St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Shane Graber

Edwardsville Alderman Enjoys Reliving Wildey Times

EDWARDSVILLE Rich Walker can't go far without someone wanting to bend his ear with stories of first kisses, westerns and the strictness of Verna Duffy.

Walker, an Edwardsville alderman, is heading an effort to preserve the memory of the 99-year-old Wildey, a downtown theater that city officials are trying to revive.

Walker's effort is called "The Living History Project." He wants locals to share memories of the place that once showed silent films and played host to secret ceremonies in the upstairs ballroom.

One day last week, while catching lunch at the coffee shop across the street from the Wildey, a woman stopped Walker. She wanted to share a story. "You see?" Walker said. "It's like this nonstop. I can't go anywhere without someone wanting to tell me about the Wildey."

City leaders hope that continues. They bought the theater in 1999 with help from a $300,000 state grant.

Walker wants to preserve its history with stories from people like Jeb Bollman, who is almost as old as the Wildey. Bollman turned 91 Friday.  A lifelong Edwardsville resident, Bollman would spend a dime in the 1920s to watch a Tom Mix western or a serial: "Those ones with the cliffhangers that made you come back the next week," he said.

"The Wildey was a big thing in my boyhood. The best seat was first row of the balcony. You got that seat, you had it made."

In 1908, the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows set out to build a downtown lodge and opera house. They named the theater after Thomas Wildey, an Englishman who helped found the fraternal and civic group. (And, by the way, it's just "The Wildey"; not "The Wildey Theatre," regardless of what most people and the website might say.)

The masonry building, which cost about $30,000, was finished in 1909 on North Main Street. It included a formal meeting room on the third floor where Odd Fellows often held secret ceremonies. The doors leading there still have sliding peep holes.

The theater opened April 12, 1909, with a live performance of "Girl at the Helm." Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers performed there during its better days.

But one of its mainstays was Verna Duffy. She ran the Wildey in the 1960s and 1970s. She was known as a devoted boss, but she also wouldn't tolerate any carrying on.

Doug Havens, 46, worked for her as an usher from 1977 until he graduated from high school in Edwardsville in 1979. "She was no-nonsense but fair," he said. He remembered talking to her in her cramped office.

"She smoked like a stack, so you'd have to stand in the doorway," he said. "She talked about show biz as if she had been a part of it."

The Wildey closed as a full-time movie theater on March 8, 1984. More than 400 people attended what is generally regarded as the last movie, "The Big Chill." (A bit of Wildey trivia: A local arts group continued to run movies periodically. Technically, the last film shown at the theater was "Pee Wee's Big Adventure.")

Former Wildey attendees back to the 1920s have shared memories on the theater's website, stories of tossing popcorn over the balcony, first kisses during the feature and the way the kids would howl at the Looney Tunes characters.

About 25 former theatergoers attended a "Remembering the Wildey" event at the Edwardsville Library Sunday. People brought newspaper clippings and old photos to add to the Wildey's growing memorabilia collection, Walker said.

Havens, now retired from the Navy and living in Florida, said he would like to visit the theater again one day.

"It's one of the few things in Edwardsville that hasn't changed a lot," he said in a telephone interview. "I go back now, and I don't recognize the town. It's not the same town I left 29 years ago."

Bollman is still here. For him, the theater is a reminder. It's a free admission with the Mickey Mouse Club. It's pulling for Hopalong Cassidy. It's front row on the balcony in the best seat in the house.

"It's part of your heritage," he said. "It's who you are or who you were."