"Adding pictures to words is like having flowers on the rosebush," says Elmer Krueger. He added more than 400 of them to his autobiography, Endless Echoes. Would you like to see his first car--a used 1923 Model T? Or his latest--an '82 Buick Riviera? There's a picture of every car he's ever owned, and also a verse:
All these automobiles I have known,
From brightest colors to somber tone;
Much mileage was driven and lessons taught,
By all these cars that I have bought!!
At the age of 83, Krueger still operates the Badger Theatre, three blocks from his house in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. "Pictures that are worth showing" are hard to find these days, and his audiences are dwindling, but Krueger still greets each patron graciously. "Enjoy the show, enjoy the show," he says as they pass him in the darkened lobby, on their way in to view The Beautician and the Beast, or D2: The Mighty Ducks, or Dead Poets Society (number 66 on his list of all-time-favorite movies).
When Krueger bought the Badger in 1960 it was the only picture show in Reedsburg, "butter capital" of America. Though it ceded that title a while back, Reedsburg, population 5,800, is on the move. Lands' End opened a factory, Gerber has a plant, someone built an office park. Competition arrived "just about three years ago," says Krueger. At the far end of town--four blocks from the Badger--the lights of the Star Cinema beckon.
"They had only four screens to begin with," says Krueger. He held his own. But when Star Cinema added two more screens, Krueger's business dropped "drastically." Now he's invited Star Cinema to buy him out.
An only child, Elmer Krueger was born in 1913 in tiny Princeton, Wisconsin. His parents rented out their farm and lived off the income; his father wasn't well and didn't work. Krueger himself came down with scarlet fever at the age of three and remained frail for years afterward. But he refers to his childhood as "the wonder years."
Endless Echoes is crammed with old report cards, photos of pets and teachers, pictures of Princeton's churches. You can read his literary efforts for the school paper, his script for the glee club play. But the section he calls "High School Years" is followed by the darker "Farm Years." The Depression hit, the tenants left, and his family moved to the farm. His dream of becoming a writer or actor or maker of movies died. "I got more invitational letters from colleges at the time I was a senior in high school than I-- But I just had to forgo. I would not let my parents down." There's a questioning look in his eyes--Can you understand? "My parents spent the major portion of their life trying to stabilize me and keep me alive. So that couldn't be forgotten."
Krueger worked the farm from sunup to sundown. But in 1954, his father now dead, the old dream reasserted itself. Endless Echoes recalls, "I contemplated as to how I could earn some additional income evenings--after chores were done. All of my life, the picture books of my childhood and the silent movies of my grade school years had held a technological fascination for me. Therefore, a motion picture that even talked was really something!" He made inquiries. "I learned of a business place in Milwaukee where one could rent 16mm films for this purpose." He arranged "to come to that city and get a 16mm projector and rent films for my use for seven days."
After teaching himself to run the projector, Krueger traveled an outdoor circuit. He hung his plastic screen from the side of a tavern one night, hoisted it onto a couple of poles the next. Yankee Buccaneer, Bonzo Goes to College, Pardon My Sarong, and Lost in Alaska were all in the lineup that first summer.
When Krueger was approached about taking over Princeton's theater, he jumped at the offer. In 1959 he auctioned off his farm equipment and plunged full-time into theater management. He soon owned four more theaters, one of them the Badger. Endless Echoes offers a full page of photos of Jack and Jackie Kennedy's visit to Reedsburg in 1959. Here's the dazzling future president, full of vitality, shaking the hand of the Badger's ticket taker; there's Jackie Kennedy, smiling enigmatically in a Chanel suit, sitting primly on the Badger stage.
It was an era of wide-screen epics and musicals: How the West Was Won, The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story. And to Krueger's delight, Hollywood had acquired a taste for the Bible: The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, The Bible, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-Hur--first on Krueger's list of favorite movies of all time. "I had previously read Ben-Hur in two languages, German and English, so I was very familiar with the story. It just intrigued me that much."
In 1967 Krueger and his mother sold the farm and moved to Reedsburg. By 1975 he'd given up all the theaters but the Badger and was finding it harder with each passing year to show "good family pictures." To stay in business, he reluctantly allowed R-rated movies onto his screen. Which ones? "I have no idea," he says. "I don't watch them."
After his mother died in 1973 he began working on his scrapbooks, a book of verses, and his autobiography, which he had printed up in 1990. Today he's sitting in his shag-carpeted living room surrounded by things he likes: his collections of Dickens and Reader's Digest condensed books, his albums of organ music stacked neatly on the Magnavox, the "inspirational tapes" that find him reading aloud his verse and Bible passages to "quiet organ accompaniment."
The drapes are drawn against a bright sun and a violent world. "Most pictures are R-rated," he says, "and I, of course, don't believe in that. Look at your TV at how much killing goes on, and I think it shows in our culture. The young people are getting in trouble right and left, shooting people without even thinking. Life to them doesn't have the value that it should. The impact of that type of movie has had a great effect on our culture. I read an article to that effect."
But he's an optimist. "I remain terribly enthused by life--you can't just sit in a chair and do nothing." With or without the Badger, Elmer will continue to work on his scrapbooks ("I want to do one on cooking") and read from his book of verse, Timeless Treasures, in churches and nursing homes. He's waiting for a second collection, Eternal Embers, to come back from the printer. It's "about life," he explains, "both physical and spiritual." Until he finds a buyer he intends to stay at his post at the Badger, serving drinks only without ice and checking children for gum and insisting they spit it out.
Perhaps the next owners will run the Badger "as a supper club or for special events." Would he like to manage it? For the first time today his face really lights up. "I'd love to."
Timeless Treasures, Endless Echoes, and inspirational tapes may be obtained by writing Elmer Krueger, 548 Vine St., Reedsburg, Wisconsin 53959. --Richard Knight
For more information on Reedsburg see the visitors' guide on pages 41-43.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Elmer Krueger and the Badger Theatre by Nathan Mandell.