ASHLAND — I recently attended a fundraiser for the restoration of Schine’s Theatre, the old movie palace in Ashland that for the last few years has been closed and in a state of disrepair.
As part of the event we got to take a tour of the theater and get an idea of the work that needs to be done.
Our guide was Bill Sample, of the Ashland Schine’s Theatre Organization. As he walked us through the mess and clutter he explained the organization’s goal is to restore the building as closely as possible to the way it looked on opening day, March 27, 1942.
“We had a stroke of the luck there,” fellow restoration committee member Paul Smith said. “One of the original ushers gave us a set of photos that shows exactly how it looked back then.”
Wait a minute, I said. One of the original ushers is still around? I found out that Samuel Thomas and his wife Helen both worked at the original Schine’s Theater during the war, and are still living here in Ashland.
I gave them a call and they were happy for me to drop by, so on a rainy afternoon last week I sat down with them in their comfy living room for a chat.
I figured Sam must still have been a teenager when he started working at Schine’s, and I asked him when he was born.
“May 1st, 1925,” he told me, adding with a chuckle, “that’s about the only thing I know for sure!”
“He’s 92,” said Helen, “and I’ll be 92 in a couple of days. And he always says between May 1st and my birthday, he gets to be the boss. Then it’s back to me again!”
How long have you been married?
“72 years,” said Helen. “Our wedding was in February of 1945.
“People always ask, why would you get married in the winter? Well, Uncle Sam had something to do with that.”
Sam joined the Navy on Sept. 2, 1943 at the age of 18, and the couple married in Ashland while he was on leave as his ship was being refitted.
“I always say we got married as he was on his way from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” Helen said. “Afterwards he left for Okinawa with a tank deck full of ammunition.
“His ship was an L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank). Do you know what that is? Those ships would go right up to the beach and let out men and equipment.”
“Right,” said Sam, “then you got the heck out of there!”
I asked if they had both grown up in here in Ashland.
“I’m from Ashland,” Helen told me, “but Sam moved here from Six Mile Run, Pennsylvania to live with his aunt and uncle after his father died in the coal mines. He lied about his age to start work early. His first job was at the city dump.”
“Yep,” said Sam, “gathering junk.”
Sam joined the original staff of Schine’s Theatre at the age of 17, having already worked at the nearby Palace Theatre.
“The Palace was on Main Street,” said Helen. “The Ohio Theater was there, too.”
So when Schine’s Theatre came along in 1942, was it a bit more glamorous than the other movie theaters in town?
“Oh, there was no comparison,” said Helen. “It was a really beautiful theater. And remember, it was all one big space back then, with a downstairs and a balcony. We didn’t like it when they divided it up later on.
“And as far as we know,” she added, “Sam is the only living person who worked there when it opened.”
As it happened, the couple met each other through Schine’s.
“A classmate of mine, Fred, worked there with Sam, and he introduced us,” Helen explained. “Do you remember, Sam? It was Fred Moneysmith. You and Fred would put up those 24-sheet billboard posters.”
I asked Helen if she went often to the Schine’s back then.
“Oh, I saw practically every movie that came to town. And after the young men went off to the service, one of the doormen, an older man, would let us girls in for free!”
Not long after, Helen started working at Schine’s herself selling concessions, “little boxes of all kinds of candy.”
Although the couple were married in February 1945, Sam was not discharged from the Navy until Jan. 29, 1946. He still carries his military discharge card in his wallet and got it out to show me.
“After the war he worked at Eagle Rubber,” said Helen, “and then at Westinghouse in Mansfield. But for the longest time was at Garber Printing here in Ashland, that’s where he was for 39 years.”
“It’s all gone now,” said Sam. “Empty.”
“That’s right,” said Helen, “just an empty building on Union Street.”
“Garber’s liked families,” she added. “I mean, they liked having family members work together. I had two uncles, two grandfathers and a son-in-law work there as well as a husband. Although not all at the same time of course.”
Did you still go to see movies at Schine’s Theatre?
“Not so much after we had children,” Helen explained. “We didn’t have the money to do things like that. But by then our friends were having babies too and they were in the same boat, so it was O.K.”
Are your children still close by?
“Yes, our son Jim lives here in Ashland and our daughter JoAnn, she’s in Perrysville,” said Helen. “That’s JoAnn with a capital J, capital A. We didn’t give her a middle name. We figured she could split up her first name if she wanted to.”
As I made my farewells, the rain was still coming down hard.
“You’re going to have to make a run for it!” laughed Helen, and they came to the door to wave me off as I dashed to my car.
Driving off through the storm, I thought about the restoration work at Schine’s Theatre. It will take time, money and effort but with a bit of luck it will all come together, bringing back a bit of the old-fashioned glamour and magic that Sam and Helen experienced as teenagers.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.