Friday, December 14, 2018

Bank Night at the Keeney

by Erin Doane, Curator

In February 1936, the Keeney Theater in Elmira held its first Bank Night. Coloradan Charles U. Yaeger, a former booking agent from 20th Century Fox, invented the lottery-type game in 1931 and leased it to theaters. Other than to make money for Yaeger, the purpose of the game was to get people back into movie theaters during the Great Depression. By 1936, Bank Night was being played in 5,000 theaters across the U.S.

Here is how Bank Night worked. The theater owner would pay to run the event and would get a registration book and equipment to draw the names of winners. The registration book sat at the theater box office and anyone could write their name down for a chance to win, even if they did not buy a ticket to go into the theater. On a Bank Night, a person’s name would be announced from the stage. That person then had a certain amount of time – 5 minutes at the Keeney – to get to the stage. If they got to the stage in time, they claimed a cash prize. If they did not, the money would roll over to the next Bank Might.

The Keeney Theater held its Bank Nights on Thursday evenings and the drawings took place around 9pm. Things started out slowly with a few people winning now and then but there were no really large banks, or cash prizes. Three months into the game, however, things started to pick up. More people began to participate because the banks grew as people failed to make it to the stage in time when their name was called. The Star-Gazette started printing weekly updates of the drawings.

On June 4, friends of Robert Goodwin heard his name called at the theater and rushed out to a nearby business to tell him. He raced to the theater and was on stage within the 5-minute window but his friends had misheard. The name called was actually that of his uncle.

Star-Gazette, June 5, 1936
Miss Margaret Liddy had been present at every single Bank Night except for the one on June 25. She had spent that day at a picnic for the Delta Alpha sorority at a cottage on the Chemung River. She intended to leave the cottage in time to make it to the theater but she could not get a ride back to town and had to wait for the trolley. She arrived too long after her name was called and missed out on a $595 bank (which was just over $10,500 today).

By July 2, the bank was up to $635 and about 5,000 people had gathered within calling distance of the Keeney Theater. Automobile traffic jammed the streets for blocks around the theater and the area behind the playhouse was filled with people. East Gray Street from the railroad to State Street and Railroad Avenue between Gray and Market Streets had to be closed to traffic because the crowd was so huge. John Gunderman, whose name was called that night was, unfortunately, not among all the people gathered.

One week later, Edward “Bud” McCauley, a 23-year-old substitute postal delivery officer who lived with his widowed mother, had his name called. While he had arrived late to the theater after having trouble finding a parking space for his car, and was purchasing his theater ticket as his name was called, he did make it to the stage with minutes to spare. He won the $675 bank (or about $12,000 today) that had been accumulating for 16 weeks without a winner. Bud told the Star-Gazette that he would put his winnings into a bank account to be controlled by his mother and denied that the money would go toward a wedding. He said he had the girl but needed a steady job before thinking about marriage.

Star-Gazette, July 10, 1936
The banks never got that high again, though devotees of the game continued to flock to the theater for the next couple of months. In December, the manager of the Keeney announced that the time in which to claim the prize money would be reduced from five minutes to one minute, presumably to make things more exciting. In January 1937, the Keeney partnered with the Strand and Regent Theaters for Bank Night. Together, they offered two prizes a night. By 1937, however, Bank Nights throughout the country were starting to come to an end. People weren’t as enthusiastic about it anymore and movie ticket sales were coming up even without the game. After March 1937, there were no more mentions of Bank Night at the Keeney Theater in the Star-Gazette.

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