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The crowd for Bank Night outside the Liberty Theater in Horton, Kansas.
Kansas State Historical Society

Long Time Gone and the Man Who Saved Small Town Movie Theaters

By Betsy Barnett

November 8, 2023

Years ago, when that group of students in 2006 was researching the Plains Theater with the hope of some day getting it opened and operating once more, we conducted some oral interviews with people who remembered the good old days of the theater which was in the 1940s through the 1970s. One of the memories that cropped up time and again in the numerous interviews conducted was what the people kept calling, “Bank Night.”

Doris Lessenden, as a young girl, remembered what Bank Night looked like at the Plains Theater in Eads during the late 1940s and early 1950s, “I have many memories about the theater, but the best ones are of the bank nights where they had drawings for money. I remember long lines of people waiting to get in clear around the north side of the now Senior Center (Whitelaw Building). It was exciting, romantic, fun, wonderful family times.”

Another individual with a memory of Bank Night in Eads said, “I have such happy memories from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, some in the 70s. Especially during bank nights people filled the seats and streets.”

Yet, another individual remembered, “We’d come into town for ‘Bank Night’ at the theater or some of us used to go to the pool hall on the weekends sometimes. I recall the image of a town that, although small and even struggling at times, was still very alive and vibrant. Those bank nights and pool hall experiences also revealed a town full of people just as connected to a place as they were to each other.”

As the researchers, we were intrigued by the concept of “Bank Night” but assumed that it was a local idea designed to bring people into the theater in a very small market. We had no idea that Bank Night was actually a concept that spread like wildfire across the country and the inventor of Bank Night was, at one time, the owner of our neighboring theater, the Lamar Theater, in Lamar.

The Lamar (CO) Theatre was built by the Atlas Theatre Corporation, a company owned by C.U. “Charlie” Yaeger. Mr. Yaeger hired a prominent Denver architect, Charles D. Strong, to design and build the Lamar. On November 15th, 1946, the Lamar Theatre opened its doors. It has been an anchor of downtown Lamar for almost 80 years.

Yeager’s life story was one of great interest in the movie theater industry. While working for Fox Intermountain Theatres as a district manager, Yeager devised the idea for a theatre promotion called “Bank Night.” Bank Night blossomed into an American institution saving hundreds of theatres from bankruptcy during the depression.

In December 1932, Yaeger approached the Delta Chamber of Commerce with his idea to help save the town’s movie theater by bringing in bigger audiences. He initially called the idea, “Gold Night.” A person could get into the pot with a .25 cent purchase at any participating business in town. On Thursday nights in Delta, the Gold Night drawings were held inside the Egyptian Theatre, and the winner had to be present to win the money prize. If they were not present, the prize money stayed in the pot and was added to the next week’s total.

Gold Night was well received in Delta and the Egyptian Theater quickly became the most lucrative movie house in the region. People had to buy a ticket to be in the drawing, and then the winning ticket number was announced. Many people left before the movie screen was lit up, but the Egyptian had already made their money.

By 1933, Yeager changed the idea’s name to Bank Night and that name stuck. Several other theaters across the mountain states were holding Bank Night drawings which were very popular. It really was a win-win-win situation for the customers, the movie theater owners, and even the movie distributors who earned a higher rate of return with more people buying tickets.

The only people who weren’t happy with the concept were the state and municipal authorities who began to scrutinize the promotion and challenged the practice in court cases. For example, a movie house in Ohio called the Palace Theater was raided by police on a local prosecutor’s orders citing violations of Ohio’s anti-lottery law. The case was eventually thrown out by the jury and the Palace immediately resumed their sweepstakes.

By December of 1933, Yaeger trademarked “Bank Night” as it had become quite popular across Colorado and the nation. Small movie houses, like the Lamar Theater in Lamar and the Plains Theater in Eads used the Bank Night promotion and began to reap the contest’s benefits.

In 1937 the Saturday Evening Post reported that, “Bank Night has blossomed into an American Institution and every week over 5,000 theater across the country disburse over $1,000,000 in prizes, with some singular prizes as high as $3,400 each.” Even through these successful years of Bank Night the governments and regulatory commissions in the cities began to put the squeeze on the practice. Soon several theater owners found themselves facing arrest or fines for running the Bank Night promotions.

By the time the country came out of the Depression years the Bank Nights would all but vanish from the theaters. Eventually Bank Night was associated with legal troubles and fines that finally put an end to the short-lived, but very lucrative practice. The improving economy and shifting focus on World War II also contributed to the end of Bank Night as promotions were no longer needed as people came to the theaters if, for nothing else, to catch the war updates played before the movies.

Charlie Yaeger, original owner of the Lamar Theater and the inventor of the Bank Night concept went on to become a very rich man who lived well into his 70s. The following is the obituary of Charlie Yaeger as printed in the state’s paper of record:

Charlie Yaeger, Originator of "Bank Night," Dies (published in the Rocky Mountain News, Denver, February 1977)

C.U. “Charlie” Yaeger, who originated the motion picture industry ‘s famed “Bank Night,” a promotion said to have saved hundreds of theaters from bankruptcy during the Depression, died Tuesday morning in Beth Israel Hospital. He was 75 and had been in failing health for several years.

Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Olinger Mortuary, Magnolia Street, Entombment will be in the Tower of Memories, Crown Hill Cemetery.

Yaeger’s life story had elements of Horatio Alger. He was born in Central City on April 20, 1901, to a family of modest means. He started in the movie business as an usher. He became a millionaire with his “Bank Night” idea, conceived to stimulate show business in Denver.

He later owned the Atlas and Atoz chains of theaters in the Denver area, dividing his interests between the movie houses and a string of racehorses he owned.

Yaeger’s family moved to Denver when he was six months old. He was educated in public schools in Denver and Raton, NM.

His father, Joseph Yaeger, entered the movie theater business in its infancy in Raton. The father ran the projection machine, his wife, Estalla, played the piano to time with the action on screen and 12-year-old Charlie took tickets and showed people to their seats.

The boy’s mother died when he was 13 and his father remarried. By the time he was 16, young Yaeger was living on his own in Denver. One of his early jobs was as a truck driver delivering films for D and R (Dickson and Ricketson) Theaters in the mid-1920s. He made $65 a month.

By 1929, he had become a booker for Fox Theaters in this area. Five years later, he was made district manager Frank H. Ricketson, Jr., who was to become Yaeger’s partner in the Bank Night enterprise, was president of Fox Inter- Mountain Theaters.

Yaeger’s widow, Mrs. Claire Yaeger, recalled that during the Depression, Charles and Spyros Skourases, who owned Fox Inter- Mountain Theaters as well as some 200 other theaters in the United States, were desperate for gimmicks to stimulate business. They told Yaeger.

“go home and think about it, and see if you can come up with something.”

Yaeger came up with “Bank Night,” a once-a-week drawing for large sums of money for which movie patrons could register in advance. They had to be present on the night of the drawing to receive the prize. If they weren’t, the money was added to the next week’s prize, sometimes reaching astronomical sums in those Depression days.

“Bank Night” did for movie business what everyone hoped it would. Theaters were jammed on the nights of the drawings, and each customer had attended a movie in advance to register.

“The Skourases gave Charlie a blank check and told him to fill it in for the idea,” Mrs. Yaeger said. “He told them ‘No.’ He had plans to go into theater business for himself.” Yaeger took Ricketson in as an investor and promoter in the “Bank Night” enterprise, and they marketed it all over the United States. One of Yaeger’s great pleasures in later years was running into persons who had been “Bank Night” winners. One story he particularly liked was that of a Las Vegas band leader who told Yaeger he was responsible for his entire career.

“Bank Night,” started in 1932, was discontinued in 1937 after the Post Office Department declared it was a lottery and could not be advertised through the mail.

In the meantime, Yaeger had bought his first movie house, a small theater in Lamar. Then he got into business in Denver, and gradually built up the Atlas and Atoz theater chains, starting with the old Oriental Theater. His theaters operated on a second-run basis, until he purchased the Webber Theater and ran it as a first-run house.

Yaeger became a wealthy man. He spent the last 22 New Year’s Eves in Las Vegas, where his brother-in-law Maj. Riddle owned the Dunes Hotel. He attended the World Series in baseball every year for 20 years and also went to 20 consecutive Kentucky Derby races. Horse racing was a favorite pastime for Yaeger. He owned 20 racehorses at the time of his death, and they raced at all the major tracks in the country, including Belmont, Hialeah, Arlington Park, and Santa Anita.

During the past several years, failing health caused him to sell all his movie houses.

Yaeger is survived by his wife Claire.