top of page
  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

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.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42, any woman who saw a movie at the Talbott theater was offered a free piece of Harker Bakerite Oven-Tested Dinnerware (shown above).

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.

Three of my favorite movies were playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1942. “Shadow of the Thin Man,” the fourth movie in the popular series with William Powell and Mryna Loy, opened in a double-feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” on February 8, 1942. The previous week, “The Maltese Falcon” was one of the featured films.

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.

My dad entered the Army upon his graduation from high school, serving with the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Germany, Belgium and France. He only talked with me once about the war, just a few weeks before he died in 2007.

A version of this post originally appeared in

134 views0 comments

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

In May 1920, The Indianapolis Star published a special edition commemorating the city’s Centennial celebration.  Then, in February 1936, The Indianapolis News came out with its own special edition in honor of the city’s 100th birthday.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but based on everything I’ve ever heard or read, a Centennial only comes round once every hundred years. It’s always been my understanding that 1920 was the date firmly fixed by city leaders for the Centennial celebration; in fact, I’d written an HI article about the week-long festivities in June 1920 that literally involved a cast of thousands.  So I was understandably confused to discover that Indianapolis celebrated another 100th birthday a mere 16 years later.

But come to think of it, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. In the absence of a birth certificate, city leaders have long struggled to pinpoint the official year and date when the city of Indianapolis was born.  In fact, this “birther” controversy has been brewing for nearly 200 years, going back to the heated pioneer-era dispute over whether George Pogue or John McCormick was the first settler to arrive on the scene.

So here’s how the controversy breaks down. One camp believes that the city’s official birthdate is June 7, 1820, when the commissioners charged with selecting a location for the new state capital chose a site near the mouth of Fall Creek in an area that would later become Marion County. Another camp believes that Indy’s birth occurred on January 6, 1821, when the General Assembly ratified the commissioners’ decision and voted to call the new capitol “Indianapolis.” And yet another much-smaller camp apparently believes that the city’s birth did not really occur until 1836, when the legislature granted Indianapolis its first town charter.

In 1920, a committee tasked with putting together a Centennial celebration for the city attempted to settle the question once and for all by fixing June 7, 1920 as the official date for Indy’s 100th birthday bash.  Noting the ongoing Pogue-McCormick dispute, the committee wrote in its report that June 7, 1820 should be decreed the official birthdate of Indianapolis because it is “the earliest date connected with the history of the city that is not subject to any controversy.”

Lending additional support to this argument was the simple fact a June celebration would encourage the participation of the city’s children, because “[i]t comes at the end of the school year, when pupils welcome celebrations of any kind.” Further, June 7, 1820 was the date of the beginning of commerce in Indianapolis, as evidenced by an entry in one of the commissioner’s diaries noting that he purchased 62 1/2 cents worth of whiskey and corn off a flatboat that arrived that day.

Fixing the date of our city’s birth was not an easy decision for the Centennial committee.  A group of civic leaders led an intense lobbying effort to delay the celebration until 1921, which would allow sufficient time to raise funds for a commemorative monument. But there already was precedent for celebrating the city’s birthday on June 7, and in the end, the committee saw no compelling reason to depart from that precedent.

The Evening News, April 11, 1870

In April 1870, the Indianapolis Board of Trade adopted a resolution calling on the citizenry to celebrate June 7, 1870 as “a day of jubilee, with such commemorative services as shall be suited to the proper celebration of the semi-centennial anniversary of the city.”

An executive committee headed by James M. Ray was quickly established, along with a number of subcommittees addressing arrangements, fundraising, music, fireworks, wagons and banners.  Local poets were invited to submit original odes for inclusion in the festivities, and painter Theodore Glessing was retained to create 10 banners representing different phases of the city’s history.

The executive committee asked the city council to approve a $2000 appropriation to help underwrite the cost of the Semi-Centennial. The appropriation was denied.

Reeling from the unexpected defeat, the Semi-Centennial committee scrambled to salvage the celebration.  A public notice was printed in The Evening News lamenting the fact that the city’s 50th birthday would pass without a celebration and inviting all “who feel like observing the day” to bring their picnic baskets to a gathering at Crown Hill Picnic Park.  Both young and old settlers were invited to attend the free event and “celebrate the day according to the dictates of their own conscience.”

Washington Street, circa 1825. T.B. Glessing was asked to paint 10 views of “old” Indianapolis in honor of the city’s Semi-Centennial. Only two were completed, neither of which survive.

Unfortunately, the 50th birthday bash was a bust.  Although a small group of the earliest surviving settlers made the trek to Crown Hill, apparently most of the younger residents decided that celebrating the day according to the dictates of their own conscience did not mean spending time with a bunch of old people in a cemetery.

The Evening News castigated the citizenry for the lack of public spirit shown on June 7 in an editorial that was curiously dated June 2.

”It is not very creditable to Indianapolis that she could not even get up a fitting celebration upon the fiftieth anniversary of her settlement,” the paper wrote. “It is still less creditable that her citizens will not even join in a picnic … when picnics are in season.”

Despite the half-hearted nature of the half-centennial celebration, the city’s Centennial committee opted to follow the precedent set in 1870 and observe the 100th birthday of Indianapolis on June 7, 1920.

So — correct me if I’m wrong here — both logic and math would dictate that the next big birthday bash — the city’s Sesquicentennial — would be celebrated 50 years later, on June 7, 1970.

Sadly, it appears that the citizens of Indy forgot the city’s 150th birthday. The June 7, 1970 edition of The Indianapolis Star mentions the 75th anniversary of Field & Stream magazine, the 30th anniversary of the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star basketball game, and the 50th wedding anniversary for Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Logan, 1616 Sturm Avenue.

But within the 166 pages of the June 7 Indianapolis Star, there was nary a mention of its namesake’s special day.


Now granted, Indianapolis was getting a little long in the tooth by the time June 7, 1970 rolled around.  Perhaps in an effort to appear more relevant to the mod hippie crowd,  the city decided to shave a year off its age.  But whatever the reason, the city’s “official” birthdate was now decreed to be January 6, 1971.

The Sesquicentennial celebration — aptly named “We Celebrate our City” — got underway on January 6 with a musical extravaganza at the Murat Theater. Additional events were scheduled throughout the year, including a queen contest and a fine arts program.  Recipes were solicited for a commemorative cookbook dubbed “Sesqui-Samplings,” and the Sesquicentennial Committee also commissioned the much-maligned Snowplow sculpture, which was relegated to the front of an INDOT garage until the Indianapolis Museum of Art purchased it in 1993.

In addition, a number of keepsake items were issued, most of which appear to encourage city residents to “Celebrate our City” by smoking and drinking.

Local author Edward A. Leary, who was commissioned by the Sesquicentennial committee to write a book detailing the story of Indianapolis, seemed perturbed by the city's decision to alter its birthdate.

In an article penned for The Indianapolis Star on June 6, 1970, he noted the 51-year gap between the city’s 100th birthday and its 150th birthday.

"The City’s 100th birthday was marked by a five-day celebration in 1920…..Now we’re observing the city’s 150th birthday with a year-long celebration [in 1971]…. Which leads to the question: Will the city celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2020 or 2021?"

As it turns out, the answer to Leary's question is both. The Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission has split the difference and is planning a series of celebratory events in 2020 and 2021.  

Regardless of which year our city was born -- and the plywood boards that are temporarily covering the windows of many downtown buildings - Indianapolis is looking great for her age. And why not? As they say, 200 is the new 140. Sure, her infrastructure may sag a bit — whose wouldn’t at 190+ years? — and her arteries are a little clogged, especially during rush hour. But overall, she’s held up pretty darn well through the years.

So here’s my message to you, Indy, in case you’re feeling a little sensitive about your age. Whether we observe your 200th birthday in 2020, 2021 or even in 2036, remember this — You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. Just don’t join the Red Hat Society.


A version of this article was originally published in 2016 in

459 views0 comments

H. Paul Prigg was the kind of man who liked to live on the edge.

In 1914, he joined the ranks of early automobile innovators when he opened a factory in Elwood that manufactured cyclecars, a type of tiny, lightweight car that could travel up to 50 miles on a gallon of gas.

In 1934, he set a world speed record of 38.54 miles per hour in a stock runabout motorboat of his own design.

And in November 20, 1918 - during a second wave of the deadly Spanish flu - he boldly defied local health authorities and stepped into the lobby of the Brevort Hotel in downtown Indianapolis without wearing a face mask.

Although Prigg's decision to flout the flu mask would not prove fatal - in fact, he would live for another 56 years - he and his two companions were promptly arrested, joining a handful of local scofflaws who were charged with profanity and other offenses after refusing to don a gauze "flu mask" as ordered by the Indianapolis Board of Health.

The Indianapolis Star, November 19, 1918

The mask mandate was imposed by board secretary Dr. Herman G. Morgan in November 1918 as a last-ditch effort to avert another wholesale shutdown of the city. Throughout most of October, all schools, theaters, movie houses, churches, poolrooms, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and “dry” beer saloons had been closed as the deadly flu swept through Indianapolis. Groceries and drug stores were allowed to remain open, but other retail shops in the downtown area were required to implement a staggered schedule in order prevent rush hour crowds on the streetcars, which were mandated to open their windows to improve ventilation.

These measures apparently worked their magic. Reported cases of the flu sharply declined, and on October 30, the shutdown order was lifted. Schools were set to reopen the following Monday. A semblance of normal life returned to the city, although Dr. Morgan - who was gaining a reputation as a bit of a killjoy - did urge residents to stay home on Halloween and avoid the downtown crowds.

But when the armistice with Germany was signed 11 days later, even the doctor's orders could not keep indy residents in their homes. Upon learning that the War to End all Wars had finally ended, a jubilant Mayor Jewett issued a statement asking the entire population of Indianapolis to gather on Monument Circle at 8 p.m. on November 11 to celebrate world peace.

And gather they did. Based on news reports, it appears that mostly everyone in the city chose to ignore Dr. Morgan's advice and instead headed to Circle to celebrate. According to The Indianapolis Star, cars were backed up for several blocks on each street leading to the Circle, which was packed with "thousands upon thousands of joy-mad pedestrians" in a "pandemonic pot-pourri."

The Indianapolis Star, Nov. 12, 1918

One week later, however, panic set in when local health authorities realized that the pandemonic potpourri surrounding the Circle on November 11 was actually a giant petri dish for the flu pandemic.

Nearly 700 new cases and nine flu-related deaths were reported in Indianapolis on November 18. The Board of Health acted swiftly to issue a mask mandate. According to Dr. Morgan, the board hoped that another "absolute closing order" could be prevented if the people of Indianapolis would simply mask up.

The Indianapolis mask mandate went into effect on November 19, 1918. Schools were also shut down, along with public libraries. Theaters, however, were allowed to remain open.

The following day, the Indianapolis Star reported that the mask order was "observed generally by the citizens of Indianapolis, so far as observation could show." Most streetcar passengers wore masks, although conductors made no effort to enforce the mandate. Businesses largely appeared to be in compliance, except for theaters, where most patrons declined to cover their faces.

Still struggling to recover from the October shutdown, theater owners promptly vowed to take action to enforce the order. At the Park Theater, for example, each patron received a free Red Cross flu mask with the purchase of a ticket to the featured movie, "The Other Man's Wife." Twelve other theaters - including the Circle, Lyric and Alhambra - ran a huge ad in the November 20 Indianapolis Star reminding patrons that they were required to wear their masks continuously throughout the entire performance.

At the same time, however, the theater ad also urged patrons to try the "Laugh Cure" while somewhat speciously asserting that "Clean, Wholesome Amusement is the World's Most Effective Antidote for All Ills."

The Indianapolis News, November 20, 1918

The seeming incongruity of an order that allowed movie theaters to remain open while shutting down public schools was not lost on the IPS School Board, which promptly wrote the Board of Health urging the reopening of city high schools. In response, Dr. Morgan pointed out that students are compelled by law to attend school whereas moviegoers have the option to decide whether to risk their lives by going to the theater.

Over the next few days, the number of flu cases continued to rise. Opposition to the mask mandate was also growing. Some Indianapolis residents complained that the masks impaired their ability to breathe and also exposed them to the risk of "self-infection." Others questioned the efficacy of gauze masks in preventing the spread of the deadly flu. And the comical effect on one's appearance of a huge piece of gauze likely dissuaded some of the more fashion-conscious locals from wearing a mask.

The Indianapolis Star, November 20, 1918. It's unclear from the text of the ad whether Ayres is promoting the chiffon veil as a covering for the mask, or as an actual mask.

The Board of Health attempted to use science and reason to assuage these concerns. Dr. Morgan pointed out that gauze masks - which had long been utilized by medical professionals - had been proven to be successful in preventing the wearer from both spreading and contracting infectious diseases.

A study published in the Oct. 12, 1918 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association backed up Dr. Morgan's assertion. Plates were placed in front of masked subjects at distances of up to 10 feet. No bacteria cropped up after five minutes of talking in loud tones, and only one plate at a distance of two feet showed two colonies of bacteria after five minutes of violent coughing. Conversely, plates as far as 10 feet away from unmasked subjects showed multiple colonies of bacteria after five minutes of coughing.

Despite the local Board of Health's efforts to persuade the so-called "mask knockers" that the face coverings were safe and effective, even the Indiana State Board of Health chose to ignore the mask mandate. When the State Board met in Indianapolis on November 20, none of its members were wearing masks. The State Board's secretary, Dr. John N. Hurty, later explained that the epidemic had grown to such proportions that wearing masks or shutting down schools and businesses would have little effect.

According to Dr. Hurty - who would later be revered as the "Father of Public Health in Indiana" and reviled as a proponent of eugenics - the epidemic just needed to run its course. As an example, he pointed to New York, where everything remained open, yet the flu did far less damage than in Washington, D.C., where the city shut down.

Following the Indiana State Board of Health's brazen refusal to comply with the Indianapolis mask mandate, a group of prominent citizens urged the local health department to enforce the order against scofflaws at the Statehouse and the courthouse.

As the letter made clear, however, their objective was not the protection of public health, but the invalidation of the mask order. Prosecution of high-ranking public officials for failure to wear a mask would quickly lead to a challenge of the order, the letter reasoned, which in turn would unveil the fact that Dr. Morgan lacked any authority to require the city to mask up.

One of the ringleaders of this effort was attorney Robert I. Marsh. This was not Marsh's first go-round with the local health department. Two years earlier, he represented local parents who were fighting a Board of Health order that required all school children to be vaccinated against typhoid fever. In an appearance before the IPS School Board, Marsh argued that the vaccine was ineffective and the order was illegal.

The Indianapolis Star, September 10, 1927

Two days after Marsh and his co-complainers submitted their letter to Dr. Morgan, the Board of Health rescinded the mask order. This decision, however, was not prompted by the letter but instead was based on a steep decrease in infection rates since the order had gone into effect.

In lifting the mask order, Dr. Morgan noted that "some opposition" had developed over the past few days but nonetheless praised Indianapolis residents for their spirit of cooperation, at least initially. "The wearing of masks enabled the city to continue business along at least partly normal lines," he told The Indianapolis News. "It prevented a large number of persons from being deprived of employment, a situation that would have developed if a closing ban on all forms of business had been established."

The Indianapolis News, November 25, 1918

4,476 views0 comments
bottom of page