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A Nugget of a story

January 20, 2011

So I got this last-minute assignment from Upper Valley Life magazine to do a story about the Nugget Theater in Hanover, New Hampshire. (I’d originally been assigned to write another story but it failed to materialize, because the profile subject never could identify a time to be interviewed.)

Thought it’d be a nice little story with two basic parts: As a downtown theater in a relatively small town, it’s a relic of a past age when every town had a theater. And the Nugget, unusually, is owned by a local nonprofit group, the Hanover Improvement Society.

The key questions, or so I thought, were these: Why does the Society operate a theater, of all things? Why is the Nugget so important to the community? How has it managed to survive when so many of its kind were shuttered long ago? And how will it keep going, in a time when the entire movie theater business is under siege?

What I found, as I looked into the Nugget’s story, was a fascinating tale of its importance in the life of the town and of Dartmouth College.

The Nugget opened in 1916. Six years later, its original owner gave it to the town of Hanover, free and clear. He wanted the proceeds to help pay for civic improvements. But state law didn’t allow a town government to operate a business. So the town fathers created the Hanover Improvement Society as an ownership entity for the Nugget.  (Which made one of my original questions irrelevant. The Society never decided to own a theater; instead, the theater was its raison d’etre.

At the time — and for the ensuing several decades — the Nugget was a highly profitable enterprise. The proceeds built a healthy endowment, and paid for numerous civic projects. Without that money, Hanover would be a much different place; its downtown wouldn’t be nearly as attractive, and its citizens would have to do without a variety of Society-funded amenities, including the town’s two primary recreation facilities.

Then there was the Nugget’s surprisingly central role in Dartmouth campus life. Today, Dartmouth hosts a range of entertainment options — most notably, the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. But from 1916 into the 1950s, there wasn’t as much for students to do in their spare time.

So they flocked to the Nugget. At the time, the theater had one screen and about 900 seats. And frequently sold out. It showed a different movie every day, and many students attended several times a week. It’s been estimated that in 1938, the average Dartmouth student spent 500 hours a year watching movies at the Nugget.  That’s almost one movie per day, all year long!

MST3K Live: The student crowds weren’t exactly reverential in their approach to the motion picture arts, either. From its opening in 1916 until the original Nugget was destroyed by fire in 1944, Dartmouth students (all male at the time, remember) were notorious troublemakers.

By custom, the early-evening audience was mostly students. Those showings featured a lot more action in the audience than on screen. The students threw peanuts and other food items. While a film was showing, they kept up a steady barrage of hoots, hollers, and amended dialogue. Really, it was a precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000, except with plenty of projectiles.

The throwing of peanuts became a campus tradition, a rite of passage and a way of letting off some steam. The person responsible for starting the tradition, oddly enough, was the Nugget’s first manager, Bill Cunningham, who also was the piano player during silent films.

Cunningham would go on to become one of the most respected sportswriters in Boston. In a later remembrance of his Dartmouth days, he acknowledged that he had provoked the initial peanut volleys as a way to boost concession sales. One night, he marched through the theater, loudly decrying the students’ behavior. At the same time, several of his friends, planted in the audience, began throwing peanuts at him.

“As soon as I turned around,” Cunningham wrote, “at least 500 peanuts came whizzing through the air. By the time I’d got down to the [orchestra] pit, the peanuts were practically filling it.

“Peanut throwing became an established rite and a standard Dartmouth memory. … Everybody brought a little bag of peanuts — not to eat, but to throw. … Entertainment until screen time consisted of seeing how many friends down front you could ping on the head with a peanut.

“After the show, we carefully swept up the ammunition. dusted it off, sacked it up, and sold it again. A good tough peanut would last sometimes as long as five or six weeks.”

This is the kind of situation that writers pray for: an assignment that turns out to be a far richer and more important story than it seemed at the beginning. I’m really looking forward to writing this piece. And I have to say, I’m kind of glad my original article didn’t pan out; I never would have had the chance to explore the Nugget Theater’s unique story.

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