Here is an article I had published in the June 25-July 1, 2013 issue of The Downeast Coastal Press:
Dave Parsons and Ramona West Recall Milbridge’s Long Theatre History:
Charlie Murch, an Early Electronics Genius, Played a Role
by Phil Duggan
Charlie Murch was known for many things in Downeast, Maine and around the world. He manufactured ham radio and other electronic equipment from his well-equipped Franklin workshop, and even made his own movie projector lenses. Even though he passed away in 1989 at the age of 83, his influence is ever-present, notably in Milbridge.
Among prominent businesses that have been associated with the small seaside town of Milbridge have been the Red Barn Restaurant and Frankenstein’s. Both are now gone and part of the town’s history. Another town business that comes to mind is the still operating Milbridge movie theatre. Charlie Murch built the theatre in 1937.
Murch bought the land from Fred C. Gay in 1937 for $400. Then he built the theatre.
During a July 12 interview with present theatre owner/operator Dave Parson’s, the subject of Charlie Murch came up many times. Murch sold the building in 1956. Bob Whitten took ownership for a brief 30 days, then sold it to country and western entertainers Ray and Ann Little, who when not on the road performing, lived in Milbridge, first above the theatre, then on Rays Point. They sold it around 1971 to Tom Weingart, who then sold it to Parsons in 1978.
The author of this article can attest to the legendary status of Murch within the ham radio community. After Ray Little passed away (he was also a licensed ham radio operator), I acquired a Charlie Murch tuner from Ann, and later sold it, something I regret to this day. Murch’s reputation was stellar within the community, and even today his name comes up often when talking about classic equipment.
Parsons spent many hours visiting and getting to know Murch because of their mutual interest in cinema. On more than one occasion Parsons would be visiting Murch when an overseas phone call would interrupt their conversation. On the other end of the phone would be a ham radio operator, in England one time, and Switzerland on another, asking Murch to design and build some specific electronic circuit for them. Parsons would watch Murch write down notes on what the overseas hams wanted the custom circuit to do, and then Murch would figure out how to make it work.
“Charlie Murch was a genius,” said Parsons. “He was well-known throughout the equipment manufacturers for the motion picture exhibitor industry.”
“Charlie had acid beds to make circuit boards. Woodworking material. He had flat stock, bar stock, sheet stock. He would even make his own plastic knobs for the controls. He had everything,” said Parsons.
Before Xenon tubes, carbon rods were used in movie projectors. Charlie perfected and patented a photocell-electric eye feed that kept the carbon exactly steady so that the color registration of the picture on the screen didn’t wander, said Parsons.
Harry Strong was a giant in early cinema projection industry.
“Harry Strong paid him for it. They put it in a lamp house that was used in some very big theatres and some smaller drive-ins called the ‘Mighty Ninety,’” said Parsons. Around 1955, an international projector company bought it just to take it off the market. The item was expensive to manufacture. They didn’t want to invest the money to make it, but they didn’t want their competition to get their hands on it either.
“McCarthyism was going on, a lot of Red-Baiting. They drummed out a lot of good writers in Hollywood, said Parsons. “That was happening right while television was coming on line in a lot of markets, including Bangor, and around the country, between 1954 and 1956.”
Parsons said that Norelco once “dabbled” in making 35mm projection equipment. They had a problem with their manufacturing system in their St. Louis plant. What did they do? They called Charlie Murch, of course.
In the 1950s Allen’s Blueberries, based out of Ellsworth, had a huge freezer system go down right at the height of harvest time in August. The manufacturing company that built the freezer flew a couple experts out to look at the problem, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
“Charlie went over there and studied the machine, and he fixed it. He got it running. And he gave the guys from the factory lessons on what they needed to do on their own equipment.”
Some period of time after Parsons bought the Milbridge Theatre, he had a problem with the sound system.
“The first sound system that I had in this building before I switched to solid state was a tube amplifier. It was one of those 6L6 push-pull jobbies,” said Parsons.
A part became defective, but it was no longer available. A company in Boston had developed a “fix” as a solution, but wanted $1,500.
Having some electronic theory understanding, Parsons drew up his own design as a workaround solution, but wasn’t sure about the individual values of the resistors and capacitors.
He paid Charlie Murch a visit in Franklin.
“I sat down. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t like coffee. I think the last cup of coffee I had was in the [late 1980s] while I was at Charlie’s, because that is what he had. He offered me coffee and it was like smoking a peace pipe.” He showed Murch his schematic.
“He looked at it. He sat back and he closed his eyes. And I knew that was for me to shut up. And I shut up.”
“He never opened his eyes, and he started to recite. What you have drawn up here is the 2nd generation circuit that the Western Electric people had when talkies came in. This will work, if you make this capacitor so many microfarads, if you make this resistor so many ohms. This will enhance the treble, this will enhance the bass, baboom baboom. I recommend this and that, because you’ve got dialog as well as music.”
Parsons bought the parts from an electrical supplier for $25.00, assembled it, and it worked fine for a year and a half.
Even years after his death, Murch’s handyman, do-it-yourself ways rescued the theatre from what could have been an embarrassing situation.
Ten years after Murch died, the 60th anniversary re-release for the Wizard of Oz came out, in 1999. Thousands of prints were made and distributed to theatres across the country. Parsons did not want to settle for the standard film print. He learned that the film company also produced 34 prints made in the original process that the 1939 classic was made. He wanted to show that version in Milbridge, and if anyone knows Dave Parsons, they know his determination usually succeeds. He did, indeed, bring one of the 34 “IB Tech” prints to Milbridge.
He was getting ready to set up the movie for the Friday showing when it dawned on him that the aspect ratio from 1939 was not the same as 1999, for which his projector lens was designed. The original film used “postage stamp aperture.”
“I thought, wait a minute, Charlie Murch! When he had the theatre, he closed the theatre for a couple of years during world war II and he had a government contract and he was up in Eastbrook with a factory and he made lenses. He made lenses for periscopes. He made lenses for binoculars. Well, when Charlie built the theatre, he made his own lenses for the machines. Well, that was 1937.”
“I said, oh, wait a minute. Charlie ran this picture. I went into the big metal box up there where I kept all the stuff that Charlie had that come with the theatre. Sure enough, there was one of the original lenses that he had made. I hauled it out. It worked fine. So I ran it with the original lens.”
There was a time in the theatre’s history when there were occasional live performances.
About a hundred years ago the Keystone Cops were a popular comedy act in silent films. One of the original Keystone Cops was Al St. John, who later became a sidekick in many B western movies. Parsons said that near the end of St. John’s career, he would tour the nation in a country western act, which included music and comedy. St. John performed live in the Milbridge Theatre in 1958.
Standing inside the theatre where Parsons sells refreshments and his assistant sells tickets, one can see many old photographs and yellow’s newspaper cutout on the walls, including a 1939 Seattle Post-Intelligencer featuring the film Wizard of Oz. A signed portrait of Parsons’ friend Carl Ballantine hangs on the wall as well. Ballantine was a famous comedian, actor, and magician. He starred in the 1960s sitcom McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, and Joe Flynn. Parsons met Ballantine while both were working a comedy act in ST. Louis.
Parson’s agrees that the Milbridge Theatre is part of the town’s identity.
“Real estate people have sold a lot of real estate, and I’m helping them. Based on the fact that [Milbridge] has got stuff. It’s got a Laundromat, its got a dentist, it’s got an eye doctor, it’s got a medical center, it’s got a pharmacy, it’s got a theatre,” said Parsons.
“This has been part of what has helped the town be cohesive as a town, and been attractive to people.”
Compared to other small, single screen movie theatres, Parsons said, “It is a simple country theatre, but it has longevity for a theatre that isn’t being operated by a committee or a non-profit group.”
Like drive-ins, small movie theatres are becoming fewer, while even the big multi cinema theatres with state of art technology often have trouble filling the seats, in contrast to theatre attendance years ago.
“They are trying to make everybody not run film, and claim within a year or so, they are not going to make prints on film anymore. They want everybody to do digital projection.”
Upgrading the Milbridge Theatre would be costly.
“I can’t afford it. Well, it will be slightly over $50,000 to do this theatre into digital. It’s electronic, so it will be warranteed before they call it obsolete, and be available for parts and service, under the law, really for only six years. . . you have to plan that you’ve got to get that $50,000 back out of your market within seven years. You know, that doesn’t happen here.”
Parsons said that the movie industry doesn’t want to fool with the small town theatres anymore.
“The whole thing has changed. It used to be that these companies were run by movie people. Now they are run my accountants and attorneys. The bottom line. Somebody count beans.”
Generational changes in families’ entertainment habits and even some social problems are what contribute to low turnout at movies, said Parsons. People stay at home and watch movies on their large screen television sets.
“In a lot of markets, I would say that drugs are a heavy competition. Because people get involved with drugs, they spend their money, and their time, and their mental frame of reference being involved with that. They ain’t going to go to a show. . . .That is another piece that has been taken out of the pie.”
“Part of it goes back to that generation that they called the Greatest Generation, that had it out on behalf of this country in World War II. And these people had to pull together and live together and work together. I mean, you couldn’t get sugar, you couldn’t get eggs, you couldn’t get milk, and people sacrificed together. And that togetherness stayed through that generation and some of the others in terms of that societal going to the movies together. People want to sit at home now and put their feet up and drink a beer and make wisecracks back and forth and watch on a large tv screen that electronics is trying to sell to them.”
For the first three years he owned the theatre, he never showed an “R” rated movie because he needed to keep running shows that the kids would come in to see.
“We ran The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
“By golly, I put “whorehouse” up on the marquee and we did business!”
He said many of the adults came to the show because it was a musical and starred such popular actors as Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.
“I remember, On Golden Pond , Clair Roberts, he’s been long gone now. His widow was in charge of the kitchen of the school, Vera Roberts. They came to see On Golden Pond.”
“I couldn’t believe it when he came in. He was all dressed up in a full 3-piece, vest included, black suit. It had been decades since he had gone to a movie.”
That was how the men dressed for the occasion the last time Roberts had gone to the movies.
Ramona West On The Theatre & Opera House
Harold and Ramona West ran the Milbridge Theatre for a 5-year period in the 1960s for owners Ray and Ann Little. Harold died in 2010 at the age of 85. Ramona reminisced about the theatre, and also of the Milbridge Opera House during a June 14 interview.
Ramona would sell refreshments while Harold would sell tickets, run the projector, and try and keep the children from misbehaving. The front section of the theater, where refreshments and tickets are sold now, had not been built yet. The Weingarts added that on sometime after 1971.
Ramona remembers when they first took over operations the kids were running around and not sitting still. “By the time that we left they were learning.”
“They either stay still or they’ll be put out,” said Ramona. “He would just give them a warning, and the second time, out they went!”
In those days there usually was a much larger crowd that attended movies, although Ramona recalled that they did not operate during the week, and only ran movies on the weekends.
“One night Harold put a kid out. His mother came over and wasn’t she mad.”
“He said, ‘Well, he was lighting a cigarette lighter in there. Would you like to have him burn the theatre down? And he’s not coming back for a month, either,’ Harold told the mother.”
The mother wasn’t as mad at Harold after learning that priceless piece of information.
“So when he came back, he behaved himself.” The boy was from Steuben.
Their own children regularly attended the movies at the Milbridge theatre. She insisted Alton (now a town selectman) was the quiet one. The noisy one was Brenda [my wife].
“She wasn’t a trouble maker, she was just noisy. She liked to talk.”
Brenda would sometimes help her mother sell refreshments. “Alls they had was popcorn and drinks then.”
When Ray and Ann Little would come back after being on the road performing, Ann would make pizza.
Ray and Ann were country western performers. He played the banjo and she played the guitar, said Ramona. They had a show in Western Canada part of the year.
“When we first started, the Vets Club was doing it. But they petered out. So Harold and Bud Parker each went to take the test to get an operator’s license, so if Harold wanted a night off. They’d take turns running the projector.”
The memory that stands out the most for Ramona is not a pleasant one. Ann Little’s mother had a stroke while she was making popcorn. This was after the Littles had retired, but Ramona continued helping at the theatre.
“She was making popcorn, said she had a horrid headache. Well, Ray and Ann got her upstairs.”
There was no ambulance to call for emergencies, but a hearse that had to come from Cherryfield to bring the patient to the hospital.
“We waited almost two hours. Ray was running the movies that night, so he had to call Harold to come down, and then I had to take their dog and take it home after the movie.”
Ann went with her mother in the hearse to the hospital. Her mother died a couple days later.
During some periods of the town’s history, Milbridge had two movie theatres operating at the same time. Ramona had some very fond memories of the much older Milbridge Opera House. That is where she met the love of her life, when she was 16 years old. The opera house was located where the Milbridge Fire Department is now on School St.
She said that Bob Whitten owned the opera house and that he also owned Frankenstein’s department store and restaurant.
Even further back in time, the opera house had been used as a roller rink. Ramona said that her own mother used to go roller-skating there back in the 1920s.
But in the mid-forties, the opera house catered to teenagers.
“Every Saturday night they would have a movie, and a dance afterwards,” said Ramona.
“But that opera house was a hangout for all the teenagers all around town. And the older ones too.”
“That is where I met Harold one night.”
That evening she was walking from her home in Wyman to the theatre with some others, including an older girl, who was mentally retarded. This girl loved going to the movies and dances.
“Her mother would always tell her, don’t you get into a car of someone you don’t know. Well, Harold offered us a ride home that night. She would not get into the car!” said Ramona. “Her mother said no, and she did what her mother told her.”
“So he came over the next day and I went out with him.”
Nowadays, the Milbridge Theatre sometimes runs the latest national opens and that is the case this week. World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, is playing, just as it is in theatres across the country.