It was 85 years ago this month that Bloomington voters went to the polls to decide if movie theaters should be open on Sundays.
Back then, “places of amusement”—which included pool rooms, bowling alleys, dance halls, “baseball grounds,” and vaudeville and movie houses—were required to remain closed on Sunday. By early 1928, Bloomington was a rare “blue law” holdout in Central Illinois, with movie theaters in Decatur, Lincoln, Pekin, Peoria and Springfield all open for Sunday business.
On April 3, 1928, Bloomington residents voted “yea” or “nay” on a referendum ending the band on “Sunday shows,” a term including not only motion pictures but stage entertainment, specifically vaudeville. Three previous referendums — held in 1912, 1913 and 1920 respectively — had ended with “nay”s in the majority. Those voting “yea” in 1928 hoped the fourth time would be the charm.
In the late 1920s, the city’s premier movie house was the Irvin Theatre, located on the 200 block of East Jefferson Street (it was torn down in the 1987, and the site now serves as parking for Second Presbyterian Church). There was also the Castle (still standing) and Majestic (razed in 1956), the latter a vaudeville house that also played movies, as well as two smaller, nickelodeon-type theaters, the Rialto and the aptly named Front Street.
Local clergy led the charge against Sunday shows. W.E. Keenan of Park Methodist Episcopal Church feared Bloomington was fast losing its reputation as one of the cleanest cities in the Midwest, claiming he’d heard reports of “more than 300 wide-open booze joints in this town … at least one cabaret” and “a fish fry with beer on the table” (this during Prohibition).
First Christian Church’s the Rev. Edgar DeWitt Jones appealed to the fence sitters who frankly didn’t see much harm in catching a Sunday matinee after a morning spent in church. “We do not wish a puritanical Sunday,” he said, “but a day sweetly sane and blessedly balanced between the old strict and ‘blue law’ observance and the wide-open ‘hip hurrah’ sort that is invited by the opening of the play houses on Sunday.” The Sabbath, he believed, should ennoble and edify, not simply entertain.
Some area residents preferred a more fire-and-brimstone approach to the debate. “God is being forgotten but He is not forgetting, and there will be a grand reckoning by Him,” warned Mrs. A.H.B. of Stanford (no full name given) in a Pantagraph letter to the editor. “His day is coming sure and certain. It will be a day of woe to many, but a happy time for many others.”
It appears the only minister to publicly support Sunday shows was Rupert Holloway of the Unitarian Church (his sermon the Sunday before the referendum was titled “Bigotry vs. Clear Mindedness”). Holloway, though, had plenty of regular folks in his corner. “We are tired of being nagged and told what to do and how to vote and what to eat and drink,” declared Bloomington voter A.D. Ross.
In the end, the vote was not even close — 6,385 to 3,980 (62 percent to 38 percent) in favor of Sunday shows. “The question was one in which the majority of public opinion had the right of rule, and the majority seems to have spoken in no uncertain terms,” commented The Pantagraph.
Vaudeville houses and theaters (both of the stage and screen variety) now joined a list of businesses allowed to remain open Sunday — a list both self-evident (as it included hotels, livery stables, telegraph offices, telephone exchanges and the street car lines) and puzzling (tobacco shops and candy stores were also exempt).
The Sunday ban came to an end on April 22, with the Irvin showing the 1926 swashbuckler “Old Ironsides” and the Majestic offering a vaudeville program headlined by Max Teuber’s Palette Dancers, as well as the feature-length film “The Count of Ten.” Over at the Castle, it was “The Canyon of Adventure” with Ken Maynard and his trusted companion, Tarzan, The Wonder Horse.
If Sunday shows didn’t quite lead to hell, they certainly didn’t get us any closer to heaven, despite the somewhat naïve expectations of the Unitarian Church’s Rupert Holloway. “I am very sure that the democratic art of the movie is going rapidly to improve in quality,” he declared after the vote, “and I look to the day when it will be a great moral and spiritual force in the life of mankind.”
Today, a quick glance at what’s playing at the local multiplexes brings to mind many thoughts, though “great moral and spiritual force in the life of mankind” isn’t one of them.