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Kiowa County Signal - Kiowa County, KS
  • On the dawn of a new Twilight Part 3: A man named Charles

  • One day the phone rang inside the modest home of Charles Spainhour and his wife Della Mae. It was about 1915 and a single phone call would lead the Spainhour family to a legacy spanning three generations and nearly the entire history of motion pictures.
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  • Editor’s Note: This is the third part in a five part series exploring the history and social impact of the Twilight Theatre in Greensburg and Kiowa County.
    One day the phone rang inside the modest home of Charles Spainhour and his wife Della Mae. It was about 1915 and a single phone call would lead the Spainhour family to a legacy spanning three generations and nearly the entire history of motion pictures.
    The Spainhour’s had established themselves as well-respected business people when they arrived in Greensburg, first opening the West Side Café in 1908 and later managing the Carey Hotel. The bed and breakfast-type establishment was next to the railroad depot and in 1910 it was equipped with the newest in bathroom technology, an indoor commode and tub.
    “Charles, I need to get out of town,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
    It was the owner of a silent movie theater in Fowler, 65 miles to the west.
    He was leaving town in a hurry, for possibly scandalous reasons, and offered to sell his theater to Spainhour for a mere pittance.
    Family members are unsure of the exact sale price, but supposedly there was enough in 8-year-old Ben Spainhour’s piggy bank to pay for it.
    Charles hopped on the next westbound train and bought it on the spot.
    Charles’ 1947 obituary writes “The family moved to Greensburg in 1908, making this their home with the exception of about a year.” It seems probable the family moved to Fowler when Charles owned the local theater there, though it was for only a short time.
    An Oct. 26, 1916, report in the Greensburg Progressive wrote, “Charles Spainhour came in from Fowler Tuesday. He has sold his picture show there.” While the accuracy of brief news at the time is questionable, the report insinuates Charles was living in Fowler.
    In January 1917 Charles would purchase The Empress, a theater on Main Street, and simultaneously lease a space in a new building across the street.
    “Mr. Spainhour closed a deal with C.C. Perry the latter part of last week whereby he became the owner of The Empress Theater and took charge of the show on Monday,” read a Jan. 18, 1917, report in The Signal. “During the past year or so he has been associated with the inside workings of the movie game and has equipped himself with the knowledge necessary to run a show which will please the people.”
    The new building, constructed by local businessmen Henry Wacker and H.L. Miller, was built on a lot cleared by fire in 1913.
    Page 2 of 9 - Spainhour would lease the new building and open it in April 1917 as the new auditorium. It would later be christened “The Twilight Theatre.”
    In an interview later in life, Charles’ son Benjamin said his father paid $25 per week to rent the theater space.
    And so began a long history of movies in Greensburg brought to the big screen by the Spainhour family — Charles, his son Ben and eventually his grandson Con.
    But it was the well-dressed Charles who would began the family’s local legacy with hard work, business savvy and a dash of pioneer charm.
     
    A Man Named Charles
    Charles Augustus Spainhour was born on March 4, 1876, in Santa Fe, Ind.
    His family moved to Sylvia, Kan., in about 1882. He had five sisters;  Ella McLeon, Clara Echols, Lucy Bailey, Florence Hamlin and Mary Billings, all of whom still survived at the time of his death in 1947.
    Della Mae (McElroy) Spainhour was born on June 20, 1881, to Ben and Edmonia McElroy near Queen City, Mo. She had one sister and three brothers; Cora (McElroy) Snowbarger and William, Melvin and Oscar McElroy.
    The entry in the Kiowa County History book and Charles’ 1947 obituary list Benjamin, their first and only son, as having been born in 1907. He was actually born on Oct. 4, 1906. Charles married Della Mae on Oct. 21, 1906.
    There are also conflicting accounts in the Kiowa County History Book and newspaper obituaries about when Charles, Della Mae and young Benjamin moved to Kiowa County, whether it was in 1907 or 1908.
    Interestingly, Benjamin’s birthplace is Stafford, Kan., in 1906, which likely means the Spainhour’s lived there, if briefly, before moving to the county.
    Settling in Greensburg and running the Twilight Theatre, Charles established a reputation for being a friendly local fixture with a wide circle of friends.
    He was a highly respected businessman, but also dedicated his time towards civic causes.
    He taught Sunday school at the Christian Church and was the president of the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce.
    He started war bond drives, Red Cross drives and raised local money for the USO during the war.
    “It seemed like he was always in a suit,” said Charles’ granddaughter Suzan (Spainhour) Stremel. “He was always in a suit and tie, he was a very dapper man. Good looking. Always smiling. I spent a lot of time on his lap. Whenever I was around him I wanted to sit on his lap. He would smile and make me feel good. He was such a friendly guy. I don’t remember him much at the theater as much as in his living room when we would visit.”
    Page 3 of 9 - Stremel was only 8 years old when her grandfather Charles died in 1947, but she said she remembers the tall, friendly, generous man who knew everybody in town.
    “I remember people always talking about him. My father would comment about how Charles never turned anyone down if they needed some money. Dad said he was sure grandpa died with a lot of people owing him money,” laughed Stremel.
    He was also a shrewd businessman and by all accounts had the know-how and often daring constitution that defined early movie exhibitors.
    The film world moved at a rapid pace in the early days, changing quickly from a sidelined novelty into a legitimate entertainment enterprise.
    Charles was at the forefront of film projection, buying state-of-the-art equipment and installing a sound system to accommodate the new wave of talking pictures; all at a risk to his business and livelihood.
    There are stories of Charles driving a school bus and painting houses to earn money to keep the Twilight Theatre open in the lean years. “Tickets were ten cents, everybody thought he was getting rich, but he wasn’t.”
     
    A Loyal Friend to Those Who Loved Her
    Della Mae died suddenly in September 1934 of an unknown illness at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Dodge City.
    Her obituary, which appeared in the Sept. 27, 1934, edition of the Greensburg News, mentioned her commitment to the local church, her devotion to the businesses she had managed with Charles and that she had cared for her niece Marguerite McElroy as if she was her own.
    “The Rev. W.A. Smith, pastor of the Christian Church of which she had been a faithful member for many years, had charge of the services. The men’s quartet, composed of Blaine Miller, W.A. Smith, Kenneth Lenager and C.S. Looney sang ‘The Olde Rugged Cross, ‘List to the Voice’ and ‘Beulah Land.’ Miss Bethel Long presided at the piano.”
    Little has been written about Della Mae, but later in his life Charles would recall fondly their journey to Kiowa County and her devotion to the family businesses and her only son Benjamin.
    Five years later in 1939, Charles remarried a local woman named Harriet Smith.
    Harriet came from a line of Kiowa County settlers and a prominent Greensburg family.
    “She had been in Greensburg forever,” said Con Spainhour, Benjamin’s son and Harriet’s grandson. “She was the only grandmother I knew, she was quite a woman. She knew everybody and everybody knew her.”
    Harriet’s sister Vivian Smith, one of the two Smith sisters, interestingly, was married to Henry Wacker, the man who co-built the Twilight Theatre building in 1916.
    Page 4 of 9 - Jerry Smith, born in 1939 to Harriet’s brother Lawrence, remembered Charles from when he was a child.
    “Charles and Harriet would come out to the farm a lot,” said Smith who grew up just outside of Greensburg. “When I had a birthday I’d invite some of my friends out and we’d go out to a show at the Twilight. That was a big deal for us kids. At that time all we had was radio out at the farm, and it wasn’t even very good radio. We kept up on what was happening in World War II by going to see the news reels at the movies.”
    Harriet would live in Greensburg for the rest of her life staying involved in civic organizations and becoming the Kiowa County Register of Deeds for a time.
    She passed away in 1981 just before going into surgery to fix a broken hip.
    She had been injured in an accident after a large sign, advertising the Greensburg Holiday Home Tours, had fallen on her.
    “She was quite a lady,” said Suzan, her granddaughter. “I always thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. Her skin was gorgeous and she dressed immaculately.”
    Suzan said Harriet might have had a bit of a tentative relationship with Benjamin and the rest of the Spainhour family. When Charles died in 1947 he left the Twilight to Benjamin and Harriet may have felt slighted.
    “I don’t think Ben ever really warmed up to her,” said Suzan. “It was cordial, but I am not sure if Charles turning the theatre over to Ben set well with her family. It kind of left her family out and I don’t think she was happy about that. Ben, of course, took care of her the best he could.”
     
     
    A Quiet Train Ride
    It was a very quiet trip for 14-year-old Con Spainhour and his grandmother Harriet.
    What began as a hopeful journey to spend time with his grandpa became a mournful train ride, bringing Charles’ remains back to Greensburg.
    It was August 1947 and Charles, the prominent theater owner, loving father and beloved neighbor, had died in a Kansas City Hospital of uremic poisoning, a result of prostate trouble.
    He was too young to fully understand the conversations that surrounded him, but young Con would soon move to Greensburg where his father would take over the family business and one day, he would do the same.
    Benjamin and his wife Katheryn Louise Brown of Bucklin, whom he had married on April 15, 1928 in Alva, Okla., had relocated to Springfield, Mo with his son Con and his daughter Suzan, born in 1939.
    Page 5 of 9 - “Things were not very lucrative for him when he got out of High school,” recalled Con. “He worked for the railroad for a while. He wrote the messages by hand and when that train came by it wouldn’t stop, it would just pick those messages up as it passed. He had beautiful handwriting. His handwriting was marvelous.”
    The family relocated to Missouri in the 1920’s where Benjamin worked as a telephone lineman for more the 20 years.
    “We lived in a suburban place in Springfield,” recalled Con. “Dad had bought and developed it into a house he wanted over the years. He worked midnight to eight at AT&T, so I didn’t have a whole lot of day-to-day contact with him while I was growing up. I was in school during the day and when I got home we had to be quiet, so he could sleep.”
    After high school Benjamin  operated a Twilight Theatre spin-off movie theater 10 miles to the west in Mullinville called “The Dawn,” without much success, Con recalled.
    There was some reluctance on Benjamin’s part to return to Greensburg and run the theater after Charles died.
    Con believes his father returned to Greensburg, partly because his children, who had visited their grandfather in Greensburg almost every summer, but also because the Twilight was still doing a brisk business.
    “I’m not sure why dad moved back,” recalled Con. “I think the reason he moved back was because of me. I think that was a sacrifice they made for me. I was thrilled. I couldn’t stand the humidity of Missouri and I loved Greensburg. I loved the dry air and the cool breeze that rolled in at night. I loved being in town and I loved the theater.”
    Soon after Charles’ death, Benjamin, Katheryn, Con and Suzan relocated to a small duplex next to Charles’ home in Greensburg.
    Charles had built the modest two-family building as a rental property some years earlier.
    “It was an exciting time for me,” said Suzan. “We were going to take over the theater; gosh we were coming up in the world! We felt very welcome in Greensburg being Charles’ granddaughter. We felt very comfortable there.”
    A news brief in the Sept. 4 1947 edition of The Signal reported on Benjamin’s takeover of the theater, but hinted at a still uncertain future for the Spainhour’s and the Twilight.
    “Friends here will be glad to learn that Ben Spainhour this week assumed the management and operation of the Twilight Theatre,” wrote the report. “While it is more or less on a temporary basis at the present time, Mr. Spainhour told a Signal representative this week that ‘We hope that arrangements can be made so that it will be a permanent proposition. Our family is enjoying the prospect of returning to be among friends in Greensburg and Kiowa County.’”
    Page 6 of 9 - Ben would continue to own and manage the Twilight, in some capacity, until 1980.
     
    Bought and Paid For
    The movie business in 1947 was in flux and television was invading American homes at a feverous rate.
    Home television ownership jumped from 3.6 million sets sold between 1942-49 to nearly 6 million sets sold each year from 1950-59 according to data collected by the National Television Archives. In 1959 about 67 million television sets had been sold in the United States.
    The integration of television in southwestern Kansas homes was slower than more urban areas, which benefited the Twilight.
    Ben remembered later that he was unsure, at the time, if he could make a living operating the theater with television’s looming impact on ticket sales.
    But business must have been good.
    Within two years Ben moved out of the duplex and into The Robinett Building on Main Street.
    Ben had purchased it for his family and after some renovations moved his wife and two children into the three-bedroom two-bath brick former medical office building.
    “As a little kid I thought it was absolutely enormous. Mom was ahead of her time when it came to decorating. She really decorated it nice,” said Suzan. “It was a good place to live. I lost a yard so my playground became the John Deere lot just east of the house. If we did anything outdoors it was in the John Deere lot. And, of course, we were right next to the theater.”
    A few years later, in October 1954 Benjamin finally purchased the Twilight Theatre building, which, until then, had been rented from the Miller family.
    “Sometime in 1954 Cinemascope came into the picture,” wrote Ben in an interview later in his life. “Most theaters went for it. I talked it over with Mrs. Miller and told her she would have to remove the switchboard and tear out the stage front and it would probably cost as much as $10,000. I asked her if she wanted to do that or if she would sell me the building.”
    Benjamin purchased the theater, made the renovations and reopened in about a week, showing “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” a backwoods romance picture featuring a young Howard Keel alongside Jane Powell.
    Cinemascope was a widescreen aspect ratio created by Hollywood studios to differentiate movies from television and is widely considered the first major change in projected picture size. It is wider than the modern 16:9 “widescreen” format.
    Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was one of the first major films released on the format.
    Page 7 of 9 -  
    A Family Affair
    “On Saturday nights just about everybody came to town,” remembered Jerry Smith. “You farmed during the week and then you came into town to buy your groceries. There would be cars parked up and down both sides of Main Street. Stores didn’t close until 9 o’clock. It was a neat town. Everybody knew everybody and the movies were a big part of that.”
    The Twilight Theatre, now officially owned by the Spainhours, became a family affair.
    “I sold popcorn there since when I was a kid,” said daughter Suzan. “Dad would set me on a box so I could reach the controls. I think I sold popcorn until left for college. It was a family business, mom sold tickets, dad worked the projectors and I sold the popcorn.”
    Suzan, now a lover of antiques, still cringes when she thinks about one of her regular duties.
    “Dad and I would go outside when the movies were finished and tear down those movie posters,” she laughed. “I would rip them down and crumple them up. Boy if I knew then what I know now.”
    Benjamin was well-known for his film selection, showing lots of family movies, and having matinees on Sunday. He would show the occasional horror or more mature-themed films, most memorably at midnight showings on New Year’s Eve.
    “Dad was deliberate in what he would show and I think Greensburg appreciated that. He never showed a movie that any kids in town couldn’t come to see by themselves.”
    Suzan would leave Greensburg after high school, travel to Japan, marry her husband and settle in Kirksville, Mo., in 1971 after completing her degree at the University of Kansas.
    She said she while she loved the theater, she never had any thoughts of owning it.
    “It was a great place to live and grow up. I really enjoyed my time in Greensburg.”
     
    The Final Curtain
    In 1968 Benjamin had invested well and was able to retire just after his 58th birthday, leaving the day-to-day operation to local employees, but he was still placing the film orders and doing administrative work from his new home in Oceanside, Calif.
    He spent his own twilight years playing cards, golfing and enjoying the company of friends.
    Kathryn passed away from cancer in Nov. 1973 and Benjamin remarried twice before he died in 1993.
    He married Maria Caldwell in 1975 and after she died in 1979 he married Virginia Lockwood. 
    Page 8 of 9 - “He wanted to play golf, play bridge and have happy hour. He had an absolutely wonderful time there,” said daughter Suzan. “Greensburg wasn’t a place for him to retire. Dad was an active person and had no desire to move back to Greensburg. He made a lot of friends and went on plenty of trips. It was a great place for him. He was happy he didn’t have to shovel snow anymore. He said he did that for 58 years and he wasn’t going to do it anymore.”
    In 1980 Con would return to Greensburg to take over the Twilight, but with the small town theater getting pushed aside by the modern mega-plex, it was only a matter of time before the Twilight would close its doors, seemingly for good.
    “I knew I would get the theater for a lot of years,” recalled Con. “When Charles died, he left the theater to Ben and I think it was with the understanding that it would come to me one day. Charles realized how much I loved the theater.”
    Though as a child, he had been dazzled by the majesty of his grandfather’s movie house, as an adult, the thought of returning to Greensburg to run the theater wasn’t as appealing.
    Con had left Greensburg to pursue his pharmacology degree at the University of Kansas and had established pharmacies in eastern Kansas.
    He lived in Topeka, had started a family of his own and was a father of eight.
    “The business wasn’t great at that time,” he said. “Dad was running two changes a week, two different pictures. It was closed Tuesday, Wednesday and maybe Thursday. He was running the theater from California. People in Greensburg were managing it for him.”
    Five couples in Greensburg are known to have managed the Twilight at some point; Carl and Laurine Abbott, Wayne George and Betty Montgomery, Cleve and Betty White, Frank and Frances Jenkins and John and Pam Glenn.
    Con returned to Greensburg in 1980 and managed the theater until it closed in 1989.
    “I had always wanted to run the theater. From the time I was six I had always wanted to do that and it was a good time to do it. I took it over and ran it for its final years as a family theater.”
    With plummeting ticket sales and overwhelming repair bills, the theater closed to little fanfare. Benjamin, now 82 years old, would be alive to see the doors of his father’s theater close for the last time.
    “Most people, back then, they thought it was a treat to go see a movie and it was,” said Jerry Smith. “When I was younger I would go at least once a week, sometimes more than that. But I’ll admit, it was quite a while since I’d gone in and saw a movie when they closed. But after it closed, a lot of people missed it and everybody wondered if it would ever open again.”
    Page 9 of 9 - editor@kiowacountysignal.com
     
    This article benefited from the tireless research and generosity of Ed Schoenberger.

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