30, but she had arrived at 7:00. Then the head usherette fired her. Marilyn also felt devastated. Jobs had been so scarce during the Depression, that if a person managed to get a job, he or she tried hard to keep it. Marilyn had never been late before. It did not seem right to be fired after being late just once. Sometimes schedules were changed. Perhaps she had not noticed the changed schedule. Not long afterward, Marilyn went to work at the Rialto Theater where Betty Lou Costa was head usherette. Marilyn spent many happy hours working with friends there and also at the State Theater.

After many years of disuse, both the State and Eureka Theaters have been restored to their original beauty, but the excitement I felt as a child going to the movies has disappeared. It has gone with the wind.

Lining up for a movie at the Eureka Theater, 1950s.


The story above was originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue of The Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.