Popcorn and a movie – the two go together like Esther Williams and swimming! Who? What?
The Mill Theatres in Milbank will make everything clear in technicolor this Sunday at 2 p.m. Owners, Joelie and Rob Hicks are hosting a free screening of the movie On an Island With You. On An Island With You was the first movie shown in the DeFea Theater, now known as the Mill Theatres, when it opened in 1948.
On An Island With You stars the late Esther Williams. Williams had qualified for the US Olympic Swim Team, when the onset of World War II cancelled the 1944 Summer Olympics and shattered her dreams of a gold medal. Williams was forced to change lanes and parlayed her swimming and water ballet talents into an acting career. She is featured in On An Island With You alongside Ricardo Montalban, Peter Lawford, Jimmy Durante, and Cyd Charisse.
Although the entire cast has nearly disappeared like reel projectors, five cent milk duds, and double features, the Mill Theatres remains a testament to the mystique of movies. And, if you count nostalgic surprises, it’s a full house.
The red velvet curtains, now tucked behind the screens, are a glamorous nod to when people wore hats and dressed up to go to the theater. A reminder of when an evening at the movies included newsreels, cartoons, intermission, and a crying room. (The crying room was not for viewers who wailed during Love Story. It was a windowed-room with a view of the movie. Many a mother comforted her baby without missing a minute of Psycho, Rear Window, or Blue Hawaii). Climb to the top of the stairs at the Mill and you’ll find the original crying room.
The theatre treasures also include one of its early cash registers and its original popcorn machine. The DeFea family even has a photo of Esther Williams and Peter Lawford signed and inscribed, “To Mike – Wishing you most success in your endeavor.”
Success was the key reason the DeFea Theater was built. The DeFea brothers – Mike and Pete were already running the Chateau in Milbank. Mike and his wife, Clara (Pat), had purchased the Grand Theater in 1934 and renamed it the Chateau. It was modeled after a theater in Rochester, Minnesota, and was decorated in the motif of a Spanish village. But the Chateau contained only 391 seats, and wasn’t big enough for the burgeoning crowds of movie enthusiasts. The new DeFea Theater hit the scene in 1948, when it was constructed directly across the street from the Chateau. The DeFea, however, was all Milbank and had more tricks than a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
It was the first building in Milbank to be faced entirely in polished granite – American Rose and Mahogany- from the local quarries. It featured a fire-proof projection room, over 600 plush seats, automatic steel doors on the projector room for fire safety, a state-of-the-art Brenkart projector, and RCA sound.
The marquee was lit up by hundreds of steam-heated neon lights and huge letters announced the latest thriller or comedy. The aisles were covered in lush red carpet, and the new building also featured a stage, dressing rooms, a slanted floor, and a larger concession stand. The bewitching aroma of popcorn wafted through the lobby and colorful rows of Goobers, fruity Chuckles, Black Crows, and the much newer cardboard tubes of M&Ms beckoned patrons with a sweet tooth.
But anyone who frequents the movies has experienced the frustration of technical issues. The first run at the DeFea was no different. Its debut film, On An Island With You, was planned for Friday August 7, 1948. Unfortunately, the motor on the new projector wouldn’t function and the DeFeas, following the adage the show must go on, trotted the theater-goers across the street to the Chateau and played the film there. The next night the DeFea was back in show biz.
Ken Saeger, who graduated from MHS in 1950, remembers the thrill of sitting in a darkened theater, probably back in 1952, and watching High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Saeger says, “Tickets were expensive – 12 cents- so going to the movies was a special treat.
Saeger also recalls Bank Night. On Bank Night each ticket sold was placed in a hat and one was drawn. The ticketholder with that number won cash. Saeger says, “It was such a popular promotion, some people would buy a ticket and not even go to the movie!” Saeger’s wife, Mae, says when she was a young teacher and arrived in Milbank in 1957, “Musicals were becoming more popular.”
Shirley DeFea, former owner of the theater confirmed this. Shirley says, “I think our best-selling movie back then was The Sound of Music (1965).” Shirley, who was married to Jim – the son of Mike DeFea- says as a young couple they often helped out at the theater. Shirley recalls “We were always so busy. We would refill the candy two times a night and make lots and lots of popcorn! All concessions had to be eaten in the lobby!”
After Mike and Pete retired from the theater in 1970, Jim and his brother Jack partnered until 1972. Shirley and Jim kept the theater in the family, by purchasing it from Jim’s parents in 1972. It remained a family business in the true sense. The third generation of DeFeas also grew up working in the theater. They cleaned the downtown theater, helped pull weeds at the drive inn theater (which the family had opened in the 1950’s) and ran projectors. Shirley says ” I remember my kids standing on boxes to be tall enough to run the machines in the projector rooms.”
But by 1979, Jim was busy selling insurance in an office in the theater and time was at a premium. When Neil and Jenni Bagaus stopped by to pay for their insurance before leaving on a train trip to Montreal, Neil said, “I joked with Jim, telling him if the theater is ever for sale, let me know.” And Jim said, “It might be. Stop by when you get back from your trip.'”
Neil and Jenni, who had traveled the country as musicians in the group Suns of the West, returned from Canada, purchased the DeFea Theater on August 1,1979, and settled down in Milbank.
The movie business was booming. Neil says, he remembers on a typical Saturday night, 200 people would attend a movie and the line waiting to get in would snake around the corner. He remembers Titanic as one of the biggest blockbusters during his ownership and recalls E.T. (1982) was the most difficult movie to obtain. It also cost $3500. He said “The original Muppet Movie (1979) sold the most tickets to one show, though. It sold out every seat in the entire original theater.” Maybe the high rate of attendance was due to the movie craze or maybe it was his ingenious marketing schemes.
For the screening of Snow White (1987), he hired actors to dress up as the dwarves. He says his biggest success and biggest failure occurred at the same time – his 007 James Bond Promotion. He advertised that patrons bringing in a dollar bill with the number sequence 007 on it, got into the movie free. “I was convinced they were passing them around town!” Neil says.
Neil also remembers having his shares of technical issues. To promote the original Karate Kid movie (1984), he lined up a karate class to do a demonstration before the movie. That day, the film arrived late and he put it on the platter system, but he had to run downstairs to help with the promotion. Never one to shrink from the limelight, Neil had agreed to have an object kicked out of his mouth. When he returned upstairs, the film had fallen off the platter into a messy heap on the floor.
He was forced to cancel the show and spend the rest of the night piecing the Karate Kid back together using a razor blade. The next night, the movie sold out – all 200 seats. Bagaus can laugh about the blooper now and says, “None of us had seen the movie, so putting the puzzle of the strips back together was interesting. But in the end, we did really well. We only had one scene out of order and nobody was the wiser.”
Neil and Jenni continued to run the theater as it was until 1981, but playing one movie a week on one screen limited their options. In 1981, they decided to “Twin” the theater and closed it down for six weeks. They did the work themselves including building two-foot thick walls for sound barriers. They also updated the projectors to the aforementioned platter system. In 1989, they added the third theater.
Then, one January morning in 1999, Neil had to scrape ice from his car windows for half an hour. This freeze frame gave him plenty of time to think, and as he had just returned from a vacation in Florida, he decided he’d had enough of South Dakota winters. He says “I called Disney and got a job on the spot.” He and Jenni put the business up for sale.
Rob and Joelie Hicks purchased the business from the Bagauses on April 1, 1999. They have discovered it is more a labor of love.
Americans love movies – maybe more than ever- but the theater business has always thrived on scarcity or their ability to show a movie first. Now with Netflix and streaming, Hollywood is cutting the throats of the large cineplexes and traditional movie houses. Like record stores, diners, and family farms, the final credits might not be long away. So, Rob and Joelie keep ticket prices low and sell addicting and delicious organic popcorn. They are proud to offer jobs to high school students and entertainment to families. Joelie says, “I think our best-selling movie has been The Passion of The Christ (2004).”
No matter where you grew up, if you can recollect even one fond memory of going to the movies, go again. Go now. Go before every movie theater across the nations goes dark. Go before your kids forget or your grandkids never learn how much fun everyone has had in the last 70 years.
In those seven decades, the DeFea-Mill Theatres has heard a ton of laughter, sniffling, shouting, gunfights, and explosions. But if the building itself could talk, what would it say? “Go ahead, make my day,”? “E.T. phone home,”? “May the force be with you.”? Or maybe it would say, “The more things change, the more I wish they might stay the same.”
Pictured: Joelie Hicks and Shirley DeFea Bottom: Neil and Jenni Bagaus