A great personal story from Jack Tillmany

The following is Jack Tillmany’s email to us (sent via Gary Meyer of Eat Drink Films).

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.


Here are some historic photos of El Rey/Chico, first as the MAJESTIC, then as the AMERICAN.

As the AMERICAN, it was Golden State’s B House, the nearby SENATOR being the A House.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street and The Lone Rider and the Bandit is just exactly what you could have expected to find there in 1942.

The EMPIRE was across the street, as you can see. Apparently, it was Chico moviedom’s 3rd leg;

if you look close in this 1940 photo, the marquee reads “ALWAYS A GOOD SHOW AMERICAN AND SENATOR THEATRES” so apparently it was closed, at least at the time of that photo. It had been torn down by the time I got to Chico in 1962, replaced by a parking lot. But the EMPIRE keys still hung on a hook in the closet. When I asked the District Manager where the EMPIRE was, and he told me it had stood across the street, but was no longer there, I asked him why we were keeping the KEYS. He said just to leave them there, so I did. I had just gotten out of the Army so was used to this kind of intelligent supervision.

By this time, AMERICAN had been re-named EL REY and was being used by UATC for “special” films that did not fit the format of the double features which still changed twice weekly at SENATOR and also for the more “ADULT” fare that was beginning to push the envelope beyond Production Code sensibilities at that time, as well as for a testing ground for the more popular imported titles that were already proving so successful in San Francisco & would hopefully appeal to the college trade from nearby Chico State.

In the first group were such titles as Judgment at Nuremberg, The Manchurian Candidate, El Cid, King of Kings, and West Side Story, all of them very popular, with long hold overs lasting many weeks. Apparently, judging from the films in the 1980 photo, that policy continued to be successful.

Interestingly,by 1980 those cast iron marquee letters visible in the 1940 photo were still in service.


In the second group were such titles as Walk on the Wild Side and Irma La Douce; Irma ran week after week during the summer of 1963 & just wouldn’t quit. Ultimately, our total ticket sales totaled more than the entire population of Chico (at that time around 9500), and became the subject of a bit of controversy in the local newspaper, which, of course, only extended the run even further.

In the third group were the misfires. The Balcony (in the photo) featured Shelley Winters as the Madam of a Cat House, and, since the pressbook offered the titillating tag line “Meet Madam Irma and her girls from the House of Illusion … they make men live their wildest dreams !” I stole a bit of it as marquee bait, since the name of Shelley Winters would not have sold one single ticket. It was pretty obvious UATC knew they had a stinker on their hands, because they gave me an oldie with Alec Guinness (totally inappropriate, as usual, of course) as the second feature. The photo is a joke, as I’ll explain below. The Kiss of Death were the sub-titled films, particularly the Ingmar Bergman ordeals which may have been hot in Berkeley, but dead in the water in Chico. In the immortal words of one of my patrons, “Is this one of them things yer gotta read?”

UATC paid their managers starvation wages, which we were supposed to bolster up with a small commission (3%-4%, something like that) on candy sales. So I instituted a series of Kid Shows on Saturday afternoons, selecting the films (with the cooperation of UATC’s Booking Dept) myself and even going so far as to print them up a little calendar, which the kids took home & treasured. The kids you see lined up outside in that photo are not waiting to see Madam Irma & Her Girls; that was the evening show. They’re waiting to get in for the matinee. On an average Saturday afternoon we usually sold about 500 tickets (at 50 cents apiece), and even if there was a Disney show at the Senator, we could still count on about 200-300 if only from the overflow, since they would usually sell out their 2000 seats on the first show.

UATC also urged their managers to promote Kid Shows on School Holidays, such as Memorial Day or during the Easter Break. For these I would throw in some kind of giveaway, such as a live bunny for Easter. That one sold out the first show, so I quickly scheduled a second show, and while the cashier knocked off another 800 tickets, I made a fast trip to the Chico Pet Store for another live bunny. Total sales for the 2 shows was around 1500 tickets; the tons of candy wrappers, popcorn boxes & drink cups on the floor afterwards required 2 janitors to give the place a complete cleanup before the evening show, common now, but unheard of at that time.

For one of these shows, a baby lizard from the ever dependable Chico Pet Store stood in for a live baby dinosaur, backed up by 2 Dinosaur Hits on the Giant Screen and another sellout crowd including the very happy holder of the lucky ticket number. Only cloud that appeared was later that evening when I got a phone call from his mother asking what she was supposed to do with the little beast when it started growing…. I told her just to let it go, into Bidwell Park. I wonder if that kid just might have been Steven Spielberg?

Song cue: “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”

Jack Tillmany