Sunday nights at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School, located 4 miles North of Pine Ridge Village, were movie nights. For many years the gymnasium at the school served as the movie theater.
When a prefect named John Bryde came to the school in the early 1940s he was not at all impressed with the way the supposed theater was set up, and he was definitely not impressed by the silence the audience had to endure while waiting until 7 p.m. for the movie to start. And so he set about changing and improving things.
First of all he had the carpenters build a concession stand at the back of the gym. He then took two of his students, in this case Duck Clifford and me, and taught us how to run the new popcorn machine and the Coke dispenser. He then took us up to the projection room and asked the projectionist to hook up a small record player he had to the public address system.
John Bryde was especially fond of the waltzes of Johann Strauss. He got out one of the long playing, plastic records and showed us how to place it on the record player. He said, “About 6:30 when the people start to take their seats, turn on the record player.”
World War II had just ended and many of the Lakota veterans were just coming home and according to one, the thing he missed the most on Sunday nights while serving in the military was the movies at Holy Rosary Mission on Sunday nights.
It was in November of 1945, and Duck and I were getting the popcorn made and we opened the doors at 6:30 and the movie goers began to stream in. They came from Oglala, Calico, Manderson, Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge Village. They gym was lined with folding chairs and everybody found a place to sit.
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The gymnasium was nearly full, and so I ran up to the projection booth and put the record the Blue Danube Waltz on the machine. The sounds of the great melody wafted through every corner of the gym. From the projectionist’s window I noticed that one end of the canvas screen on the stage was askew, so I came down the stairs, ran to the stage to adjust it. All of the lights were still on in the gym/movie theater. As I sat on the stage looking back at the audience I could see the Lakota elders, men and women, and some of the younger Lakota all leaning back in their chairs listening intently to the Blue Danube Waltz as the sounds cascaded off of the walls. Some had their hands in their laps, relaxed with their eyes closed.
This was a sight I would never forget.
To see all of those wonderful Lakota people, some barely versed in the English language, sitting and dreamily listening to the melodic songs of Johann Strauss on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation hit my heart.
Even to this day whenever I hear the songs of Strauss, that vision comes back to me. Times were really tough on the reservation after the war, but these kind and gentle people found the time and the money to make Sunday nights their own. They blissfully listened to the waltzes prior to the movie and then let a movie from Hollywood take them on an adventure into another world. For just a short time in their hard scrabble lives they were allowed to dream and to be a part of a world most would never see. But it helped them if even for a short time, to push the hard times to the back of their minds.
Such was the magic of Johann Strauss and the miracle of the Sunday night movies at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission.