Like many Americans who grew up in the 1960s, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that three different men named “John” had died.
When the grade school principal announced over the intercom system that John F. Kennedy had been shot, I was washing my hands in the girl’s bathroom at Wallace Elementary School. Some 17 years later, I was walking through the door of my boyfriend’s apartment when he yelled from the kitchen that John Lennon was dead, gunned down in Central Park. And I was stepping out of my car to get cash from the bank machine when I heard on the radio that John Belushi had overdosed.
As John Lennon once wrote, “I heard the news today, oh boy..”
But in every generation, there seems to be at least one event that is so huge, so cataclysmic, that even after decades pass, we still ask one another “Where were you?” on the day we heard the news. For most adult Americans, that day was September 11, 2001. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, however, that day fell 60 years earlier, on December 7, 1941.
I started thinking about Pearl Harbor day in Indianapolis after I ran across a series of old handbills for the Talbott Theater at 22nd and Talbott. It wasn’t until I brought them home from the flea market that I realized that the handbills were a near-complete set of weekly previews for the movies that were playing at the Talbott in the five weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the seven weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan. Conspicuously missing, however, was the handbill for movies that were showing at the Talbott on Sunday, December 7, 1941.
Old theater handbills fall into a collecting category known as ephemera — everyday paper items that are intended for one-time or short-term use. Ephemera is the sort of stuff that you may look at once, wad into a ball, and toss into a trash can. So when a collector finds a fragile piece of ephemera that has somehow managed to survive intact for decades or even centuries, it may turn out to be a treasure. Or just an old piece of trash.
Another 100 years may need to pass before the Talbott handbills complete their metamorphosis from trash to treasure. But for now, the 10 pamphlets announcing the screen times for various movies playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1941-42 provide an interesting glimpse of life in Indianapolis both before and after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor.
By Thanksgiving weekend in 1941, the war in Europe had already hit the big screen. The Warner Brothers movie “Underground” was playing at the Talbott. Billed as the year’s “No. 1 Thrill Film,” the movie told the story of two brothers who were initially on opposite sides of the German resistance opposing the Nazis. Later that week, the 1935 film “Devil Dogs of the Air” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien returned by popular demand. Although “Devil Dogs of the Air” was clearly not a chick flick, ladies were enticed to attend by the Talbott’s offer of free dishes.
I’m inclined to think that the reason the handbills were spared from the trash is because they were saved by a female moviegoer as a memento of dates with a favorite beau. Some of the handbills bear creases, as if they were folded and tucked into a handbag. A faint trace of perfume seems to linger.
I’ll never know how these particular pieces of paper managed to survive the decades, but I like to imagine a young woman – someone who lived near my neighborhood – putting on a wool suit and seamed stockings and venturing out for a night on the town with the man who would someday be her husband. When she returned from the movies, she removed the handbills from her purse and placed them in a cardboard box with other mementos. And there they remained for the next 70+ years.
From the handbills, I can see that “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” was playing at the Talbott on Halloween night 1941. This was the 11th installment in the popular Andy Hardy series and the last to feature Judy Garland. New Year’s Eve 1941 featured “Smilin’ Through,” a cheery remake of a 1922 silent film about a man who adopts the orphaned niece of his dead fiancee who was murdered by mistake during their wedding ceremony. On Groundhog Day 1942, moviegoers at the Talbott were treated to the “Tropical Magic” of Carmen Miranda singing and dancing with fruit on her head in “Week-End in Havana.” It looks like whoever saved the handbills went to the movies at the Talbott every weekend during that winter, except the weekend the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
A quick review of The Indianapolis Star from Sunday, December 7, shows there were plenty of other things to do in Indianapolis that day besides going to the movies. The weather was projected to be sunny and pleasant, with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees. The paper was stuffed with advertisements for Christmas gifts, ranging from floor model radios to vacuum cleaners to slinky nightrobes for the ladies. In one particularly prophetic full-page ad, Lincoln Furniture announced in 96 point bold-face type that “WAR IS DECLARED!” I had to read the fine print to find out that the furniture store was declaring an imaginary war on prices, and not on Japan.
Still, there were strong indications in the paper that a real war might soon be declared. The front page of the Star featured a photograph of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito with a simple three word question: “War or Peace?” The Star would get its answer shortly.
The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Indianapolis shortly after noon. At 1 p.m., the Sunday double-feature matinee was scheduled to get underway at the Talbott – Orson Wells’ classic “Citizen Kane” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” a comedy about a dead boxer who was given a second chance on Earth. Was the Talbott half-empty that day because everyone stayed home, glued to the radio? Or did Indianapolis bustle with the usual weekend activity after residents took a brief pause to absorb the shocking news?
Mayor Reginald Sullivan was certainly busy that day, meeting with local law enforcement and industry leaders to discuss safeguards against sabotage. Indianapolis plants were already engaged in manufacturing parts and machinery for the war effort, and fears of sabotage by Japanese loyalists was heightened by the attack. However, in a statement issued to the Star, Sullivan assured Indianapolis residents that the risk of incendiary bombs striking the Circle City was low.
By the end of the week, America was at war. On Monday, December 8, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Then on December 14, 1941 – just one week after Japan bombed the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, killing 2,402 Americans – a light-hearted film with Ann Sheridan and a young Jackie Gleason opened at the Talbott. Featuring “Hundreds of Honolulus,” the film “Navy Blues” was billed as “Oceans of Gals, Gobs and Glee!” and “fun for everyone.”
A few days after the September 11 attack, my dad asked all of us to meet him for dinner. We had the same conversation that every other family in the United States had been having over the dinner table that week. “Where were you when you heard?” we asked each other. “What do you think will happen?” we wanted to know.
My dad was 16 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and 76 years old on September 11, 2001. During that dinner, I asked him which day was worse. He looked at my 77-year-old stepmother in surprise, and without hesitation, they both answered that in their view, the attacks of September 11 were much, much worse.
Huh. I never would’ve known that if I hadn’t asked the question. If you’re lucky enough to spend the holidays with someone who lived through WWII, either as a soldier or as a civilian on the homefront, take a minute to ask them about their experiences. Ask them what they were doing when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor, where they were when they learned the War had ended, and what their life was like in the days between. You might be surprised by what you learn.
A version of this post originally appeared in HistoricIndianapolis.com.