Many things make the Historic Artcraft Theatre different from other theaters, but one of its unique charms is that the staff and volunteers help break the fourth wall, inviting moviegoers into the world of the movie on the screen. Once the popcorn and concessions immerse you as you walk through the door, you take your seat and begin settling into the night of fun. What you often don't get from other theaters is a pre-show. At the Artcraft, one of the pre-show acts features a prize wheel where you could win a fabulous prize.
The historic steely cage sits on two rolling feet atop a wooden stand carved with Art Deco rounded edges. The metal rod on its side turns its weighted cylinder cage, ensuring all the tickets are evenly and randomly distributed. A little metal door that closes with a latch, locking in attendees' ticket stubs, secures their chance to win a fabulous prize.
Rob Shilts, director of Franklin Heritage, Inc. presumes that the prize wheel began somewhere in the '30s or '40s and continued being used through the decades, well into the ‘70s. In the early years, the prize wheel was used during Bank Night, also known as Dividend Night or Cash Night.
Bank Night was a lottery game franchise that thrived during the Great Depression. Invented and marketed by Charles U. Yaeger, a former booking agent for 20th Century Fox, the game ran as a franchise that was leased to theaters for $5 to $50 a week, depending on their size. The payment entitled the owner to run an event called Bank Night, and each owner was given a film reel with a Bank Night trailer, a registration book, and equipment to draw numbers to pick winners.
Anyone could enter their name in a book kept by the theater manager, and on Bank Night, a name would be drawn randomly. At the Artcraft, the name was pulled out of the incredible prize wheel. The person selected must reach the stage within a set amount of time to claim their prize, usually a few minutes.
In 1936, 5,000 of America's 15,000 active theaters played Bank Night, and copies of it were played at countless more, according to a 2010 archived Time article from 1937.
At the Artcraft, the tickets entered for Bank Night were never removed from the prize wheel. Tickets from one night's show would stay in for the next, making the chances to win smaller and the prize wheel chalked full of names. The prize money would also roll over into the next Bank Night if someone didn't win the prize. $10 would turn into $20. $20 would turn into $40… and it kept going.
Sometime in 1946, a woman who was a part of the Women's Air Corps came into the theatre and put her name into the Bank Night Raffle and didn't win. Ten years later, she came back with a friend. By then, she was married and looking for a house with her new husband. When they were spinning the prize wheel, they picked her name out. Being in her newlywed daze, she didn't recognize her name called by the theatre manager. After her girlfriend elbows her in the arm and goes, "That's you! You have to get up on stage," she gets up from her seat, confused, and walks up on stage. The manager says, "Do you realize what you just won? You won $1,000!"
Back in the 1950s, $1,000 was about a fifth of the price of what a house got. From her winnings, she and her husband used the money as a downpayment on their home.
Throughout the '50s and '60s, many other moviegoers won prizes from the wheel, like pieces of China or Tupperware. At the end of the day, these efforts were to get people in the seats and fill the theatre each night. Most theaters would not require people to purchase a ticket to enter the theater for Bank Night. While not technically requiring any purchase and thus circumventing the numerous local lottery laws of the time, Bank Night had the effect of drawing people to theaters, many of whom bought tickets anyway because the event was during the movie's intermission.
While you may not win a cash prize at the Artcraft today, there are plenty of other major awards moviegoers can win from the wheel. When scanning your ticket upon entrance to the theatre, the attendant will take a part of your ticket sub and enter it into the drawing. Make sure to keep the other half of your ticket! During the pre-show, you may have a chance to win a fabulous prize sponsored by a local business or family within the area. In past prize wheel awards, a lucky person may have won a miniature leg lamp during the showing of "The Christmas Story." Others have won a princess costume in light of "Miss Congeniality" or a pack of candy cigarettes for the showing of "American Graffiti." (I won a jar of jelly from the fictional Jelly of the Month Club when I watched "Christmas Vacation" with my family last year!)
"The prize wheel adds an extra layer of fun. I think many people were surprised when we brought it back, but to me, it just made sense. If this was used onstage way back when, and people enjoyed it when, please, by all means, bring that back and let this newer generation understand and appreciate, too," said Rob. "Families will bring all of their kids. A family of eight has eight tickets, a better chance of winning. One family came and won, letting their kid walk up and claim the prize. The little goober's eyes were huge. That image will never go away. They will always remember how they went to the theatre and won a prize. Those things made the older time of movie-going so memorable – It wasn't just a movie, it was an experience."
So let's turn the stage over to you. What are your favorite memories about the prize wheel? Do you remember bank nights or cash nights from back in the day? Tell us your stories! Comment on this post or submit them here.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.