Saturday afternoons at the Orpheum

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Paula Kempe had to keep her ears tuned to more than musical notes when she was playing in the orchestra pit at the Orpheum Theatre.

"We had to watch the movie and change our refrains frequently," said Kempe, who was one of a number of people to correctly identify last week's "Where is this?" photograph. "If the action on the screen was fast, we had to play fast. If it was slow, we had to play slow."

Kempe was a member and founder of a four-piece, all-girl orchestra which provided music at the silent movies.

Kempe and her sister, Mary Kempe, and friends, Aleen (Vogel) Wehking and Evelyn Bissett, played almost every night at the Orpheum.

The job in the orchestra pit was the first professional job for the orchestra, Kempe said. She played banjo. Her twin sister, Mary Kempe, played saxophone. Wehking played piano and Bissett was the drummer.

"We didn't have to audition," Kempe recalled. "They needed somebody and we applied. They had to have somebody, so they hired us right off and liked us."

Most of the movies were Westerns, said Kempe.

The orchestra played four-hour gigs at the Orpheum.

"They paid us a dollar each for four hours of work," said Kempe.

The Orpheum, with its weekend specials, usually attracted large crowds.

"I remember Westerns starring Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers and scary movies such as Frankenstein," said Virginia Cotner of Cape Girardeau. "And they always had a serial that left you with some threatening situation for the hero. That got you back the following week.

One could spend several hours every Saturday at the Orpheum, said Cotner. For a dime, you could see two Saturday matinees, the serial, a cartoon, news and coming attractions.

"During the war, the first thing on the screen was a large flag," said Cotner. "Everybody stood while the Star Spangled Banner played. We could eat candy, watch about three hours of movies and not spend more than 15 cents."

Jerry Priest of Cape Girardeau also turned to the Orpheum for entertainment -- but without spending a dime.

"I had a buddy who worked there. He would get two or three of his pals in for free," Priest recalled.

Lillian Harmon didn't go to the movies much but remembers seeing Stella Dallas, a silver screen classic. She also recalls keeping up with war news on the big screen. "I remember seeing Hitler and what he was doing with the German underground," she said.

The theater was open until 1954. It sat vacant for almost 40 years before it was demolished at 615-617 Good Hope in 1993.

The Orpheum was one of many Cape Girardeau theaters.

The first "official" movie theater opened April 15, 1907, at 108 Main Street in downtown Cape Girardeau.

"Life-size pictures that do everything but talk," proclaimed an advertisement in an April 5, 1907, newspaper. Ten days later the Dreamland Theater opened in Cape Girardeau.

The first movies were actually short takes.

"The Pill Poster," a slapstick comedy, was the first movie in Cape. "The Poor Mother," a sentimental drama, and "An Artist's Dream," a short fantasy, were shown the same day.

Talkies were introduced in Cape Girardeau at the Orpheum Theater on Jan. 15, 1929.

The first color movies in Cape Girardeau were shown at the Orpheum in 1919.

The first drive-in movie opened in the immediate area in 1949.

A number of readers correctly identified the Orpheum. Among those were Don Crowder, Helen Sommer, Virginia Heckrotte, Hugh Smith, Betty Landrey, Nelson Kelsey and Dan Cotner.

To the rescue

Eleven-year-old Alex Dickmann is a young hero.

Alex, who lives in Kirkwood, Mo., is credited with saving a house from burning. Alex was walking across his yard when he heard a smoke detector alarm sounding. As the beeping persisted, he noticed smoke coming from the back of a house across the street.

He ran to the back of the house to investigate, then ran home and told his father, who called the Kirkwood Fire Department. Firefighters said Alex's quick thinking prevented the house from being a total loss.

The owners of the house, Paul and Kathy Mistretta, were not at home.

Alex is the grandson of Homer and Wanda Dickmann of Cape Girardeau. He received a plaque from the Kirkwood Fire Department as a gesture of appreciation for his quick action.

"I'm proud of my son," said Brian Dickmann, a Cape Girardeau native and graduate of Southeast Missouri State University. Dickmann is employed by First Bank in Creve Coeur, Mo.

And just in case you didn't guess, Alex is a Boy Scout. He's active in Kirkwood's Troop 323.

Verdict is in

Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable? We asked that question last week. Most of you said a tomato is a fruit.

Botanists insist a tomato is a fruit. Botanists define a fruit as a ripened ovary containing a seed or seeds. So, by that definition, tomatoes, along with raspberries, green peppers, eggplant and pears are in the fruit family.

Horticulturists have their own definition. Vegetables must be planted every year, they say.

The legal issue emerged in the 1880s, when a New York port collector charged tax on tomatoes arriving in the U.S. from the West Indies. At that time, vegetables were subject to import duty taxes. Fruits were not.

It was in 1893 that the U.S. Supreme Court (in one of its lesser "landmark" decisions) affirmed that the tomato is a veggie. And taxable.

B. Ray Owen is community news editor for the Southeast Missourian.

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