When you think of the Historic Artcraft Theatre, do you think of the Rembusch family? The Rembusch family shaped cinema in Indiana for three generations. In this three-part series, we get to peek inside the Artcraft’s archives to look at this prominent family in Artcraft history.
Trueman Rembusch was a dedicated showman. Not only was he strong-willed and willing to stand up for his values, but he was also a voice for independent theater owners across the Midwest and beyond. Following in his father, Frank Rembusch’s footsteps, Trueman took the principles his father held and ran with them, making the local theaters under his company dazzling Art Deco beauties that were the hearts of their communities.
I sat down with Glenn Faris, history and preservation coordinator of Franklin Heritage, Inc. to talk about Trueman’s life, legacy, and the impact he has left in Franklin.
Megan: So let’s start with the early days. Where did Trueman begin in the theater business?
Glenn: Trueman started working at theaters and he was pretty young. He went to Notre Dame for about a year or two but then transitioned into working in movie theaters. He installed sound equipment and ran the projector. My favorite story about Truman was when he was young, about 19, his father, Frank Rembusch wanted to show movies on Sundays in Columbus. At the time, Columbus still had a blue law — meaning it was against city ordinance to show movies on Sunday because it was Sabbath desecration. Frank was arrested because he showed a movie and Trueman was the owner of the theater. Truman got arrested because he was a projectionist. And so like, at 19, he was in jail with his dad for showing movies on a Sunday in Columbus.
The first big legal fight that Truman got involved in was his dad's lawsuit against the blue law in Columbus. It's interesting. That was in the 1920s.
We have a photo from like — the 40s of him — at the projector with a cigarette in between his teeth and changing movie reels. So he definitely used a lot of those skills later on, and to be a voice for the perspective of independent theaters.
Megan: When did Trueman take over the theater business from his father?
Glenn: The transition of Trueman taking over the theaters happened very quickly because Frank’s health was declining. Frank passed away in 1936. That same year, Trueman founded Syndicate Theaters and transferred all of the theaters his father owned to that company.
Megan: Where was home base for Trueman?
Glenn: His headquarters was the Artcraft. So even though he was living in Indianapolis, his father was from Shelbyville, and he chose Franklin as his central place of operation. His offices used to be behind the projection booth in the areas that are now our volunteer office and our costume room. In the 1950s, he moved his offices eventually to 55 and a half East Court Street, above what is now the Beer Hall.
That building is actually an art deco building. In the very front, if you ever noticed, it has terrazzo floors on the ground, which is what we had at the theater. And Truman was a big shot — or believed he was a big shot — his whole life. His whole office still is designed as a Chicago skyline. He wanted people to feel like they went to a big movie office. And so his photographer went up to a Chicago skyscraper and took pictures of the view. And so if you were in his office, you thought, you know. like you're in Chicago. Those photo panels are still up over at 55 and a half East Court Street.
Megan: What were some of the highlights of his career?
Glenn: He had a really fun career. He started Syndicate Theatres in 1936. Trueman was president of Allied Theater Owners of Indiana, which was a conglomerate to support independent theater owners. And by independent I mean that they're not affiliated with a big distributor or movie studio. (i.e. Fox or Paramount) And then later, he was president of the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors (ASAMPE). He was really instrumental in independent theater organizations. In the 1960s, ASAMPE was folded into the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) which still exists today to promote theater owners and their interests.
When he was president of ASAMPE, that was the height of his career. He was president from 1945 to 1953. And while he was there, he had two really big campaigns or big platforms. The first was, he was on the anti-toll TV platform. This was when TV was first coming out and studios wanted to sell movies directly to the TV companies. And then consumers were to pay for the TV. And Truman said that's gonna kill my business. So along with a few other theater owners, he started a campaign to end toll TV, also known as pay-as-you-see or pay-as-you-view TV.
As part of that experiment, he actually bought a TV set in 1946 that still sits in the lobby of the Artcraft. It sits right outside of the women's bathroom. It looks like a big cabinet, but it is a joint TV/Radio. Patrons could come in and watch cartoons on the three channels before or after shows. He actually used it to draw people to Franklin and into the theater, because no one else in Franklin had a TV at the time. He definitely was using it to see the business draw of TV and experiment with it. But he was also against what TV could be.
Megan: That is so fascinating! The next time I’m at the Artcraft, I’ll look for Trueman’s TV. What was the second campaign that highlighted his career?
Glenn: The second big campaign Trueman was a part of was about anti-big studios and distribution. His whole career actually goes in this direction. So first some background about how movie studios worked There are three parts of a movie studio, there are the producers, the distributors, and the exhibitors. Producers are the ones who make the movie. Distributors are the ones who send the move out to be shown. The exhibitors are the ones who show the move.
In America, you had the Sherman Antitrust Laws passed during the Progressive Era there that says you can't have a monopoly. Starting in the 1930s, there were official lawsuits against Hollywood about how they were monopolistic. World War Two delayed these lawsuits, but they were resumed after the war, which led to what we call the Paramount Decrees in 1948. These Paramount decrees divorced the theaters from their studios. And that's when a production company had to separate ownership from the distributor and the exhibitor.
Truman was a big proponent of these decrees. He thought that a lot of theaters and studios were circumventing the Paramount decrees from 1948. He had several big court cases. One really big one, from 1956 to 1963, was when he challenged a studio because they were doing a practice called block booking. And they were discriminating against small-town rural theaters.
The main point of his case was about how the theaters up in Indianapolis got to show The Ten Commandments — a really big movie at the time — and his theaters in Franklin and Columbus didn’t get to show the movie until almost a year later. He said that they were withholding it from his theater so that they could draw people from the smaller communities into Indianapolis. To fight back, he instituted a “Pay-As-You-Wish” scheme. When he finally got The Ten Commandments, he said, “Whatever you think you want to pay for this movie, that's the price of admission.” Everyone got to choose what they paid — a penny, a dollar, whatever. The studio got so mad at him and sued him. So it was back and forth. But Trueman never let the studios get the best of him, and that case really defined part of Truman's career.
The funny thing about Truman is that he collected a lot of data and stories from other theater owners across the country that were part of the different regional theater organizations. And he used those stories and the data in court. It is fun to see him standing up for independence in everything he did. He was very cognizant of what he was doing and who he was doing it for.
Megan: Besides the movie world, was there anything else Trueman was involved in?
Glenn: Besides just the theater world, Truman was really big on anything in entertainment. He was the president of the State Fair Board for a short time. While he was president, he was involved with horse racing. And invented what he called the ‘race-a-lator’, which was a horse race timing machine. It got a patent in the US, the UK, and Canada. He also helped with the Hoosier 100 car race that happened at the State Fair.
He also owned two radio stations in Indiana. One down in Columbus and one in Wabash. The purpose of the Columbus radio station was to get and send theater and movie reviews that were not movie reviews from Hollywood Studios. He wanted like the boots on the ground, to be able to broadcast that out to theaters in the Midwest. Trueman also added sound equipment to all of his theaters and added Art Deco renovations to all his theaters.
Megan: Trueman did so much, some we haven’t even covered. Overall, what do you think is the legacy that Trueman has left in Franklin and for independent theater owners?
Glenn: Trueman was a national leader for standing up for independence. His dad, Frank, was too, but Trueman took it to a national perspective, for a longer period. He was locally respected by theater owners and by the community. During his time, especially in the 50s, the Artcraft was a big community hub, and that was because of him and his managers.
And then he was known nationally. He was a leader in and fought for independence and local theater owners. Every lawsuit he was involved in, was under the refrain that he was doing it for the underdog. He was a fighter. If there's a word to describe Trueman, he was a fighter. He took everything to coordinate that like he was gonna get. He knew his rights and he knew the law, and he was gonna make sure that they matched up. That's his big legacy.
Be on the lookout for part III in this series about Mike Rembush, coming soon! You can also read Part I of the series on Frank Rembush.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.