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A chat with the woman who played the piano in Bluffton’s silent movie theatre

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By Fred Steiner

Question: Can you name a business that has continually operated on Bluffton’s Main Street for over one century?

Answer: You may not guess this, but the answer is a movie theatre. Today’s Shannon Theatre was once called the Carma. And, the Carma’s origins started in the silent film era as the Star Theatre.

In the days of silent movies, a piano player sat in a pit near the screen providing music to accompany the drama unfolding.

That piano player was Helen Worthington.

The following is a portion of a feature published in the Bluffton News in 1984. Carolyn Urich Rich talked with Helen about her job and eventual career as a partner with her husband, A.T. “Pud” Worthington, as owners of the theatre.

“Before I was married I lived in the country one mile west of Mt. Cory. I would drive the four miles to Bluffton in horse and buggy in all kinds of weather to play at the theatre owned by a Mr. Powell. When the weather was too bad, I stayed with my aunt or with the Powell’s.”

Helen remembers her mother saying, “You can play in the show, but you’re not having any boys bring you home.”

Powell’s Star Theatre stood where Luke’s extends to the outdoors on North Main Street.

The Bluffton News listed the weekly films shown and the stars of the picture. (See the graphic with this story)

Handbills were distributed as another way of advertising the nightly shows. The News in 1915 included a statement that “first rate films” and “good, clean entertainment” was available.

A feature in some films was a sing-along with a bouncing ball on the screen indicating the words to the audience. Helen said that she even did some of the singing.

Helen always tried to see the movie once before the first showing, so she would know what type of music to play.

A gifted musician, she had a large repertoire of popular music to draw upon and was a master of improvisation.

Some of her music training was as a student at Adrian College in Michigan. She always tried to play according to the type of scene pictures.

Helen married A.T. “Pud” Worthington, a Bluffton telegraph operator. In 1917, Helen and Pud bought the Star Theatre from Sam Stepleton, its second owner. By then the theatre relocated across the street to what is today the Scott Basinger law office.

Helen continued to play for the silent pictures even after she was married. The piano was located in a music pit. Nightly shows cost 10 cents and 20 cents.

“I played in the Star until one night I got tired of playing and said, ‘This is it.’ We then bought a concert Victrola for $800 and got records to play that would fit the pictures.”

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024