Nugget History 1916 to 1929
Until 1914, Germany, Russia, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Australia each produced more films than the United States. In 1914, two years before The Nugget opened its doors, the motion picture industry in the U. S. produced more than 200 feature-length films, and stepped out in front of the pack. The Upper Valley and the Town of Hanover were well aware of the rapid development of the film industry. According to Richard Olson, Dartmouth ’67, who wrote a complete history of The Nugget for his English 84 class, “The Nugget did not bring movies to Hanover. It was not even the first theater in the area. The first movies were travelogues brought to town by Lyman H. Howe. He came once a year to bring a ‘few flickers,’ yellow scenes of far-off Burma in which people ran around like gazelles, the film was so bad, and their faces looked as if they had a sort of white-jaundice.”
The techniques of these early flickers were primitive, too. According to historian Ralph N. Hill in an article in a 1938 issue of The Dartmouth, “Breaks in the film or projector mechanism incessantly marred what little film continuity there was, in which event Howe’s assistant got out the glue and spliced the film, while Howe himself further expostulated on the customs of the people of Burma to keep the audience from fidgeting. Meanwhile, Arthur C. Barwood (who was to become the manager of The Nugget) was out back of the screen on the Webster stage violently shaking a piece of galvanized iron lung in a wooden frame for the sound of a herd of animals stampeding. This rumbling thunder, for lack of coordination between film and sound effect, continued well into the following love scene.”
As early as 1914, specific plans to establish a motion picture theater were announced in The Dartmouth (February 21, 1914). And, it was reported, “several attempts to give Dartmouth a performance of this nature [had] unsuccessfully [been] made in the past.”
According to The Dartmouth, “The Hanover Amusement Company” was to be formed by a group of students under the leadership of “resident manager” M. R. Macdonald, Dartmouth ’16. F. A. Musgrove, prominent Main Street merchant and state auditor, had agreed to erect, a modern, up-to-date, and comfortable theater that would present “a class of show equalled only in the modern moving picture theaters of our large cities.”
In support of this effort, the fledgling Amusement Company circulated a petition among the facility and students of Dartmouth, and residents of Hanover. The petition, reportedly signed by many, was meant to show “the Hanover authorities the consensus of opinion concerning the desirability of having such a place of entertainment opened here.”
There is no hard evidence of the “several” earlier attempts to establish a theater, but, considering the state of the industry at the time, we assume that those efforts would not have been serious nor likely to succeed prior to this first publicized effort.
It is not surprising that the town government soon became a key participant in the effort to provide moving pictures to Hanover citizens. Without exploring the details, it is sufficient to know that a licensing process was developed, and each of those wishing to procure a license was asked to develop a formal business plan, responsive to specific questions raised by the Precinct Commissioners. Reference to the original Hanover Amusement Company was not seen again in the press, although the Commissioners reported that there were many applications. By the spring of 1916, there were only two surviving applicants for the coveted license, namely F. W. and F. F. Davison, a prominent businessman and his son, and “The Petitioners,” a group of twenty Dartmouth and community residents who proposed to run the theater to benefit the town.
In response to the questioning of the Precinct Commissioners, the Petitioners submitted a voluminous and detailed p1an. Their proposal was to use the main floor of a proposed new precinct building for their theater (a 500-seat auditorium). The Petitioners also promised guaranteed payments of rent in advance to help the town finance the new and much-needed structure. A formula for sharing the profits of the endeavor with the town was proposed, and the Petitioners specified that money earned be used for community improvements. The Petitioners observed that there was money to be made in this endeavor, and that the opportunity for the town to capitalize on it might never arise again. They asked the Commissioners to seek public opinion on the subject by referring it to a committee of ten, who, through “intelligent discussion” of all of the questions involved with interested organizations, would be prepared, at the next Precinct meeting, to arrive at a “sane and public-minded view as to the best interests of the Precinct.”
Those who signed the original petition were Harlow S. Person, F. A. Musgrove, George D. Lord, Edgar H. Hunter, Frank A. Updyke, Henry W. Shelton, Angelo Tanzi, Lucien B. Downing, and J. L. McConaughy. Listed as others who supported but had not signed the petition were Charles D. Adams, Craven Laycock, F. H. Dixon, L. H. Dow, C. H. Dudley, T. W. D. Worthen, and J. M. Poor.
F. W. and F. F. Davison, meanwhile, submitted no response in writing, but talked to the Commissioners directly, and promised, among other things, that “the theater would be built at once.”
Precinct Commissioners Adna D. Storrs, Arthur P. Fairficld, and Jerome Chesley considered the two proposals. The salient points in their formal response were (1) they considered the offer of the Petitioners of a “division of profit” to be of doubtful value; (2) the complex plan of the Petitioners could involve a two-year delay; and (3) the rent offered for the first floor, Main Street space was nothing more than could be obtained from many alternative uses.
They considered the most persuasive argument in favor of the Davisons to be the promise of “definite and prompt satisfaction of the demand of the community for a motion picture theater,” and, therefore, voted: “To grant a license to F. W. and F. F. Davison for the operation of a motion picture theater under the general requirements which have been heretofore proposed for the regulation of a motion picture theater if license should be granted.” (Hanover Gazette, April 16, 1916)
The prospect of having a local motion picture theater was greeted with enthusiasm and optimism by most in the community, although there were the usual skeptics.
Most optimistic was the editor of The Dartmouth, who felt “the thrill of an unusual optimism” in reaction to the premature announcement of The Hanover Amusement Company. In his editorial of February 21, 1914, he wrote that a local theater to provide amusement m Hanover would make “the dullness of the Hanover winter less dull,” and would not result in “any resultant intellectual degeneracy on the part of the student.” In his opinion, a “few minutes spent in viewing a good reel of modern pictures would lighten each day of the seven to better advantage than a weekly trip to either Lebanon or the Junction.” He predicted that the new theater would furnish “the children of the residents a natural and healthy place of amusement, which is otherwise absolutely denied them.” He reassured his readers that the “higher tastes” of the community would be served in every way, and comforted those who planned the venture, by explaining that “Dartmouth has long outgrown that spirit of vandalism which would once have been a cause of fear to such a project.”
In the debate before the Commissioners, which preceded the granting of the license to Mr. Davison and son (as reported in the Hanover Gazette on April 3, 1916), Professor Updyke spoke to the issue saying that in “nine out of ten communities where such theaters were located they were detrimental to the town.” He had been opposed to the original concept, but now was supporting the Petitioners, who would bring to the town “movies of the right sort.”
Professor Holden opposed having a theater in town altogether. First, he thought Hanover didn’t nave a sufficient population to support one, considering that the students were here only half the time (they would be away on vacation for the summer and during breaks, he pointed out, and would not attend during football season). If pictures were of “the right
sort,” as proposed by Professor Updyke, students would not attend; and, it was his opinion that students would continue to go to Lebanon (The Park Theater) or “the Junction” (The Crown Theater) for their movies, just to get out of town.
Professor McConaughy talked about the initial failure of a theater at Bowdoin College where the theater and its maintenance had been a constant source of friction between the Bowdoin students and the theater management, the former convinced that they were not getting their money’s worth, indulging in considerable rough-housing. According to McConaughy, when a cooperative group of faculty and towns people built a new concrete edifice and controlled the selection of films, the theater was successful and turned a profit.
It was clear that there was great interest m town at the prospect of having a theater, as well as some concern as to whether the new venture would be an asset or a liability.
The Davisons and “Texas Bill” Cunningham
It was a great and fortuitous coincidence that the man most responsible for The Nugget’s birth was also a writer of the first order. Few institutions have their formative years so well documented as does The Nugget. The documentation may be biased, and at times, fanciful, but it is complete and entertaining!
Elijah William Cunningham, Dartmouth ’18, was a football star from Texas who was sent to Dartmouth by some wealthy alumni. After college he served for many years as a prize-winning sports writer for The Boston Post and The Boston Herald.
Cunningham came to the campus in 1915 with room and board and his trip East paid for by his wealthy Texas sponsors, but otherwise quite broke. To meet his tuition payments he tried a number of jobs, including slinging hash and playing the piano at local eateries. But, for Bill, there was too much work and not enough pay in those jobs.
Richard Olson describes the events leading up to Cunningham’s eventual job managing The Nugget:
“One day late in 1915 [Cunningham] saw an article in The Dartmouth to the effect that F. W. Davison, the local rich man, had taken out a permit to build a garage in the center of town. The idea was that the garage would attract people who owned automobiles, which were becoming increasingly popular, to the Hanover Inn. However, it had been rumored that Davison had also been toying with the idea of establishing a motion picture theater, but, being a shrewd, tight Yankee trade, had given up the idea as being too risky. Cunningham, who had worked in a movie theater back in Dallas, Texas, immediately tore over to his office to try to persuade him to reconsider his decision. Cunningham described the episode thus:
‘”I was down in the old gentleman’s office within 15 minutes, getting, incidentally, about the same reception a bum gets at a bank. Mr. Davison, a first cousin of the late John D. Rockefeller [the “D” in John D.’s name stood for “Davison,” spelled the same way with out the second “d”] was a typical upcountry Yankee of the old school. He was the town’s Croesus, cold and hard in matters of money, not particularly liked by the other townspeople who seemed either to fear him or to be afraid of his great wealth, and not exactly a subject to be spoken of fondly by some of the college people because they figured he’d skinned them years before in the deal for a piece of property to round out the college campus.
“‘He was a shrewd trader, a very rich man, outwardly as 40 quarts of shaved ice…
‘”It took the better part of a month to get him sold an the movie idea, and even then he wasn’t sure. Of course, if it failed, I told him he could still use the place for a garage. “Yes,” he said, but that would mean leveling off the floor which would cost maybe a couple of hundred dolars, and what would he do with those 556 seats, the two projectors, the screen and the piano?
‘”I finally offered to bind myself out to him in the good old New Hampshire way to work out the difference in his store or on his farm, or, in fact, anywhere, m case things didn’t work.
‘”He hemmed and hawed and calculated. He couldn’t break ground anyhow, until after the thaw. I hung on him hike a fever germ, and although he wouldn’t say no, he wouldn’t say yes.
‘”What I didn’t know was that he was really hesitating because what he was really trying to do was find a career of sorts for his only son. I didn’t know then that he had a son. But he did, an only son named Frank, and Frank had been something of a problem. Born when his parents were in later life, Frank had been restless and probably spoiled and undoubtedly hard to handle. He hadn’t wanted to go to school. None of his father’s interests really needed him. Finally he decided he’d like to go West and become a cowboy.
‘”His father thought maybe that would be the answer, so he bought a. ranch for him in Montana, and Frank became a cowboy.
“‘He became so much of a cowboy in fact that when he came back to Hanover on visits, he brought his pony and his full wild west regalia with him, and he used to astonish this quiet New England village and most of what was in it by galloping full speed down the main street in his sloppy hat and fuzzy pants, skidding his pony right up on the cement sidewalk in front of his father’s store.
“‘But the parents were growing old and they wanted Frank home, and the old gentleman was really feeling around for something to interest his restless son.
“‘Finally, and at what pain I never knew, he decided upon the movie.
‘”Frank came home.'”
(Bill Cunningham in The Boston Post, June 5, 1938)
Cunningham’s version of the episode and his recollection of the Davidson family history is one side of the story which has been repeated and embellished over the years. On the occasion of the sixty-fifth anniversary of The Nugget, the Valley News contained an article that romanticised Frank F. Davison’s cowboy life even further. Bill Davidson, F.F. Davison’s son, attempted to counter the folk lore that had evolved around the early life of his father and The Nugget’s beginnings. His letter to the editor of the Valley News explained that young Frank was 22, not in his thirties, when he returned to Hanover; he was not a rancher nor a prospector; he gamed his talent as a horseman in Hanover, and the “ranch” in Montana was a two-room cabin that served only as a vacation retreat.
Whatever the case, Bill Cunningham signed on as manager and piano player for the new enterprise. Young Frank Davison, freshly returned from the wilds of Montana, named it “The Nugget.”
The First Nugget
As the Davisons had promised, construction of the new theater began almost immediately after the granting of the license. The new building was located behind the Casque and Gauntlet House, next to the old Howe Library (on the site where the office of Banwell, White, Arnold, Hemberger & Partners now stands). When the Dartmouth Class of 1920 arrived for the beginning of their freshman year in the fall of 1916, they found the new theater in operation.
According to Bill Cunningham, the building was austere, but practical. F. W. Davison Sr., who was well aware of the habits of the student body, vetoed the plans of young Frank and Cunningham for a luxurious theater in the style of big-city opera houses, and opted for an edifice where “everything was nailed down.” The floor was concrete, the walls were sheet metal, and the iron and wooden seats were bolted to the floor. There was a small orchestra pit in the front of the theater for the musicians who “played the movie,” and, of course, a small (12-foot by 16-foot) screen. The original capacity of the theater was 571. In the small lobby was a ticket booth which, according to Cunningham, slightly resembled a fort. The press release reprinted in the Hanover Gazette of Thursday, September 7, 1916, described the theater in more flattering terms:
“The auditorium of the theater is reached through a handsome lobby, finished in green, bronze, and cream color, the ticket office being conveniently located near the entrance… The walls and ceiling of the auditorium are entirely of metal, finished in cream color, and the walls supporting a line of radiators on each side being broken at intervals by pilasters of gold which are prolonged in the ceiling as heavy beams. Except for some wood used in the finish the material of the whole building is brick, metal, and concrete, thus ensuring absolute fire protection.”
The grand opening of the new Nugget was on September 13, 1916. The film, “An Alien,”starring George Beban, was greeted enthusiastically by the locals, as was the theater itself. According to the Hanover Gazette of September 14, “an audience which taxed the capacity of the theater in the evening [was] present to witness the initial presentation. All were pleased at the complete, handsome, and up-to-date quarters, and there were numerous expressions of approval at the excellent appointments. The pictures were fine and could be easily seen from all sections of the house. The music was excellent. The piano, a new one of the Merrill make, located in a pit with concrete base in front of the stage, yields splendid acoustic effects. E. W. Cunningham and George Rand are pianists, Quincy Crandalal [sic] runs the machine. The success of the venture seems assured.”
In 1951, on the occasion of the opening of the new Nugget, and the thirty-fifth anniversary of the original theater, the Hanover Gazette of September 20 added some perspective to those early days:
“The early descriptions of the theater in the Hanover Gazette differ somewhat from the recollections of those who patronized Hanover’s first theater. An article published on September 20, 1916 in the Gazette read as follows:
“‘The ventilation of the theater has been carefully arranged. A complete change of air every few minutes is obtained by an elaborate and ingenious system of inlets and outlets in the walls and ceiling. The heating is by steam and the lighting is by electricity.’
“The lighting was “by electricity” and the heating was “by steam,” and, perhaps, the ventilating system was “ingenious,” but here, fact gives way to fancy. The air did not change every few minutes, and the radiators stuck out from the tin interior walls, clanking and banging as the steam whistled through them.
“But the movies were young and who would let the radiators bother him when Bronco Billy was on the screen. Besides, wasn’t Bill Cunningham doing1 his best on the piano to drown the sound of the steam pipes?”
In these surroundings, the management initially scheduled three showings a day including one matinee at 3:30 p.m., an early evening show at 7:00 p.m., and a final performance at 9:00 p.m. Films in general were shown for only one day, except in rare occurrences, generally to an almost-full house. The price of admission “to most films” was 10 cents in 1916.
Good News and Bad News
The good news was that The Nugget was a great financial success, and it’s rumored that the investors recovered the cost of the building and banked a $17,000 profit at the end of the first year of operation. The Nugget looked like a “gold mine” at the time, according to Bill Cunningham, who, to his everlasting regret, had settled for a $35-per-week salary instead of a 25-percent share of the business.
Cunningham described The Nugget and its programs in those days in an article in the Boston Globe in September 1951, which commemorated the opening of the theater at 57 South Main Street:
“We ran a daily matinee, mostly a dry run for whoever had nothing better to do, but, from that afternoon show word spread over the campus as to whether the movie was good or bad. It didn’t seem to make much difference. If the picture was bad, the crowd came to hoot; if good, to applaud. By common consent, the ‘first show’ at night, which started around 6:45, was ‘the student’s show’ at which anything went. The ‘last show’ at 9, was for the townspeople, faculty members, guests of the Inn, and! everybody escorting a lady. It was generally reasonably dignified. That means the audience was. The programs were always the same.
“The students show was the darb. It’s the one all generations of alumni remember. Everybody brought a little bag of peanuts—not to eat, but to throw. They sometimes rang in jelly beans, and, occasionally, even an apple. Entertainment until screen time consisted of seeing how many friends down front you could ping on the head with a peanut.
“There was much yelling and calling back and forth. Late comers were razzed. Anybody wearing a necktie, or a decent suit of clothes was whistled at.
“When the picture began, the whole audience generally started talking to it. Those were the days of the silents, of course, but that congregation was rarely ever silent. If a horse and buggy crossed the screen, the audience would yell ‘Whoa!’ ‘Giddyap,’ and other things. If the heroine’s skirt chanced to slip up her shank a little, they’d yell ‘Higher, Higher, Higher!!!’ in an organized chant. If the villain sought cover while the police scoured the vicinity they’d yell ‘Behind the tree!’ or wherever the hiding place was…”
Charles M. Dudley, Dartmouth ’29, was not only a Dartmouth student, but grew up in Hanover, the son of Charles M. Dudley who ran a local sporting goods store. He recounts his experience as a youngster in Hanover arriving late to a film and having to make his way to the front row to which the local teenagers were relegated. A latecomer was traditionally pelted with peanuts, jelly beans, and sometimes apples. Charlie remembers being knocked almost unconscious by a macintosh.
It was the job of Orton H. Hicks, Dartmouth ’21, and his white-hatted Palaeopitus cohorts, members of the Green Key Society, and the Sophomore Vigilance Committee to maintain law and order at the theater. Hicks sold tickets, and served as a bouncer during the theater’s formative years. In a recent interview, he told of recruiting Gus Sonnenberg, the World Championship wrestler, and other substantial football linemen to help control the crowds. The objective of the “control” was to be certain that everyone who came through the door paid. Once they paid their money and entered the concrete and tin auditorium, all bets were off. And, for the student show at 6:30, it was a matter of containment rather than control. Of course, the Freshman “Rush” was normally the biggest challenge of the year, one that tested the strength and will of all.
In light of these experiences, those early predictions that The Nugget’s movies would be of “the right sort” and that the theater-would prove to be a “natural and healthy place of amusement” for Hanover children seemed overly optimistic. Films of poor quality, or those characterized by suggestive sexual content, encouraged rowdy behavior, and often angry criticism by The Nugget’s patrons. One of the most notable instances, which sorely tested Ort Hicks and his band of enforcers, was the showing of the “steamy” film, “Tiger Rose,” starring the voluptuous actress, Leonore Ulrich. Unfortunately, the film was scheduled to be shown at 6:30, in direct conflict with a much-heralded appearance by the head of the international YMCA at the weekly Dartmouth Christian Association smoker. The D.C.A. rightfully expected an overflow crowd at Webster Hall for a spiritually uplifting oration.
Word had spread across campus that “Tiger Rose” was a “red hot” production. According to Cunningham:
“That night, while the celebrated speaker orated to empty benches across the campus, we had a regular riot on our hands. We had to call the police force—all one of it—string ropes in the alley, and even then they tore the doors down—that means literally—and almost pushed Frank Davison and his cashier’s cage down to the middle of the lobby.
“They wouldn’t get out after the first show. They wanted to see it again. And those two shows were perhaps the all-time high in that type of entertainment.”
Panning the Nugget
The theater management was thoroughly scolded by The Dartmouth the day after “Tiger Rose.” The editors demanded that “censors should be called into active and effective service, while the management of the theater should be given to understand that the quality of its productions must undergo a rapid and rising change.”
This wasn’t the first or last complaint lodged against The Nugget management. A few months after the theater opened, there was editorial comment in The Dartmouth related to the quality of the fare:
“The management of The Nugget Theater owes an apology and several hundred twenty cent pieces to Dartmouth undergraduates. The picture exhibited Thursday afternoon and evening advertised locally as ‘Charlie’s Stormy Romance’ was probably the weakest attempt to entertain that nerve has ever dared to try out on a group of college men. It combined poor action and poor photography with a missing plot, and its sum total was soused in rank vulgarity.
“The picture was so unmistakably mildewed and musty that even the company staging the piece shamed at claiming it as their own. It was a nameless film of clips and cutouts, pasted together to please the ‘mountain town’ audiences. When an assembly such as filled The Nugget Theater Thursday choruses ‘rotten’ it is time the management sought honest wares. Not all the students were born in Hanover. Some have seen real films! The Dartmouth suggests that The Nugget Theater take the advice of P. T. Barnum and ‘not try to make the same crowd fall twice.’ Otherwise, The Nugget may soon yield, not golden eagles, but a brass-yellow mineral known as fool’s gold.”
A more light-hearted commentary was offered by a returning member of the Class of 1908 as quoted in the Alumni Magazine:
“The Nugget Theater is just an old time nickelodeon with its face lifted… The best thing the boys do at the movies concerns the M-G-M lion… When the students roared in unison, as the lion opened its jaws, the effect was good, perhaps better than had the work been done by a lion.”
The Peanut Gallery
It is dear from all writings about the early theater that peanuts played an important role m the quality of The Nugget patron’s experience. The peanuts, which were soon to become missiles, came from a stand in The Nugget Alley behind the C & G House called “The Mint” (perhaps because so much money was made there). The peanut wagon was tended by Joe Truman, the black custodian of the Casque and Gauntlet House.
The peanut-throwing tradition was contrived by Bill Cunningham, according to his recollection:
“After watching some of the lads taking peanuts into the movies, several of us decided that there might be a little extra rake-off to be had that way, so Zack Jordan, Thompson, captain of the track team and World’s and Olympic champion hurdler at the time, got [Truman] to rig up [the] peanut and popcorn stand…
“Business wasn’t good and so we evolved an idea. A couple of nights before some original customer, trying to get the attention of another, had thrown a peanut across several rows and flicked hen on the ear. That seemed to sundry other gentlemen to be a good idea, so quite a few peanuts were thrown with fair marksmanship.
“As the manager, I ceased massaging the horse teeth long enough to decry such unseemly conduct and was promptly booed down… The next night, we planted a half dozen brothers in various parts of the audience, and as I walked down the middle aisle to craw! down into the pit where the piano was to start the show, these gents simultaneously beaned me with peanuts.
“I stopped, looked annoyed, pretended not to know where they came from, and eventually turned around and went on. And — zing — another barrage rattled off my back. This time I turned around and asked the audience if they couldn’t be gentlemen. As soon as I turnedaround, at least 500 peanuts came whizzing through the air. This time I openly questioned the legitimacy of the descent of everyone present and offered to fight ’em one at a time. By the time I’d got down into the pit, the peanuts were practically filling it.
“Everything was still going all right — in fact, the gents in the back rows were running out to buy more peanuts — but some dirty bum rang an apple pie in on me. It struck the strings on the piano like a bombshell.
“But the seed had been sown…
“Peanut throwing became an established rite and a standard Dartmouth memory. Fortunately, they turned the heat off me although I still got my share occasionally. But everyone who came to the movies brought a bag or two of peanuts outside and the house filled up from the back. Late comers going down the aisles were bombarded from all corners of the house, and the front half of the audience had to sit with their mackinaw collars turned up over their ears until after the picture started. A guy with a new hair cut was always a shining target. Freshmen took a regular barrage especially if they had to walk all the way down front. And it was practically worth your eye to turn around. You simply sat fast until everyone was out of peanuts.
“After the show, we carefully and painstakingly swept up the ammunition, dusted it off, sacked it up, and sold it again. A good tough peanut would last sometimes as long as five or six weeks.”
(The Boston Post, June 5, 1938)
Not all of the patrons took kindly to the peanut tradition. In an editorial in the December 10, 1921, edition of The Dartmouth, the writer claimed that peanut throwing… has… fallen further and further from grace.” Referring to the “boors” who participate m the tradition as ‘ Walter Johnson’s of the cinema,” he claimed that “they shoot hard, straight, and often.” He feared that if the upperclassmen did not demonstrate their disgust for the tradition, “human life itself will be unsafe in our palace of the celluloid.” The editor went on to blame the behavior on the perpetrators’ desire to be “collegiate,” compounded by the failure of upperclassmen to act in opposition to the practice. He called for the mature members of the community to “assert themselves emphatically in the hunting grounds of the peanut thrower in the auditorium of the twenty-cent wit.”
Bill Cunningham left The Nugget and the “peanut gallery” behind and cut short his Dartmouth career in 1919 to fight in World War I, but not before he developed a reputation as a fashionable bon-vivant and a BMOC. He was succeeded as manager by Arthur C. Barwood (formerly mentioned as sound effects technician for the Howe Travelogues). Bill did return to graduate and continued to work for Davison at his old $35-per-week salary, according to Richard Olson, “for old times sake.”
Despite its trials and tribulations, the theater flourished as a business and grew along with the movie industry, which reached its peak in film production in 1921.
According to the 1951 review of Nugget history in the Hanover Gazette, “The movies were growing up quickly. Chaplin did ‘Shoulder Arms’ in 1918; Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniells starred in 1920 and Rudolph Valentino flickered on the Hanover screen in ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Douglas Fairbanks and the young Wallace Berry did ‘Robin Hood’ in 1922, and Ramon Navarro starred with Lewis Stone in ‘The Prisoner of Zenda.'”
Under New Management
While the industry grew and flourished, there were dramatic changes in the management of The Nugget. In the 1916 license-granting process undertaken by the Precinct Commissioners, there had been two groups vying for the license; Davison and son, and ‘The Petitioners” who wished to donate a portion of the profits toward the betterment of the town. There were 20 such petitioners in the original group, which included representatives of the college faculty and administration, and the businesses of Hanover.
As early as February 1917, in the very infancy of the Davison and Son venture, The Dartmouth opined as follows:
More than one cause for regret has become apparent since [last April’s decision] by the Precinct Commissioners in regard to the granting of a moving picture license. The popularity and resulting profit from the new diversion have assumed such dimensions that the fears of Commissioners which were given as an excuse for putting the license in the hands of individuals rather than corporate control—and which incidentally deprived the precinct of a new public building—seems patently ridiculous. Possibly another time the commissioners will realize what was so obvious to the thinking of the signers of the rejected petition last spring that the income from a monopoly, the popularity of which was predetermined by the existing conditions in Hanover, might much better be used by municipal authorities than allowed to augment the coffers of a private individuals.”
Whether this view was held by any in Hanover outside of the editorial staff of The Dartmouth is not known at this writing, but there were certainly concerns about rowdy behavior, etc. And, from time to time, the management’s choice of films was a concern both for the Commissioners who had demanded that there be effective censorship of the subject matter of films, and for the college administration.
Whatever the case, Davison continued to operate the theater as a monopoly through 1922 when he offered his movie franchise to the town for nothing. The elder Davison was getting along in years and had accumulated all of the fortune he needed. He had been a good citizen of the town over the years (despite the things Mr. Cunningham said about his cool personality, etc.). For example, well into the twenties, Town Meetings were held in the theater; the minutes of the meetings annually document the thanks of the town to the Davisons for their generosity. The Hanover Gazette reported that the Davisons allowed the Women’s Fortnightly Club to use the theater for a dramatic production with the understanding that the profits would go toward improving the sidewalks in town. With such evidence of civic responsibility, it is probably most appropriate and most fair to attribute his gift of the franchise to the town an act of altruism.
The Commissioners of the Precinct, then Messrs. Storrs, Lewin, and Fairfield, suddenly found themselves with a movie franchise that they were specifically prohibited from operating under the terms of the Town Charter. And so, for several weeks they operated it as individuals. The June 15, 1922, issue of the Hanover Gazette told of the change and explained that “whatever profits that may accrue will be presented to the Treasury by the Commissioners to be used in whatever way the precinct may desire.” The paper indicated that after July 6, 1922, the Commissioners would take over operation of the theater. They added that “this arrangement is probably without precedent—at least in this part of the country.”
The Hanover Improvement Society
The Commissioners were in the awkward position of being personally responsible for the theater, and its losses, while any profits were to go the Precinct. Unfortunately there is no public record of the deliberations that led to the final course of act ion, but on July 7, 1922, The Hanover Improvement Society, Incorporated, was formed to run The Nugget Theater. (The building was rented from the Davisons, and the theater was operated by The Society.)
As early as 1874, citizens of Hanover had joined together to form an Ornamental Tree Association, which was concerned with the planting and care of the shade and ornamental trees of the town. Each year the organization collected dues from its many members and used the money to obtain, plant, and maintain trees. By 1882 the organization felt that it needed to broaden its activities to encompass a wider range of civic improvements and to “promote the prosperity of the town.” The “Village Improvement Society” was formed on May 21, 1882. This organization thrived until 1902 when a change in state law increased the powers of the Precinct Commissioners and broadened their scope so that the Village Improvement Society felt it was no longer needed, and voted to abolish itself.
This original model must have been fresh in the minds of the public in 1922, for the Hanover Improvement Society, Inc., according to its 1922 charter, shared many of the same objectives as the original Village Improvement Society. In fact, the first Nugget ads that ran in the Hanover Gazette, after the change of management referred to the managing organization as the “Hanover Village Improvement Society,” and it wasn’t until late August 1922 that the ads were corrected to be consistent with the papers of incorporation. It is likely that the Improvement Society concept was reborn because it was a model that had worked well in the past, and there were many in the village who remembered it. It is also likely that it was a logical and prudent decision on the part of the Commissioners to protect them as individuals from financial liability in the unlikely event that The Nugget ceased to be profitable.
Coincidentally, the Improvement Society was composed of twenty members (just as “The Petitioners” before them had. been). Among the charter members of the Society were the former Nugget owners, Frank W. and Frank F. Davison; the Precinct Commissioners, Adna D. Storrs, Arthur P. Fairfieid, and Roland A. Lewin; one of the original group of Petitioners, Edgar H. Hunter; the President of Dartmouth College, Ernest Martin Hopkins, and his Treasurer, Halsey C. Edgerton; and 12 other prominent citizens.
This Society, broadly representative of the interests of the former owners, the town. Main Street businesses, and the college, would operate and manage The Nugget theater until the present day.
Refining the Nugget
The Nugget continued to thrive as the only source of entertainment in town. Under its new management, The Nugget was modernized m 1927. The lobby was enlarged, a columned portico was added, and patrons were able to enter the theater from a West Wheelock Street entrance rather than through the alley next to the old Dartmouth Bookstore. The interior was redecorated, according to the Hanover Gazette, new “theater chairs” were installed, and the seating capacity was increased from 571 to 616.
The new management also displayed sensitivity to the religious organizations in town, and encouraged and supported a series of Sunday evening services, which were held weekly at the theater. In addition to singing, special music, and a short devotional service, there was also a full program of inspirational films that attracted a large and loyal audience. This action not only brought a much-needed and appreciated service to the community, but forged a good relationship with forces who had been critical of The Nugget’s programming in the past.
The Hanover Gazette gave the following overview of the movie industry in its September 20, 1951, celebration of the opening of the present Nugget:
“Just when the motion picture industry began to take self-satisfied looks at itself, to show that its growing pains were gone, the revolution came. Sound motion pictures shook the pedestal from under many an established silent star and promoted others to enlist the services of the eager voice teachers who descended upon Hollywood.
“The first sound films were poor and skeptics shouted ‘flash in the pan’ but when Al Jolson did the ‘Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the ‘talkies’ were here to stay. Clara Bow was the ‘It’ girl in ’27, Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor were America’s sweethearts in ‘Seventh Heaven,’ and Cecil B. DeMille produced ‘King of Kings.'”
Meanwhile, back in Hanover, The Nugget, in May 1929, promised its patrons that “by the next fall, talking” features would be offered including “any of the existent types including sound pictures, sound and effects, talking sequences, and 100 percent talking pictures.” True to its word, the management installed an RCA “Photo-phone” sound system in September 1929, just in time to greet the incoming Dartmouth Class of 1933. And so, the recently expanded and refurbished Nugget stood ready to enter the decade of the thirties equipped with the best motion picture technology of the times.
(See January’s issue of The Nugget News-Herald for a detailed history of the 1930s and the 1940s.)
The Hanover Improvement Society and The Nugget are indebted to the following, without whom the Seventy-fifth Anniversary Program and exhibit could not have been accomplished:
- Bill Pence for arranging the Sunday matinee film series of Academy Award Winners and creating its promotional materials.
- Orton H. Hicks,Dartmouth ’21, and Charles M. Dudley, Dartmouth ’29, for their historic perspectives on The Nugget.
- John M. Scotford, Dartmouth ’38, Tom Byrne, ‘Dartmouth ’55, and Kimberly Pierce, Dartmouth ’91, for their efforts—above and beyond the “call of duty”—in researching, writing, designing, and producing the Program and the Anniversary Exhibit.
- Terri Mac-Ball and the “Nuggeteers” for their support and enthusiasm.
- Lou Bressett and Phoebe Stebbins for providing historic information about The Nugget, Storrs Pond, and the Hanover Improvement Society.
- Nan King and the Hanover Garden Club for floral decorations in the Anniversary Exhibit area.
- Clint Bean and the entire Chamber of Commerce for their interest and support.
- Charles and Jeff Urstadt and Gordon Thomas for their cooperation in making the Nugget Arcade available for the Exhibit and the Seventy-fifth Anniversary Reception.
- Theresa Leonard of the Hanover Improvement Society office for “minding the store” and carrying an extra load of work throughout the planning effort.
- Ken Cramer and the staff of the Dartmouth College Archives, who have been of inestimable help in locating the historic materials included in the Anniversary Program and the Exhibit.
- Dave Cioffi, Connie Campion Eckles, Katie Manchester, and the Dartmouth Bookstore for assistance in handling the logistical problems involved with promoting and planning the Anniversary Program and the Reception.
- Rebecca Bailey for the Valley News article on The Nugget.
- Nancy Hossfeld for her advice and counsel, and for her prodigious efforts to edit and lay out the Seventy-fifth Anniversary Program and meet all of our deadlines.
- Steve Whitman and Whitman Press for advice and generous support, and for meeting the extraordinary printing and production requirements of the Anniversary Program and the Exhibit.
- And especially, all of those in the Hanover Improvement Society and The Nugget management who have worked tirelessly over the years to enrich the community by making The Nugget a vital and successful institution.
This text is taken from the Nugget News-Herald Vol. 1 No. 1.