Listening to ‘Mr. Movies,’ ‘Mr. Theater,’ ‘Mr. Downtown’
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our Jan. 10, 1996, issue. Hugh “Red” Argraves passed away June 23, 2010, at the age of 87. To learn more about Argraves, read “Sights, sounds and surreal Hugh ‘Red’ Argraves” from the current issue by clicking here.
By Frank Schier
Editor and Publisher
If you’ve gone to movies in downtown Rockford since 1946 or been to the Coronado Theatre lately, you’ve seen Red Argraves.
Red’s the smiling gentleman who has taken your tickets, guided you to your seats, or handed you your soda and popcorn. His red hair is now predominately white.
Most every day, he lunches at Parthenios. He does his shopping at the 320 Store. He gets his medical care at the Downtown Medical Clinic. His smile, wave and friendly “Hello” are constants that make downtown richer.
Talking with Red is always a pleasure.
Red’s 73 years old. 1996 marks his 50th year in Rockford’s downtown theaters. Listening to Red, you can remember the smell of the popcorn and theaters long gone, learn the history of Rockford movie houses and movie moguls, and hear the stars and reels turning.
“I started as the assistant manager at the Times Theater in September 1946. I worked there a year and a half.
“Willard Van Matre owned the Times Theatre, the Coronado, the Midway, the Palace and the Auburn. I think the Times was built around 1938; the Coronado was built in 1927; the Midway was built during the First World War, and so was the Palace. The Auburn was built around 1940.
“Some of the movies I can remember from the Times include The Egg and I. I think they [Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert] ran a farm for chickens, and that was a big show. The Jolson Story, that was about Al Jolson’s life. Barbara Hale was in that, and she was from Rockford. I met her father, Ezra Hale, but I never met her. Anna and the King of Siam was The King and I without music. That was a good show. Rex Harrison was in it, and so was that girl who was in From Here to Eternity. That was Deborah Kerr.
“Then I was assistant manager at the Midway Theater. I worked there three-and-a-half years. [Some of the movies were] Viva Zapata, that was Marlon Brando and the Mexican Revolution. A Streetcar Named Desire, that was Marlon Brando, too, and Vivian Leigh. Singing in the Rain had Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. I’ll never forget Gene Kelly doing that Singing in the Rain. Donald O’Connor was in that, too.
“The next one was the State Theater. Oscar Granquist was the owner, and I was his assistant. I worked there 23-and-a-half years with Oscar. They tore the building down, and that’s why I left. That was 1976.
“Oscar was a very nice and honest person. I was always very proud to work for Oscar. I think he was the best booker of films in town. They had what they called ‘bidding.’Oscar had to bid for films against Mr. Van Matre, but Oscar seemed to get the best films. Just to guess on the price, I’d say it was about 33 percent of ticket sales. But I’m not an authority on those things; but another thing was how long they would run the film, the number of weeks.
“Well, now, let’s see abut the films he ran at the State. Journey to the Center of the Earth had Pat Boone as the star. Cleopatra was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. My Fair Lady had Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The Godfather had Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall.
“We ran a lot of little features at the State when I first got there, like Gene Autry’s and Rogers’. Those were double features. When I started at the State, 3-D films first came in, with glasses. ‘Bwana Devil was the first one. You know, another thing that came in at that time was Cinemascope. It was just a wide screen is what it was.
“The last five years that it was there, the State really got the best pictures.
“I’ve been at the Coronado ever since, 20 years. I came to the Coronado in 1976, and Mr. Van Matre had died in 1953. The Kerasotes owned it then and still own it.
“Towards the end of movies at the Coronado, Tuesday through Thursdays I ran the whole place myself. I was the only employee there. I sold tickets and candy and popcorn. They had a machine that I ran for the movies and one that opened and closed the curtains. That was for about two years, but I’m not sure. Isn’t that awful that one man could run the whole place because business was that poor. Kinda guessing, I think that was around the late 1980s.
“When they closed down movies at the Coronado, I went up to the North Towne Cinema for three-and-a-half years.
“They just have stage shows now [at the Coronado]. I just open and close the theater. I have to wait until everybody and everything is out of the theater before I can close. Sometimes it’s 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning before some of these Broadway shows can get their scenery and things out.
“One of my opinions is, instead of all the fancy work [at the Coronado and Midway], they need to do all the plumbing and electrical work. That’s the most important thing. That’s just my opinion.
“I think the downtown is kinda slipping a lot, here and there. I want to put in a good word for the people who have stayed downtown: the Parthenios, the Rockford Office Supply, Didier’s Florist, Palace Shoe Repair, Rockford Clinic and the Post Office. That’s been wonderful.
“Also, I should say something for the Kerasotes in keeping the Coronado open. Something should be said for them.
“It’s quite a thing to remember 50 years. It don’t seem like it should be, but it is. If there’s any mistakes in my memory, they’re honest mistakes. That’s fine.”
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