The Golfing Threat
Dateline:1930. The talkie novelty’s beginning to taper off. Folks are investing recreational dollars (that is, quarters and dimes) into new fads. There was, after all, some fun to be had outside of movies. The Tom Thumb Menace lamented in the trade press was another word for miniature golf, and it was the showman’s bane from Spring 1930 until that September when the craze began subsiding. In the meantime, putting greens were shellacking boxoffices across the country. Go Out and Trade Blow For Blow With Miniature Golf advises this ad for W.C. Fields’ short comedy, The Golf Specialist, and note how RKO links its product with the ongoing national craze. Undercutting admissions was the surest weapon interlopers could use against established theatres. If a movie cost fifty cents, why not golf for thirty-five? The Tom Thumbs gained allure from being open most of the night (some past 4 AM). Women could play unescorted, as courses not indoors were often located beneath electric billboards. Being out late in such a safe and sociable environment had appeal movies lacked. It was sport after a fashion, and friendly competition was a handy way of meeting and greeting. Depression dwellers who couldn’t afford the regulation game viewed "Rinky-dink Golf" as a satisfying alternative, and what matter that play was had upon clay or hard sand as opposed to grass? Even movie stars got in on the fun, though industry loyalty encouraged low-key participation. Mary Pickford and Jackie Coogan designed private courses for home play. Mary’s was done in modernistic French style with expressionist palm trees and surreal flower arrangements. Studios supposedly forbade onscreen miniature golfing much as they would televisions years later. One exception was the Our Gang comedy Little Daddy, wherein Roach’s Rascals constructed their own Missing Links Premature Golf Course.
A few exhibs figured on joining the duffers they knew they couldn’t lick. William C. Smalley of Cooperstown, NY took control by locating golf courses close to his theatres and fixing prices so as not to compete with house admissions. Fifty cents bought a round of putting just as the same amount would gain entrance to Smalley’s movie offering. Cross advertising profited both. If You Make This Hole In One, You Will Receive Free Admission at Smalley’s Theatre Tonight Where You Will See and Hear Norma Shearer in ‘The Divorcee’. Others figured on luring golfers into makeshift courses put down in mezzanines and lobby corners (as shown here). Tie-ins with civic groups led to cross-pollination between putting tournaments and moviegoing (as shown in this ad). Complementary ducats went to high scorers. As the golfing craze increased beyond putting, shorts like Warners’ Bobby Jones series inspired exhibitors to stage their own How To demonstrations in the lobby, such as one here in Milwaukee. Miniature golf would peak at 30,000 links nationwide during the thirties, with 150 of these being rooftop locations in New York City alone. My hometown’s College Park Cinema was located next to a course owned as well by the theatre’s proprietor. You could play midget golf there in the early seventies, then go next door and see a movie (always Billy Jack, so it seemed). Video games have since replaced putting as lobby pastimes, but I wonder what might happen in the unlikely event of a modern theatre reviving mini-golf. Just remove one or two of those skyscraper-sized standees they use nowadays and you'd reclaim space enough to put in a small course (if not Par 3 fairways!). Have iPods and cell phones numbed kids to the possibilities of enjoying miniature golf? Putt-Putt was one of my favorite activities growing up. Will twenty-first century theatres see its likes again?