By Carla Kelly, Times-Record Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005 3:34 PM CDT

Valley City is known statewide as the City of Bridges. City of Theatres is a
nickname almost as appropriate. From the early 1880s, with the Odds and Ends
Hall, to the present Theatre I & II, nearly a dozen movie theatres, several
opera houses, a music academy, a college auditorium, and other similar
venues have brought culture both high-brow and low-brow to an appreciative
community.

In its day, nothing was as fine as the Piller Theatre. In 1925, John Piller,
German-born local entrepreneur, built a big theatre in The City of Bridges
that any metropolis quadruple in size would have envied.

“Piller Theatre” still announces itself in stone over Dutton’s Valley
Gallery. The theatre is hidden now by a false floor and ceiling. Time has
moved on since “those thrilling days of yesteryear,” when cowboys and
robbers thundered across the screen, and Harpo Marx scooted around, tooting
his horn and leering at the ladies.

It’s been a long time since Greta Garbo wanted to be alone, Mae West urged
the fellas to come up and see her sometime, or Mickey Rooney declared, “He
ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

It’s also been a long time since Frances Piller Holm, 97, oldest of John and
Mary Piller’s 11 children, played the big Wurlitzer organ for silent films.
She says she tried to concentrate on the music, but she really wanted to
stare at Rudolph Valentino as “The Sheik” on the big screen in front of her.

And when she wasn’t accompanying the joys and woes of Charlie Chaplin,
Buster Keaton or Theda Bara, she made popcorn in the lobby, toasted cheese
sandwiches in The Movie Shop next door, sold tickets, or ushered moviegoers
down the aisle. “We Piller kids were a regular corporation,” she said.
“Everyone had a job.” They were paid $2.50 a week for their contributions to
the family business.

Any Piller offspring not doing something or other at the Piller could be
found down the street at the Rex Theatre, doing much the same. John Piller
managed the Rex and Grand theatres when he and the Piller clan came to
Valley City in 1919. Once the Piller was constructed, the Rex reverted to
showing B westerns, those horse operas with heroes and villains
distinguished by black or white hats, and amazing revolvers that fired 50
rounds without reloading. Or there might be a Charlie Chan flick at the Rex,
always a crowd-pleaser.

But the Piller was John’s baby. As he told a friend after it opened, “I came
to Valley City without a dime, but now I owe $100,000.”

The Piller might never have happened, if Mary hadn’t put down her foot when
her husband started considering a prospective theatre in Wilmer, Minn. “Mom
told him, ‘We’re not moving,'” Frances said. “‘You go buy that lot on
Central Avenue and build your own theatre.'”

He did. “It was a fortress,” Frances said. “Really a strong building.” John
shared the front of his building with a jewelry store on the corner and a
gift shop. Frances remembered an apartment upstairs, a dentist’s office, and
her father’s office.

On Nov. 11, 1925 – Armistice Day – the doors opened on Valley City’s finest
theatre at the time. Burgundy velvet panels hung between gold-painted
pilasters. The organ itself took three weeks to install down front in the
orchestra pit.

The theatre seated nearly 1,000 patrons. As one of four usherettes dressed
in burgundy and gold with daring satin pajama-like trousers, Frances helped
seat the audiences for “The Pony Express,” starring Betty Compson and
Ricardo Cortez.

The Talkies didn’t started until 1929, so Frances logged plenty of hours on
the organ bench, providing mood music for the silent screen. When
distributors sent movie reels to theatres, they also sent along a music
score for the accompanist. Since movies changed every other day, this meant
the organist had to be a quick study to learn the score. “I still had to
improvise some of the time,” Frances said.

Sometime Frances had help. She remembers that Julius Meyer, professor of
mathematics at Valley City Normal   School (VCSU today) had a beautiful
baritone voice. When “The Volga Boatman” came to the Piller Theatre in 1926,
he sang the title song each night.

In 1929, “The Jazz Singer,”Al Jolson’s groundbreaking talking movie,
enchanted American moviegoers. Briefly called a fad, talkies soon spread
across the nation. Quick to respond, the Piller installed a Vitaphone unit
to let the actors speak.

In mid-April, 1929, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a 74-minute movie starring
George Bancroft, introduced Valley City fans to the latest in talking
pictures.

The Valley City Times-Record trumpeted the event with an appropriately
extravagant headline: “April Twelfth Is Dawn of New Day.” The article went
on to gush that “theater-goers have marveled and are still amazed at the
thrill of talking movies.”

All movies quickly became talkies, which lessened Frances’ time down front
at the organ. There was still plenty to do, however. Frances remembers
hurrying through suppers at home, then rushing off to the Piller, where
movies were usually shown twice a night. She often found herself doing
homework in the ticket booth.

Talkies had their thrilling moments. In 1935 during “Dante’s Inferno,” an
intense drama starring Spencer Tracy, a lady in the audience fainted. “They
had to stop the show,” Frances said.

Although they could be exciting, movies in the ’30s were tame by today’s
coarser standards. Even though they were all expecting it, audience members
in 1939 gasped in unison at the end of “Gone with the Wind,” when Rhett
Butler told Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Even though he was a businessman right down to his shoe leather, John Piller
had a kind side, too. Frances recalled an afternoon when a bunch of little
boys lined up outside the theatre, wanting to get in. All of them were shy
of the 10-cent admission fee, but hopeful.

“Dad saw them outside and asked,

‘Do you want to go to the show?'” Frances said. “Everyone did, of course, so
he gave each kid a dime and a free box of popcorn.”

This story came home to roost years later when Frances’ daughter Linda went
to Hollywood to begin her career as a writer and eventually assistant editor
of Photoplay Magazine. Dale Olson, well-known publicist to the stars and
former Valley City resident, showed her around and arranged celebrity
interviews to help her break into the business.

Linda told him once about the time her father gave those kids free admission
to the Piller. Dale laughed and told her, “I was one of those boys.”

Although he could be generous to children, Piller was a businessman,
showman, and salesman through and through. One of Frances’ proudest
possessions is a large scroll presented to her father by the United States
government, honoring him for war bond sales during World War II.

She only wishes the scroll contained the actual amount. “He sold more than
$1 million in war bonds from the Piller Theatre,” she said.

He sold them out of the theatre, too. One night while coming home from the
theatre, John was struck by a car at the corner of Central Avenue and Sixth
Street. “They took him to the emergency room, and he sold the doctor there a
war bond for $500,” Frances said.

Another proud moment, one that would be a landmark court case, involved
John’s refusal to rent or play motion pictures that didn’t meet his
standards for family entertainment. United Artists brought suit against John
Piller to force him to accept the bundle of movies sent.

“They sent movies in a block, mixing good ones with not-so-good ones,”
Frances explained. “Dad said he wanted family movies.”

The district court agreed with John, and on October 31, 1931, dismissed
United Artists’ claim. “Grandpa got to choose his movies,” Linda said.

By 1948, John Piller was ready to retire. He closed the Rex Theatre, and
leased the Piller to another corporation. After his death in 1961, the
building was sold. A major remodeling, gave the Piller a serious facelift,
turning the theatre into a sportswear shop, shoe store, law offices, and

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