FEATURE — The buildings are still there, but their “souls,” at least as Hurricane old-timers knew them, are long gone.
Graff Mercantile and the Eugene Theater were Hurricane institutions back in the day. Ask anyone who grew up in Hurricane about these two places and more than likely, they will light up with a whimsical smile and spout off some of their favorite memories of these two places with prominent positions in the town’s folklore.
The two businesses were neighbors on the east side of north Main Street with Dean Clark’s drugstore in between. Their proprietors lived in neighboring residences across the street (the west side) with one house in between.
Some might forget, however, that both businesses as they are remembered now were actually second iterations that started with the same owner, Charles Petty.
Petty Mercantile and the Star Theater
Anyone walking the sidewalk on the east side of Main Street just north of its intersection with State Street in Hurricane can see reminders of Petty’s hand in giving birth to the two businesses now known better by other monikers. “Star Theater” is stamped in the concrete on the sidewalk in front of the former movie theater, which now houses apartments, and “Petty Mercantile” in front of “Graff’s,” which is now a flower market.
In 1912, Charles Petty, along with a partner, Melbourne DeMille, dismantled a building in Rockville and rebuilt it in Hurricane, which became a brick store on the northeast corner of State and Main in Hurricane. DeMille sold his interest to Petty in 1918 and moved to Monroe, Utah.
“In the store, shelves covered the walls, floor to ceiling on the north and south walls, and tall ladders ran at an angle on a ceiling track; a clerk could push the ladders to reach any item on the shelves,” reads an informative poster about Petty Mercantile at the Hurricane Valley Heritage Museum.
The Star Theater got its start in 1914, even before the town was wired for electricity.
“(Petty) ran the projector from a gasoline motor that created a loud ‘putt, putt’ sound heard all over Hurricane; residents flocked to the theater in response,” Hurricane native and University of Utah history professor W. Paul Reeve wrote in a story in the August 1995 “History Blazer.”
“Petty recognized an opportunity with the budding motion picture industry and converted the northern part of his store into the 350-seat Star Theater,” Jeff Harding wrote in an article in Hurricane Valley Magazine in 2004.
At first, the Star Theater presented black-and-white silent movies varying in length from a few minutes to just over an hour with a player-piano accompanying it to enhance the experience by providing mood music. On weekends, though, a live pianist provided the accompaniment. The movie added sound after the first sound movie, “The Jazz Singer,” came out in 1927.
In 1928, Petty sold the store to Emil James (known as E.J.) Graff and the movie theater to John Judd of LaVerkin and moved to Salt Lake City to start Petty Motors.
Emil James Graff, was “a most prominent and distinctive icon in his self-created dynasty” and had “attained the unofficial position of King of Washington County,” his son Shirl wrote in his biography. His alleged position as county royalty was a stark contrast to his upbringing in a poor farming family.
As a child, he moved from Oregon to Southern Utah and learned hard work as a ranch hand while a teenager.
He graduated from Dixie College and became a frugal school teacher who once taught in LaVerkin’s one-room schoolhouse. While a teacher, he started investing in real estate, which opened a whole new vision of economic possibilities, so he quit the teaching job to pursue those interests. It was while he was living in LaVerkin that he met his wife, the former LaVerna Slack, at a dance.
At the time he purchased the old Petty Mercantile, he already owned a store in LaVerkin and wanted to expand his business. He later bought stores in Leeds and Springdale. He was quite an entrepreneur as he had interests in real estate, cattle, turkey, chicken, and egg businesses and amassed quite a fortune because of this diversity and his business acumen.
Some old timers remarked that it got to the point that Graff employed half the town of Hurricane among his different enterprises. However, his main focus was his store.
“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” was Graff’s motto, and he held true to it with his vast selection of merchandise.
In addition to the grocery essentials, the store carried hardware, including bolts, nails, horseshoes, mower parts and pipe, among others. It also provided baled hay and other animal feed, dry goods, furniture, lumber and even caskets. He had a shed in back of the store to increase its carrying capacity. He believed in helping the local economy by buying local produce and products, doing his best to give his customers good prices by making his mark-ups low.
Graff apparently was a shrewd marketer and included the words “sheepmen’s supplies” in his advertising from the beginning.
“This ad remained on his sales literature for decades and when I asked him about it in 1980, he explained that sheepmen were once the rich guys in town, and they would come and outfit their sheep wagons for the year in one big purchase,” longtime store manager Devin Ruesch wrote in an unpublished history for his family. By negotiating right, he would either extend credit or sell on cash but would get huge sales from those sheepmen who ran sheep all over Southern Utah and the Arizona Strip that would shear sheep in the springtime at the Gould’s Corral.”
Like Ruesch, many Hurricane residents worked at the store and it became a stepping stone for bigger and better things for some of them. In fact, Clifton Wilson worked for Graff’s before he went away to fight in World War II. When he came back, he went into business for himself, starting Clifton’s Market across the street to the south. Clifton’s eventually became Lin’s.
“With fresh meat, electronic cash registers, and new equipment, he soon was competing well with his former employer, buying from AG, a different supplier,” Ruesch explained.
Even though Clifton’s was the newer store, Graff’s was still dominant. People shopped there from all over Southern Utah, buying case lot goods on sale, somewhat like a Costco, Ruesch wrote.
Ruesch actually got his start in the grocery business working for Clifton’s as a teenager in the 1960s. In 1976, however, newly married and out of work, Mr. Graff sought out Ruesch and offered him a job. Save for a brief hiatus, it became his primary employment and he was eventually named store manager. Ruesch started out, however, working for Graff’s farming enterprises. Graff took notice of Ruesch’s hard work and hired him to work at the store for a higher wage. Ruesch said he passed Graff’s integrity test and was taken in by the Graffs as family.
The store’s main labor force was high school students, Ruesch noted, but it also had a team of veteran ladies who were pillars of the community, such as Zona Wright, grandmother to the Wright brothers of rodeo fame, as well as Marzell Covington, Gwenivere White, Stella Zaleski, Vivian Heaton and others.
Not only were the kind employees memorable, but the overall atmosphere was endearing to many. One of the store’s hallmarks was its wooden floor, which, to keep the dust down, would need to be oiled several times a year. The floors had a reputation for being squeaky. Over a century old, they are still there and are part of the charm of visiting the two businesses that now occupy the building: Wild Blooms on the west side of the building and Mercantile Gifts and Consignment on the east side.
Another thing about the store old-timers remember well were its delicious blocks of cheese. A good memory for many children who grew up during the store’s existence was buying penny candy. Some recounted that they would gather change at the baseball fields and use it to stock up on the sweet stuff.
Since things in the store stayed the same for so long it had a reputation for being “old fashioned.” One old fashioned practice in which the store engaged from the beginning was accepting commodities such as eggs or butter in exchange for scrip that was used just like real money for future purchases.
“Grandma would send me to Graff’s with a bowl of eggs and I’d take them downstairs,” longtime Hurricane resident Becky Wheeler recounted. “They’d run them through some sort of a light machine, then they’d give me a credit slip to take back to Grandma and she’d use it to buy fabric or something in the store. Uncle Emil grew up really poor and told his widowed mother that someday he’d be able to eat as many eggs for breakfast as he wanted.”
With Graff’s egg business, that prophecy more than came true. He’d even allow storegoers a discount on cracked eggs.
Graff’s was the Walmart of its day, a true one-stop shop. One could buy groceries, jeans, fabric and boots all in the same place. The store even ran a wedding registry. One resident recounted Graff’s employees allowing her to weigh her babies on the store’s scales.
Even after the Great Depression ended, bartering still went on at the store. Ruesch recounted that during his time as manager, customers would still bring in their own produce and trade it for groceries.
“People would love to get those home-grown tomatoes,” he said.
The store experienced its 15 minutes of fame when it served as the backdrop for a scene in the movie “The Electric Horseman,” much of which was shot on location in Washington County. From some reports, half the high school skipped class to come and watch the filming.
Things started to change for the store in the 1980s. Graff’s supplier changed to Associated Foods and other stores started cropping up to compete, such as Lyman’s Market in LaVerkin. Clifton’s sold out to Lin’s and moved to its current location.
“Business began to wane and I didn’t know how unprofitable it was, but EJ Graff continued to pay the bills, keeping going silently at a loss,” Ruesch wrote.
Graff died in 1990 and ownership fell to his son, Shirl. Ruesch stayed on as manager and eventually purchased the business from the Graffs in 1997, retaining the name. With a Wal-Mart super center being built in Washington City and the new “Farmer’s Market” (now Davis Market) in LaVerkin, as well as a continual reduction in business, the Ruesch family decided to close the store in 2003 and began leasing it out to other occupants, eventually selling the building in 2005, retaining one piece of it for storage.
Ruesch said his best memories from his time working at and operating Graff Mercantile was being able to work with his children.
He said he counts his relationship with the Graffs and his time at the store a great blessing.
Carl Eugene (Gene) Wadsworth’s interest in movies started when he was about 18 years old when he bought an old engine and generator so that his mother could have electricity in the family home in Panaca, Nevada, his son, Carl Wadsworth Jr. explained. He used that generator to power a portable projector he purchased to start showing movies in Panaca, which was the impetus that got him and his brothers, Jack and Lawrence, into the movie theater business.
Gene came to Southern Utah with his brothers in the late 1920s and started the Dixie Theater (otherwise known as the Wadsworth Building) on Main Street in St. George, which opened in the spring of 1929. Once the Great Depression hit, though, the brothers realized that only one of them could support a family off the revenue from the theater so Gene and Lawrence sold out to Jack.
In 1932 or 1934 (depending on the source), he purchased the Star Theater, which at the time was closed. Even after the purchase, he still made money using his portable projector, providing showings to nearby towns including Springdale and as far away as Orderville and Mesquite. His “bread and butter” with the portable projector during the Great Depression, however, was showing movies to the local Civilian Conservation Corps camps, primarily in Leeds and LaVerkin, his son explained. The government would pay him 10 cents a head to show films to CCC enrollees, which was really good money at the time. He tired of doing this though and realized that showing films at the Star Theater was much more efficient.
In January 1935, he married Leah Ballard, who in essence became his new business partner. To celebrate the nuptials, he decided to give the town a present: a free show because he and his new bride had no plans for a wedding reception, Leah Ballard Wadsworth wrote in her life story. The townspeople had other plans, though.
“But within a week the City Marshal came to the show and handcuffed Gene and I together (and) took us to the old gymnasium,” his wife wrote in her history. “Here I know everyone and their dogs were there for a surprise wedding reception,” which included a “silly skit” with townspeople playing a bride and groom and lots of presents for the newly-minted Wadsworth couple to “set up housekeeping.”
A free show to celebrate his wedding was not the only time Gene Wadsworth showed his and his family’s generosity. By some accounts, he and Leah kept a list of residents’ birthdays and would allow each resident a free show on his or her birthday. Many report that Gene had a soft spot for children and would allow them entrance just for the money they had on hand or completely free if they had no money.
Gene was the face of the movie theater, the public relations man. He had someone else running the projector while he was out selling tickets at the ticket booth next to the entrance. He had a little money tray with different size slots for the different denominations of coins.
“Dad could make change for the tickets faster than they can do it with their machines nowadays,” Carl Wadsworth remarked. “He could get them in two or three times as fast as they could today.”
When the theater first opened, tickets were 10 cents for children and 25 cents for adults. In the 1940s and 1950s prices raised to 15 cents per child and 25 cents per adult, his son said.
At first, there was a druggist on the north side of the theater lobby and a beer parlor on the south side, which was later converted into the concessions stand. There was also a pool hall in the basement with stairs leading to it just outside the theater entrance.
Movies arrived by mail cash on delivery and if the Wadsworths didn’t have the money when it arrived, the postmaster would still let them have it with the promise they’d pay for it with later ticket sales.
Since cash was in such short supply at the time, the Wadsworths, life Graff’s, issued their own scrip, which the Star Theater had also done. Gene called it “show gold” and minted it in the same denominations as U.S. coinage.
In addition to the theater, Gene Wadsworth did some ranching on the side on parcels north and south of town. Sometimes he would pay his hired help with “show gold.” By all accounts, these workers did not complain about not being paid in real cash. One of the reasons they didn’t mind was because Graff’s and the local Co-op stores would accept show gold at face value, Carl Wadsworth said.
“Everyone in town would accept it,” Gene’s son noted. “He got his fences and granaries built with show gold. He’d recruit boys to help him on the farm, saying ‘C’mon boys, we’ve got rocks to pick up.’”
When these boys had worked for three hours, they had enough for a show ticket and a candy bar.
At the time, Gene would also accept commodities to get into the show house such as grain and wood because two wood stoves heated the building.
Affectionately known as “The Show House” by the townspeople, the theater ran two movies per night and only kept the same movie showing for two or three days. First showings were at 7 p.m. in the winter and 7:30 in the summer with a second showing starting soon after the first.
“We didn’t want to stay up late at night,” Carl Wadsworth said, which is why they kept such a tight schedule.
Typically, the theater would only run three movies per week. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday the “Show House” would run films that would appeal to the biggest audience, a good Western, action or mystery movie. Sundays and Mondays were often reserved for musicals and comedies. Tuesdays and Wednesdays it presented movies that would have the most appeal for adults.
“Adult movies then weren’t like adult movies now,” Carl Wadsworth noted.
The theater would show matinees in the summer along with a serial, which is much like today’s mini-series. Those serials would include the likes of characters still easily recognizable today, including Tarzan, Zorro and The Lone Ranger. They would always show a short, much like those shown before some Pixar films today, such as Tom and Jerry or Woody the Woodpecker. They would show newsreels before movies as well.
The projection booth was located behind the balcony at first, but then it was placed in the middle of the balcony, severely limiting the balcony’s seating capacity. Some theater goers probably liked the fact that fewer people were seated in the balcony as it was a favorite pastime of local children to throw popcorn from the balcony seats as discretely as possible so they wouldn’t get caught.
For the projectionists, changing the reels became a learned skill, anticipating when it needed to happen and doing it as quickly as possible. Many former moviegoers report that watching reel changes (some of whom hoped for a flub) was one of their fond memories of the theater. The projectionist’s job could be somewhat dangerous because at the time, film was highly flammable with a nitro base. If film ever did catch on fire, projectionists quickly threw it in a metal canister to contain the flames. A “primitive” fire extinguisher was always on hand in the booth as well, Carl Wadsworth explained.
“In every projection booth in every theater, you could walk up and see that it had had fires in it,” he said. “You always had the possibility of a fire.”
Thankfully as time went on, technology improved and the film became more fire resistant.
Being the son of the owner, Carl Wadsworth was a regular projectionist at the theater and unfortunately for him was the go-to fill-in when any of the other projectionists could not make it.
The Wadsworth’s six children, three sons and three daughters, were their main labor force. The daughters’ main task was usually working the concessions. The sons did a little bit of everything.
“We didn’t have a janitor service in the show,” Carl Wadsworth said. “Once or twice a week, depending on how much business we had, the older four kids had to sweep the whole place.”
The family remembered times when the marquee out front sent the wrong message or the message was misinterpreted. One time, Gene missed putting up a letter in the title of a movie called “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It read “strips” instead, but not many seemed to notice, Carl Wadsworth said.
In her life history, Leah Wadsworth wrote of another little marquee mishap:
“One picture was entitled ‘This Property Condemned’ so some townspeople thought that the building was in such poor repair and condition that I was being forced to close.”
Leah also detailed some of the complaints she received about the “Show House:”
“When we decorated the entrance (wallpaper framed by a tiny quarter-round frame) one teenage girl said: ‘It’s about time you did something with the old building before it falls down.’ Another commented how pretty the rug (red with big grey leaves) was. I told her it had been down for years and the only one we’d had there. ‘Oh it must have been too dirty to see how pretty it is.’”
When people would complain about the movies to Leah, she would often respond with: “Do they think I make the movies?” Carl Wadsworth said.
Hurricane old-timers have a lot of fond memories of “The Show.” It was one of the main places the community gathered. Many women reported that it was a great place to meet guys.
“My sister and her friends would stand outside the show house and wait for guys to come up out of the beer joint downstairs,” longtime Hurricane resident Paula Arriola said. “The guys would ask them what was wrong and they would tell them that they had no money for the show. The guys would give them some.”
Another former moviegoer said that sometimes when she exited the movie there was a hand-written note telling her to call home. Some moviegoers who had already seen the movies would sometimes provide a running narrative or interact with the movie. One moviegoer remembers hearing a man who would regularly shout out during the movie, giving some spoilers with outbursts such as: “Watch out! He’s behind that rock.”
Many recall the movie theater doubling as a babysitting service with parents dropping their kids off at the theater and running into St. George to do errands or have their own night on the town. These parents either instructed their children to walk home after the movie or came and picked them up after it was over.
Gene died in 1960, but Leah continued running the theater 16 and a half years after his death. She was frugal with the business and only made improvements as she could afford them.
In early years, the theater made the family a good living because there was nothing else to do, Carl Wadsworth mentioned. Near the end, the family was barely covering expenses. Carl himself tried to make a living for his family out of it, but couldn’t.
One reason the theater closed is because it had a hard time competing with its St. George counterparts. Even though some of the movies had already run in St. George, the film companies still charged the Eugene first-run fees. These first-run films would charge a specific percentage of ticket sales, anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of the revenue made. Older movies charged a flat fee instead of a percentage of receipts, which thankfully meant more revenue for the Wadsworth family.
When Leah decided to close the theater in 1978, she wrote in her life story that she felt she had lost her identity, saying it was a fascinating business, but not without plenty of problems. Another one of those problems that convinced her to shutter the business was she felt that the quality of movies was going downhill.
She sold the building to Stout Home Furnishings so it could expand its business. She died in 2003.
Today, the building is home to apartments. The theater’s closure forced Hurricane residents to drive to St. George if they wanted to see a movie, but a movie theater returned in 2004 with the opening of Coral Cliffs Cinema.
These two long-running Hurricane businesses are definitely not tourist attractions. They are reminders, however, of a bygone era: places where the community would meet and socialize, places where the employees knew the customers’ names and looked out for them, places where there was a sense of trust and a personal touch.
Even Ruesch, in the story he wrote for his family, mentioned that the era of the mom and pop businesses is waning.
Thankfully, there are still reminders of some of the most revered of them throughout the Southern Utah landscape. Their memories will never leave the hearts and minds of those who experienced their heydays.
And old timers can still joy in walking on that squeaky Graff Mercantile wooden floor, one of the last remaining bits of the building’s former “soul.”
Author’s note: Most of my stories are a journey into someone’s family history. This story is a journey through my own family history. Gene and Leah Wadsworth are my grandparents and their son Carl Jr., quoted in the story, is my father. I am proud of my heritage and thoroughly enjoyed delving into it to write this piece.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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