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After 70 years, classmates meet again

Seventy years after they received their diplomas at the Merced Theatre, 18 Merced High School classmates reminisced Monday afternoon about the directions their lives took during a reunion at the downtown landmark.

While some of the 174 grads of Merced's only high school at the time have lived in the local area all their lives, others spread out across the country, including Phil Eastman of Irvine and Helen Crookham Campbell of Beaver Falls, Pa. Fifty-eight Merced High alumni showed up for the last reunion 20 years ago.

Campbell, 88, returns to Merced every year to visit her sister and brother-in-law and has stayed in touch with her local friends over the years.

A Pennsylvania resident since 1942, she retired from teaching physical education in 1981, now playing golf, bowling and volunteering with the Meals on Wheels program when she isn't traveling around the world.

"I recognized most everyone; I just had to look at a few names. They're some good-looking people and we're all in pretty good shape," Campbell quipped.

She remembers coming to the 1931-vintage theater on West 17th Street, which is now called Main Street, every Saturday afternoon for matinees. It cost a dime to get into the afternoon movie showings.

Eastman, 87, took Emogene Stroming to the senior prom on their first date. After high school, he attended Fresno State College and then West Point during a stint in the Army Air Force. Stroming was an usherette at the 1,645-seat theater during her senior year in high school.

A former prisoner-of-war in Germany before becoming an aeronautical engineer for Ford and Northrop, Eastman went to law school in the 1960s and became a practicing attorney in civil matters, something he still does part time. His son and daughter also became attorneys.

"We were lucky to have grown up in Merced. I stayed in touch with some classmates over the years. We had excellent teachers, the best. People scattered when the war (World War II) came. It was the middle of the Depression and unemployment here was 35 percent," Eastman recalled.

Stroming, 88, came to Merced High from Tulare in her senior year.

In the evenings while the movies were showing, she escorted theatergoers to their seats with her flashlight. Rowdyism wasn't too much of a problem, she recalled, especially if the usherettes shined their flashlights on the offenders.

The usherettes wore tan-colored, military-style wool uniforms with jackets and pants. The girls thought nothing about walking home after their duties were over in the evening, Stroming said.

Stroming showed her graduation picture in a white cap and gown and said the boys had blue caps and gowns. She said she doesn't remember too much about the actual graduation.

One thing graduates did remember was the theater at West Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way was one of very few places in Merced with air conditioning. Its marquee prominently touted "Refrigerated Air" for those seeking refuge from typically hot Merced summers. The theater now is in the middle of a three-phase $6 million restoration project.

Merced Theatre Foundation President Kathleen Crookham gave reunion attendees new copies of their 1937 diplomas.

Foundation representative Grey Roberts bought a 1937 Merced High yearbook on the Internet auction site eBay and had attendees sign their names under their pictures.

Dorothy Randol Hamill, 90, said she kept in touch with the Merced High grads who stayed in Merced. Alumni would gather once a month for dinner.

However, she said she hadn't seen four of her classmates in 20 years.

Hamill said her father, who was Atwater's police chief, would gather up a bunch of youngsters on Saturdays or Sundays and take them to the theater where the movies could be seen for a dime.

Hubert Trindade, 87, remembers driving a 1934 Plymouth coupe to high school, thanks to the job he had milking cows.

He, too, doesn't remember too much about the theater graduation ceremony but said a dime was a lot of money in the mid-1930s. Trindade retired from the Merced Irrigation District in 1982 as its assessor-tax collector.

The 70-year reunion was arranged by Jay Anderson of Merced.

He said he found 25 1937 graduates. One of them, Dr. Robert Mitchell of Pensacola, Fla., slid down the theater banister during graduation rehearsal, ripping his pants in the process, Anderson remembered.

Anderson said it was difficult finding some of the 1937 graduates. The 1937 class was the first to graduate on stage at the Merced Theatre.

The theater was the only air-conditioned place in town with enough seating to hold a group as large as the graduating class.

The theater continued hosting graduations for about eight or nine years after that, Anderson recalled.

Marvin Wallace was a ticket-taker at the theater. The night of graduation he was offered an assistant manager position, a job he didn't keep too long because the pay wasn't very good. One of his jobs was changing the movie titles on the theater marquee, as well as the blue or red light bulbs ringing the blue-painted ceiling.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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