Oral History Audio Interview with Joseph J. Erhard
about the Sheridan Theater
JOSEPH: My name, it’s Joseph J. Ehrhard. I’m an editor. I’m 87 years old. I came to the area, the Brightwood area, in 1935, in the house across from Ft. Stevens, which is about a block away, a couple of blocks away from the Sheridan. The Sheridan wasn’t there at that time. Frame houses lined Georgia Avenue at that time. What else did you want to know?
INTERVIEWER: So, long did you live in that area for?
JOSEPH: From 1935 until 1951, with two years out in the Army.
INTERVIEWER: And, what was it like then?
JOSEPH: Well, it changed a great deal in 1936, or I should say ’37, because they rezoned the area for apartments, apartment buildings.The area was very rural, at the, when I moved in. And, there had been a flurry of residential homes building during the ‘20s, and so that a great deal of the area was already built up. Where my house stood until 1935, there was a dairy farm, which gives you an idea. There were several dairy farms around in the area, and there were a lot of African Americans living there; we called ‘em ‘colored’ then. And, they were descendants of the slaves who had worked on the farms which were all around Ft. Stevens. And, in 1936, they rezoned the area to allow apartment buildings. You’ll notice that south of Ft. Stevens Drive that it’s all apartment buildings. And, north of Ft. Stevens Drive, it’s all homes, residential homes.
INTERVIEWER: Was there also quite a large Joseph:wish community?
JOSEPH: Uh, yes! But, that came with the war. The Joseph:wish community came with the apartment buildings, actually. During the Depression, the government was getting bigger and bigger and there were more and more people coming into Washington. And, a lot of Joseph:ws were among them. I had a lot of friends who are Joseph:wish when I was growing up. And, there were two Joseph:wish delicatessens in the area right around the Sheridan Theater. There was even a Kosher restaurant near the Colony Theater. Do you know the Colony Theater.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t.
JOSEPH: Well, you see, before the Sheridan, people had to go to the Colony or the Takoma. And, then, there was the SECO [stands for Suburban Electric Company] which was in Silver Spring, and the York which was at Georgia Avenue and New Hampshire. But, that was pretty much it. So, the Sheridan filled the void, when it came in 1937, January of 1937.
INTERVIEWER: So, do you remember going to the Sheridan?
JOSEPH: Do I remember going to…well, I went to it all the time. You mean the first time I went to it?
INTERVIEWER: Anytime. I’d love to know any stories that stand out and also how often you went, what it was like when you usually went, did you go every the same day every week?
JOSEPH: Well, as a child, we would go on Saturdays, the Saturday matinee. That’s because the, they had the serial. The first movie I remember seeing at the Sheridan in January of, maybe it was February of 1937 was a ‘Jungle Jim’ serial with Grant Withers and Betty Jane Rhodes and Henry Brandon. And, I especially remember the trailer, the preview, which was for a picture called ‘Green Light’ which was based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel, with Errol Flynn and Anita Louise. The film that struck my fancy the most was later on that year, one called ‘Sh! the Octopus,’ and it was a science fiction fantasy. But, this very striking scene near the end where the old lady who’s not a suspect at all turns out to be the mad scientist. And, its amazing special effect, without, just with lighting. With the most amazing special effects I’ve ever seen in the movies.
INTERVIEWER: Even now, even with things like ‘Gravity?’
JOSEPH: Even now. You can see, it’s on the internet.
Interviewer: I’d love to see it.
JOSEPH: Just look up, ‘Sh! The Octopus,’ that’s s-h-exclamation point, the octopus, and you’ll see it.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, wonderful.
JOSEPH: And, I remember that. I still remember it; the actress’ name Elspeth Dudgeon who does it, and she specialized in playing men, in the old dark house, she plays a man.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what it felt like going to the movies?
JOSEPH: Well, it was an amazing experience. Well, you know, are you a communications major, or?
INTERVIEWER: I’m a documentary filmmaker.
JOSEPH: Well, so you know how it is when you walk into that theater you’re walking into a different world. And, that’s how I felt, and I still feel that way; as lousy as the movies are now, I still feel like I’m walking into a fantasy world. And, of course, that was part of Everson’s idea, was that this was the first act; the beginning of the movie was walking into the theater itself. And, the theaters before the Great Depression were fantasy theaters. Afterwards, they were very functional theaters. The Sheridan was a functional theater; just a lot of horizontal lines, very few thrills.
INTERVIEWER: So, what did it look like inside because we’ve actually had a very hard time finding photographs of it.
JOSEPH: Well, as you entered the outer lobby and you bought your ticket, you would enter into a foyer or a lobby which as really part of the auditorium itself. It was rather large. It had to be large because their crowds were so large then themselves that they had to put the people somewhere while they waited to be seated. And, people didn’t care when they went in, they didn’t care whether they went in in the middle of the movie or the beginning or the end. It’s amazing. But, it was, there were at the time, when they were really, really succesful, and this would be during the years of World War II, there would be 16 people working in the theater itself, and it wasn’t that large. I think the seating was under a thousand.
JOSEPH: And, you would enter and an usher would take your ticket and there as a candy, candy lady at the counter during busy times, on the right. Usually it was a machine like now, you would have a candy counter, but on the left was the ladies’ room which was a fairly elaborate and on the right farther in was the men’s room, which was also the entrance to the proJoseph:ction booth, which was above the lobby. Then, there would be ushers for each aisle; there were four aisles, and a middle aisle. There would be two ushers to contain the crowds on either side. I remember the name of the manager of the Sheridan for years, for about 15 years. He was a very young man but very portly, very fat. His name was Jay Snoot.
INTERVIEWER: Was it family run?
JOSEPH: No, this was a Stanley Warner chain theater. Stanley Warner was the exhibition arm of Warner Bros. As you know, as a filmmaker, you know the most difficult part of making a film is getting it shown.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I know that only too well.
JOSEPH: So, they solved that problem by owning the theaters themselves; so, I think all of the neighborhood theaters in Washington were owned by Stanley Warner, which was owned by Warner Bros. And, so Warner Bros. never had to worry about exhibiting their films, at least not in Washington.
INTERVIEWER: Ha, because they had a monopoly on it.
JOSEPH: They had the monopoly. Downtown on F Street you had a little bit better, the big theaters up there were the RKO Keith, which was owned by RKO. The Loews Fox, later the Loews Capital and the Loews Palace and Loews Columbia; they were all owned by MGM. Loews was MGM. Then there was also the Metropolitan on F Street and further down on E Street is, at E and 13th there, is the Errol. Both the Metropolitan and the Errol were owned by Warner Bros. So, you could see how they had it all sewed up.
INTERVIEWER: So, how much was it to go to the Sheridan?
JOSEPH: There was a ticket sales girl in a booth and she was right on the street and you would buy a ticket, she was locked in the booth because of course, she was taking money. And, from time to time Mr. Snoot would come and collect the money and take it back to his office, which was just off the lobby on the left-hand side. Pretty unceremonious; you just bought a ticket and you walked through the door and the usher tore your ticket and gave you back a stub which allowed you to leave the theater for a short period of time, if you wanted, and come back.
INTERVIEWER: And, how much was it?
JOSEPH: When I was going it was 15 cents for a child before 6 o’clock and 20 cents for an adult. Pretty much it was that for 10 years or so. So, it was a wonderful way to get cool in the summer for hardly anything because they didn’t have air conditioning anywhere except in the theaters.
INTERVIEWER: And, did the Sheridan function as a community center like was it someplace that people really went to with their friends?
JOSEPH: Yeah, it was the center of Brightwood. Before that the center of Brightwood had been the Car Barn, the streetcar barn which was a few bloks down, south of where the Sheridan was built. And, there was also a Catholic church, a very big Catholic church called Nativity. I think it’s still there. And, there was another church called Emory, which is probably still there. That one was about a hundred years old. Anyway, as soon as the Sheridan was built, it became the center of the community. At that time, they had a Parsons shop concept. Are you familiar with that?
INTERVIEWER: A little bit, but I’d like to hear about it from you.
JOSEPH: Well, anyway, it was the idea that you didn’t just build a theater, you built a shopping, virtually a shopping center, with parking and everything you would need so the whole block from Rittenhouse to Sheridan on the east side of Georgia Avenue, was in the concept, the Sheridan concept – park and shop. Around the place where you could park, you had a 5 and 10 cent store, Kresgy’s 5 and 10 cent store, the supermarket, the beauty parlor, a bakery, a dry cleaner, a big Peoples Drug store, then the Sheridan Theater, then an ice cream parlor, a men’s habidasher, a Sheridan Joseph:wish delicatessen and Martha Washington candy. These were all, these all came with the Sheridan. So, they were creating a shopping community. You can say, I wouldn’t say it was designated as such, but that’s what it was; it was a community, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: And so, do you remember going…did you go with friends, did you go with family? Can you tell me a couple of your personal stories and experiences with the Sheridan?
JOSEPH: Well, over the years it varies. At first I went with my mother and brother, then I went with friends, and then I went alone.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about those, like what was the first time like?
JOSEPH: The first time I went with my mother, that’s when I saw ‘Jungle Jim.’ One thing about the Sheridan was, I had been going to the Colony which required walking, it was about a mile away. I had to walk a mile and back to go to the Colony. And, the Sheri--, the Colony was built in 1924 so its sound equipment came along with the birth of sound. And, the Sheridan was brand new. It was state of the art. It had a wonderful sound system, and at the Colony, sometimes you couldn’t hear what the people were saying. But, you never had any trouble that way with the Sheridan. It was a great state-of-the-art theater for many years.
INTERVIEWER: How cool.
JOSEPH: I left Washington in 1951; it was still, it still seemed modern.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that’s impressive.
JOSEPH: Incidentally, my mother took me to the first sound picture. I was about three months old, and she took me to see the Al Jolson picture which introduced sound.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that must have been amazing. Joe, you have an impeccable memory.
JOSEPH: Impeccable? Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it’s remarkable. So, can you tell me a little more sort of personally, I lookef at some of the things that you wrote on the blog, and it said that you used to go ther with your brother who had polio and also that you used to play on the construction site. I’d love to hear a couple more personal stories from you about your experiences there.
JOSEPH: Well, I can tell you a very strange story which doesn’t have much to do with the Sheridan, but it happened in front of the Sheridan.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, let’s hear it.
JOSEPH: It’s Georgia Avenue, which is street cars street, which meant they had street car tracks that didn’t allow for too much except what was traffic. But, one Saturday afternoon out of nowhere there was a parade. This was before World War II, and I have no idea what the parade was about but it lasted about a hald an hour. And, it was all men dressed as women. And, I think that it had something to do with the fire department. But, I think that it eminated from the fire house which was below Missouri Avenue, I guess. Are you familiar with the neighborhood?
INTERVIEWER: I am, yeah.
JOSEPH: Well, you know there’s a fire house there, I think that it had something to do with the firemen, but why they would dress like women I don’t know. And, there was a band, there was music, and they marched down in front of the Sheridan Theater, inexplicably, and then disappeared.
INTERVIEWER: Ha, that must have been so weird.
JOSEPH: I was a child so I never questioned it, I thought, well, this is what happens every… (laughing)
INTERVIEWER: Right, this is supposed to happen.
JOSEPH: Incidentally, we called, we didn’t say ‘theater,’ we said ‘thee-AY-ter.’ It was always pronounced, the Sheridan TheAYter.
INTERVIEWER: Huh, interesting.
JOSEPH: I don’t know if it’s, it wouldn’t be that way anymore, but, it was until I left, and… when I went to California to go to school, people, I happened to be a theater major, and people laughed when I said the ‘theAYter’ major.
INTERVIEWER: And, so, you were an usher at the Sheridan, right?
JOSEPH: I was an usher. I was an usher in 1946 and when I came back from the Army in 1948.
INTERVIEWER: Did you like working there?
JOSEPH: Oh, I loved it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get to see free movies?
JOSEPH: Well, that’s all we did. We just stood there all, unless we were taking tickets, we would stand there waiting for people to come and we had a flashlight, we wore a little uniform with a bow tie and we would show people to their seats. People came in at all times, as I said before, so they needed a flashlight.
INTERVIEWER: So, did you sometimes watch the same movie like 10 times?
JOSEPH: Well, that’s an interesting concept because I think in one of my blogs I pointed out that you get to see the movie, you become so familiar with it that I noticed in the trailers, the previews, that they used different takes than the ones that were in the movie itself. Did you know that?
INTERVIEWER: No, I didn’t know that.
JOSEPH: And, frequently, the takes that they used for the preview would get a different reaction from the audience than it did in the movie itself. And, sometimes the reaction in the trailer was much better, it was a much better take that they, which was an outtake; I suppose they had outtakes.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I guess they must have. It’s funny, it seems like a socialogical experiment.
JOSEPH: And, they just, well they said, ‘Well, we don’t need these. You can use these for the trailer.’
INTERVIEWER: Castoffs. Ha. So, it seems, do you remember the Sheridan so clearly because you remember everything really clearly or because going to the movies was kind of a special experience?
JOSEPH: Well, I think that going to the movies is a special experience. I can remember, I can remember where I saw, if you name any movie that I ever saw, I can tell you where I saw it, the theater in which I saw it, and the conditions. And, that means that it was a special experience.
INTERVIEWER: And, what do you think about it is a special experience?
JOSEPH: Well, there’s nothing like it. You can’t get it in any other way. I don’t know why it is, because as a child, it was a special experience for my mother when she took me to the movies. I remember the first movie that I saw, consciously saw, it was two women had headshots, I should say shoulder and headshots, talking to each other and they were wearing cloche hats, which I don’t know when that went out of style. You can imagine how long ago that was. I said, ‘how did those women get up there?’ And, my mother explained to me about movies. I think that movies are, well, you must think so or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, so do you think there’s a difference between now when you watch things on your computer or on a DVD at home vs. when people used to go out to the movies?
JOSEPH: Yes, of course, there’s a difference. The convenience is marvelous at home, but it’s not the same experience. For example, I told you before that I remembered one of the first things I saw at the Sheridan was the trailer for ‘Green Light,’ well, I first saw that movie about a week ago on TCM, Turner Classic Movies. Now, in those days, when you saw a movie, as soon as the movie left the theater, it was lost history. Nobody ever expected to see that or hear of that movie again. Unless, they went to the next theater, they had different, the theaters that you know, would get the movies in order. The Sheridan was about third in order after F Street and the Tivoli and the Ambassador, which were the intermediate theaters between the downtown theaters and the neighborhood theaters. But, the Sheridan was a first-run neighborhood theater.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think the Sheridan declined? Do you know sort of what happened to it when it sort of went out of business and what helped it…
JOSEPH: Yeah, two things. The government, the justice department ruled against studios owning the exhibiting. They couldn’t own Stanley Warner anymore so they didn’t have a guaranteed venue for their film. And, television. Those two things were enough to destroy anything.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any other thoughts or stories that you wanted to share about the Sheridan or about your experience with going to the movies?
JOSEPH: I thought of another story. Gangs of little boys would buy one ticket and enter the theater then open the exit door and let in the rest of the gang during the show. That was something the ushers had to watch out for.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, in fact, we spoke to, yesterday, we spoke to a bunch of guys that were still in the neighborhood, still in the Sheridan neighborhood, that had grown up there, and they told us about how they used to sneak people in all the time.
JOSEPH: Well, you know Washington was different, the theaters would be different because it was not affected by the Great Depression.