Editor’s note: Special to The Tribune-Courier
This is a gathering of memories about a special place, in a very special time in the history of Benton. These are the memories of my father, Bobby Brooks Farmer, son of Sam (Bun) and Reba Farmer, and brother to Solan ( Soak) and Sam Farmer.
I have been told so many wonderful stories about the childhood and youth of my father, growing up in Benton. His memories are rich and full of detail, full of names and exact times and places. People that I have never met, places that I will never see, all come to life for me through his words and memories.
My father has always been a huge fan of the movies, the more epic the feature, the better. His mind holds an astonishing library of films and actors, details of when a movie was produced and which actors play in each film. From celebrities, to supporting actors and actresses, down to character actors, he knows them all.
I suppose my father’s love of films was born inside of The Benton Theatre, and that is what this article is about; The Benton Theatre when it mattered the most, the years just before, during, and after World War II.
The Benton Theatre was on the Benton Town Square in the building that now houses Prince Lawyers. It was opened by the Ruffin family, who opened several similar theatres in other parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. My father remembers the grand opening movie as being The Wizard of Oz.
Mr. Shelby McCullum was The Benton Theatre’s first manager. When he left to serve in World War II, Mr. Will Ely took over as manager, but Mr. McCullum returned at the end of the war. The projectors were run by Bill McGrady, Billy Hicks, Red Ross, and my daddy’s oldest brother, my uncle, Sam Farmer.
My uncle began working as a projectionist as a young teenager, and worked three nights a week for three years. Often, my grandmother, Reba Farmer, would send my daddy to the theatre with supper for Sam, who would let my father stay with him in the projector room.
The movies changed three to four times a week, so if you did not make it to the theatre to see a particular movie in the few days that it was playing, you were out of luck. Of course, there were no movies for rent then, no DVD players and no Netflix. If you wanted to see a film, you had to be there.
My father remembers that the marquee lights of The Benton Theatre were red and white. During World War II, when the rest of the lights on the square were turned off to conserve energy, the marquee lit up the entire east side of the square.
My father remembers The Benton Theatre as being a place of solace and happiness during the years of World War II. He was just a boy, but he remembers the town being more quiet in those years, waiting, listening, watching. My father remembers vividly how his own mother paced the floor on many, many nights. With so many men away, with so many families missing, anxious for, and grieving over loved ones, the theatre seemed to bring joy and laughter. It would give hope and ease fears and bring the community closer together and give strength.
Many evenings, small crowds of friends and family would gather on the court house steps before and after the movies, to be together, to talk and laugh. On Wednesday evenings, before the movie began, the house lights would come up and War Saving Stamps would be sold for ten cents each. A memory that I will always have is my father telling me how small American flags were put in the windows of houses where men of Benton had been killed in the war. This way the rest of the citizens would know and could show the proper respect.
My father married Marlene Emerine, daughter of Roy and Eva Emerine, sister to Royalyn Emerine Lawrence. He joined the Navy, and then became a pharmacist, eventually moving his family (four children) to settle in Murfreesboro, Tenn. However, Benton has always stayed a constant and important part of his life and in the lives of his children. We visited several times a year, and I loved my Benton family very much and consider Benton my second home.
When I do visit Benton, I gaze wistfully at homes where loved ones lived, homes where I spent part of my childhood. I also circle the square each time, gazing at it, trying to see it as my father saw it as a boy and youth. It is not difficult. When I pass by the building that used to house The Benton Theatre, I see the theatre, I see my father - a little boy entering the doors of the theatre with excitement and hope and dreams.
My father still loves movies, and we still go to the movies a lot together. That little boy is still inside of him, and he embraces the wonder and imagination and adventure of other worlds and times and places. He gave those gifts to me. Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Benton Theatre.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Jamie Farmer, daughter of Bobby Brooks Farmer, for sharing his memories of the Benton Theatre.