By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
We go see the latest movie and think nothing about it. It is an easy and common thing to do. I don’t even remember the first film I saw, though I’m fairly certain it was a Disney movie. Not so in the early 1900s. I recently found several articles in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung microfilm collection that talk about what it was like to see moving pictures for the first time.
Fred Oheim, a long-time editor of the newspaper, had some wonderful memories. He was born in 1903, so his earliest recollection as a kid was of a film shown on Marktplatz (Tolle Street). A traveling carnival set up a tent for the film. He was too young and too poor to go — which turned out to be a very good thing. After the first showing, rumors spread through town that parts of the film “shorts” were, in fact, “X-rated.” Mostly men were seen entering the tent at the 9 p.m. showtime and “they had a sneaky look about them.” The men all exited the tent with their hats tipped low over their faces.
The first film Oheim remembered seeing was shown by photographer H.D. Klenke who presented short films in a building on South Seguin Street between the Hoffmann and Klappenbach buildings. Fred saw his first “talkie” in the Seekatz Opera House on West San Antonio Street. “Talkies” came out in the 1920s. Synchronized sound was produced via a belt connecting the projector in the booth with a phonograph on a box on the stage. It was rather like a trotline and ran the entire distance from the projector to the phonograph in the cone of light produced by the projection lens. In Oheim’s own words:
There were two knots in this loop of driving belt and I was fascinated watching them slowly travelling down to the stage and back to the projector, particularly since there were always a couple of “snake doctors” (what he called dragonflies) in the auditorium which regularly attacked the knots.”
The synchronized sound from the phonograph never really matched up well with the film. He remembers that it got worse and worse as the film ran. This story conjures up images in my head of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Oscar Haas was our Comal County Clerk and the unofficial historian of New Braunfels and Comal County. Born in 1895, the first film he remembered was shown “over” South Seguin Street. Yes, I said “over.” A projecting device was set up on the second floor of the old wood Naegelin building/residence which pointed directly across Seguin Street at a screen set up on the second-floor porch of the Homann Saddlery business/residence. Attendees sat in the street. The movie was part of an advertising campaign for some product Oscar did not remember. Called “The Train Robbery,” the film was shown three nights in succession and repeated again the following four summers. Most importantly, it was free, which allowed the children to take their nickel and go into Naegelin’s for jelly beans and wine balls. Oscar described the event:
“This movie had no sound track but there were attendants who realistically produced the sounds of the train as it came puffing around the mountainside, crossing a bridge, and the sound of the horses’ hoofs as the robbers came galloping out from a ravine, firing pistols, and brought the train to a stop with passengers ordered to come off the coaches and stand along the side of the track.”
The excitement was absolutely riveting, and Oscar Haas tried to make it to every showing.
Oscar’s wife, Clara, remembered that there was an open-air movie garden on part of the empty lot next to R.B. Richter’s building on West San Antonio Street. She also remembered Martin’s Theater which was located next to the Phoenix Saloon beer garden (now the courtyard in front of the bank building). Martin’s was showing films already in 1914. Other theaters recalled by Clara included The Capitol, which opened in 1924 on Main Plaza (between Comal Flower and Black Whale). The Capitol got its movies and performers straight from the Majestic Theater in San Antonio. The Brauntex Theater opened in October 1942 with the Bing Crosby flick “Birth of the Blues.”
Roger Nuhn, journalist, photographer, newspaper editor, and SWTSU (TSU) professor, grew up in the generation of Saturday serial movie-goers. Roger and his buddies would go each Saturday to catch the next episodes, known as chapters, of popular Western serials. The serials always ended in a cliff-hanger so patrons would have to come back the next week. Jack Kaufmann Sr. was running the Seekatz at this time, and the kids would all wear a special badge they got at the “Chapter One” film. With the badge, entrance each Saturday was then only a nickel — half of a regular child’s admission. The serial chapters were quite a bargain: you got to see the next part of the story, then a full-length Western or adventure film, a two-reel comedy and a newsreel. Cheap and it kept the kids entertained!
Roger also recalled that Jack Kaufmann had a heart of gold. “If he saw some child hanging around the entrance of the movie house looking longingly at the posters obviously without the necessary cash for a ticket, he would go up to the youngster and say, ‘What are you doing out here? The show’s inside, get on in there!’ Jack Kaufmann never got rich but was among the most-loved businessmen in downtown New Braunfels.”
LaVerne Schwab Pearce, long-time Sophienburg employee and volunteer, shared a story with Myra Lee Adams Goff back in 2008. LaVerne remembered that the first movie she saw was at the Seekatz in 1934. It was Shirley Temple in “The Littlest Rebel.” Temple’s character has to save her Confederate father from execution for treason ,and she does so by pleading with President Lincoln. LaVerne said she was so upset by the action on the screen that she began wailing loudly and her mother had to take her out of the auditorium.
The new-fangled movie business sometimes made it hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
One more story …
Jack Coleman, in a Reflections oral history program recorded in 1977, tells of his Uncle Nob Richardson’s first ever movie. It was a Western. There was lots of shooting. Uncle Nob was so upset that he whipped out his handgun and shot a hole in the screen.
Ah, now that’s entertainment!!!
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives newspaper microfilm collection: “Shots at Random,” Roger Nuhn, New Braunfels Herald, Feb. 22, 1973; “Museumantics,” Fred Oheim, New Braunfels Herald, March 1, 1973; “Early-Day Theatricals, Movie Houses Recalled,” Oscar Haas, New Braunfels Herald, March 1, 1973; Reflections program, Jack Coleman, 1977; ”Around the Sophienburg: Brauntex Opened in 1942 with Bing Crosby,” Myra Lee Goff, Jan. 22, 2008.
Photo Caption: Martin’s Picture Palace was the first movie house in New Braunfels. Advertisements for films begin in March 1914.