A Nugget in Time

by Cristian Cano | 9/13/17 2:20am

by Tiffany Zhai / The Dartmouth

Upon arriving to Dartmouth, many students worry about how to survive in “The Middle of Nowhere, USA” — or, as we more commonly refer to it, the town of Hanover. This quaint New Hampshire town may lack the fast food chains, reasonably priced hair salons and reliable cell service that larger cities offer, but one piece of civilization that Hanover proudly showcases is its movie theater.

The Nugget Theater, conveniently located on Main Street, is where casual moviegoers and cinephiles alike can view the latest films on the big screen. The Nugget Theater has been a staple of Dartmouth for just over a century, celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, but what are its origins? To answer this question, the Mirror visited the Rauner archives. As it turns out, the history of the Nugget begins with an unlikely alliance between a Texan football player, a wealthy first cousin of John D. Rockefeller and his Wild West son.

“Texas Bill” Cunningham, who graduated in 1918, was a football player with a love of films. As a freshman, Cunningham learned of the affluent and elderly F. W. Davison, one of John D. Rockefeller’s first cousins. Word quickly spread that Davison was planning on building a new garage — after all, automobiles were becoming increasingly popular, and a garage would surely attract visitors to the Hanover Inn. What caught Cunningham’s attention, however, was a rumor that Davison was considering constructing a movie theater instead but was hesitant because of the financial risk. Immediately, Cunningham knew his mission would be to persuade Davison that building a movie theater was the best choice.

Cunningham faced resistance not only from Davison, but also from student groups that were, in Cunningham’s words, “purveyors of standard entertainment.” These groups included the Dramatic Association and Glee Club, but perhaps the greatest resistance came from members of the Dartmouth Christian Association. At least one night a week, the DCA would provide entertainment, often in the form of a poetry reading or violin performance, and a movie theater posed a threat to their events’ attendance.

Unhindered, Cunningham continued his efforts to change Davison’s mind. Fortunately for him Davison’s son, Frank Davison Jr., who had supposedly been living the cowboy life in Montana, returned to Hanover and supported the construction of a theater. Davison Jr., who desired to bring with him a piece of the Wild West, named the theater after the Gold Rush. Together, Cunningham and the Davisons worked to finalize the theater’s plans and the Nugget Theater opened on Sept. 13, 1916.

The Nugget’s design was very intentional, Cunningham recalled in a pamphlet he authored, titled “The Birth of The Nugget.” Every aspect of the theater was sturdy: the floors were made of cement, seats of wood and iron were bolted into the concrete and the walls were created from galvanized iron.

“The old man [Davison], knowing his students better than I did, wanted nothing in it that wasn’t screwed down or otherwise made too secure either to lift or to throw,” Cunningham wrote.

In the Nugget’s early days, Cunningham played the piano for the still-silent films and Davison Jr. was the cashier. Contrary to the stereotypical image of silent movies being a refined entertainment experience, movies at the Nugget were rowdy and viewers always needed to watch out for their own safety. Thrown peanuts, apples and even partially melted snowballs were normal occurrences.

Charles Dudley ’29, who grew up in Hanover and frequented the Nugget as a teenager, was one victim of these flying projectiles.

“Charlie remembers being knocked almost unconscious by a Macintosh,” wrote the Hanover Improvement Society in the Nov. 1, 1991 issue of the Nugget News-Herald.

Another important — and chaotic — part of the Nugget experience was audience engagement. Today, certain shows such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” encourage and even expect audience participation, but in the Nugget’s infancy, every film was fair game for impromptu shouting and sound effects. If alumni’s accounts are to be trusted, the students’ rendition of the MGM lion’s roar was more convincing than the roar of an actual lion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the comments made by students during films were less than wholesome, to say the least. Cunningham remembers male students shouting “Higher, higher!” whenever an actress’s skirt was slightly raised on screen. And in one melodrama, when the villain had finally succeeded in forcing the heroine to drink from a vial of poison, a student promptly raised the question: “And now, Babe, what’ll you have for a chaser?”

The Nugget was even the site of a riot (of sorts). After word spread of actress Lenore Ulric’s “steamy” performance in the 1923 film “Tiger Rose,” crowds chose to skip the Dartmouth Christian Association’s event with the president of the international YMCA to see the movie — or rather, attempt to see the movie. The massive crowds were enough to warrant Hanover’s small police department to try to hold crowds back, to little success.

“The local police force, all two of it, was trying to stretch a rope and was getting nowhere,” Cunningham wrote.

Overall, the early days of the Nugget were successful both in a monetary sense and in its effort to add to the experience of Dartmouth students. After earning $17,000 in its first year of operation, Cunningham joked that the Nugget should have instead been named the “Gold Mine.” Even after switching leadership from the Davison family to the newly formed Dartmouth Improvement Society in 1922, the Nugget continued to be a popular hangout for decades to come.

It was perhaps the same crass, carefree atmosphere that characterized the early decades of the Nugget that led to its downfall. On Jan. 28, 1944, a fire rumored to have been caused by students illegally smoking cigarettes on the balcony destroyed the Nugget. In 1951 a new theater was built where the building stands today. While the new Nugget still brings cinematic joy to Dartmouth students and the greater Hanover community, the experience is undoubtedly tamer than it was during the theater’s early days.

But what ever happened to Cunningham, the Texan football player who started it all? After he left the College in 1920 — his stay extended for a couple of years because of the War — he never again set foot inside the Nugget Theater. His work, as both a founder of Hanover’s movie theater and the person who chronicled its story for posterity, was finished.

“I never entered the place again. I’m a sentimental guy. I wanted to remember it as it was — my dream, my Nugget, my contribution to ... culture,” Cunningham wrote.