Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: “The Wizard of Oz,” the Civic, and Armistice Day


Between cardboard images of the “Wizard of Oz” movie stars are the Maple School stars. Front row: Arlene Ahlgrim, Scarecrow; Lois Pease, Dorothy; Patsy Fenimore, Flying Monkey; Marjorie Erickson, Lollipop Kid; Esther Julian, Tin Woodsman; Patsy Barnes (kneeling), Aunt Em; Lucille Pagel, Cowardly Lion. Back row: Lois Paulsen, Witch Glinda; Mary Jo Jones, Wicked Witch; Sara Eslinger, Wizard. (Photo courtesy of Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall)

WNLP editor’s note: We’re delighted to present here the third of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall’s memoirs of growing up in La Porte. Earlier in January, WNLP posted the first and second of her remembrances. WNLP readers’ many responses added more sweet stories and details to her story. Arlene grew up in La Porte and now lives in Del Mar, Calif. She graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities, and also studied in various European countries. Look forward to more of her memoirs soon on WNLP. 

By Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

When I was in the third grade the movie The Wizard of Oz came onto the screen, entrancing probably every child who saw it. Our Maple School classmate Lois Pease wanted to make it a play, and her mother helped with the casting and costumes. I was the scarecrow. It was not a single performance production, for we presented it to several school rooms and the PTA. A picture of us even appeared  in the Herald-Argus (12/4/1939). Did we feel important! 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

Occupying another entire block next to the school was a spooky,  abandoned, brick mansion. Only ghosts lived there. Even the bravest dared not consider trespassing. Rumors said it had  underground passageways used to transport escaping slaves during the Civil War. Probably we were literalizing “underground  railroad.” Had such secret runways existed, they were destroyed  when the land was cleared for a Coca-Cola bottling factory. Naturally we supervised construction from the Rumely Street sidewalk. We never tired of standing before a glass wall-window,  gawking as hundreds of pale green bottles progressed in a single file along a belt to disappear into a machine that capped them before they emerged on the other side! Never before had we seen such magic. 

My mother was active in the PTA and even went once to a convention in Indianapolis, the first time she and Dad had ever  been apart. I don’t know what those mothers did at meetings, but  they seemed to like each other. They must have talked about the few poor children in our classes. Where and how they lived I do not know, except they came to school dirty and smelled and had  “cooties.” Once in a while I noticed a girl wearing a dress I had outgrown, so the mothers must have collected clothing. 

No family in the neighborhood was rich, and no one felt more  important than others. We just accepted one another. My best friends were Esther Julian and later, when she moved to La Porte,  Dotty Garrett. Mr. Forbes Julian was handsome and editor of the Herald-Argus; he always walked the long distance from home to the paper and seemed super healthy for his trek. His pretty wife used a wheelchair and did something with blossoms, because their house always seemed full of flowers I didn’t see. It was only a block from school, and I loved going there for the aroma, not for squabbles with Esther. 

In those days movie stars belonged to major studios, and there was not a plethora of either, so we were familiar with nearly all the gorgeous women and handsome men. Several magazines, like  Modern Screen, were full of stories and pictures of our favorites. I don’t think we read the articles, but we certainly had picture collections. Trading developed and was a popular pastime for girls, always trying to gather as many pictures as possible of  favorite stars and more to exchange. 

“My big colored picture of Van Johnson is worth more than that little one of Gene Tierney that you want to trade for it.” “Yes, but Gene Tierney is your favorite.”  

“How about this one of Veronica Lake instead of Van Johnson?” 

“Nope! Do you have one of Clark Gable that size?” “Yep, but I’m not giving it up. I’ll give you Sonny Tufts for Gene Tierney.” 

“That’s not fair.” 

“Oh, yes it is. You’re stingy.” 

Soon the pictures were loaded back into their boxes and one of us went home. 

I also started trading with a new girl in the neighborhood, Barbara. She lived just down the alley, so I didn’t have to carry my box so far with the omnipresent fear of dropping it and spilling treasures into a puddle or surrendering them to a gust of wind. Trading with her was OK for a short while until she wanted me to find pictures of naked women for her. I looked but with no success. It was no great loss when that family moved out of town. 

Like Esther, Dotty lived within two blocks of Maple School. I can’t  even remember what we did together, but our moms were PTA  do-gooders. In time we grew apart, making newer and closer  friendships away from Maple School. Esther later went to DePauw University, married a musician from there, settled in Santa Fe, N.M., and has retired near San Miguel de Allende. We renewed our old friendship at the high school’s 50th reunion.

Dotty’s mother told Mom that her daughter had married an Italian and not long afterwards was killed in an auto “accident” there. She confided it was not an accident, but I have my doubts. Anyone who has driven on Italian roads, where every driver is a blind anarchist who creates his own lanes and cannot see road signs, would think an accident highly likely.  

Unlike Maple School at the eastern edge of town, the Civic Auditorium was constructed in the center of town in a residential area. The imposing brick edifice occupied an entire block and was  attractive; a lawn flowed from it down to the street on the north. The southeast corner was a summer gathering spot for children who enjoyed crafts at a few picnic tables. The adjacent tennis  courts were always in use on a first-come, first-served basis. Everyone politely policed themselves when others were waiting, for no one was in charge. When my friends and I had tennis skills  sufficient to make racquet and ball meet, we would ride our bikes over there to play. This facility was a gift to the city from the Fox family, who paid not only for the construction but also endowed a fund for free programs for years to come. The Fox Woolen Mill had been an institution for decades; both of my parents had worked there. Once sold, it became Bachmann Woolen Mills,  where I worked one summer as the secretary to the president. As I left for college in the fall, he knew my mother sewed for me so I was loaded with beautiful fabrics for college wardrobes. He, Mr. Guidotti, was planning to teach me Italian the first half hour of each day, but soon we were too busy to continue. 

Back to the Civic Auditorium. Inside, a tiered balcony of seats on two sides looked down on a multi-use floor that could be filled with chairs for a concert or lecture. When cleared, basketball  games and dances for teens attracted many. Embarrassing today is to remember the number of spectators in the balcony every June when the high school prom was held. Juniors and seniors flushed with first crushes or couples “fixed up” with dates danced  beneath onlookers in the crowded balcony. As a junior in charge of decorations, I planned pale blue glittering stars to hang above dancers’ heads in air heavy with the spring fragrance of roses and carnations and gardenias instead of the winter odor of healthy sweat coming from our basketball heroes. The stars blocked  vision in certain directions. Too bad!  

It was to this auditorium that elementary schoolers walked  through neighborhood streets in files from their local schools for a  VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) memorial service. Not only  children from Maple School but from the first six grades of all five elementary schools attended the special annual Nov. 11 celebration, nowadays called Veterans Day; we knew it as Armistice Day. At the conclusion we were free to go home for a long lunch break, pleasing me because my house was halfway between the Civic and Maple School. Admiring uniformed and  decorated men of all ages, we were reminded that they and others had fought the “War to End All Wars.” Patriotic talks preceded the climax we knew was coming: a 21-gun salute at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The walls of the  auditorium reverberated with the booms.

That ceremony was  important to all of us. We loved and respected our country and the men who had fought to preserve it. World War II had not yet begun, nor the later unpopular wars and wars undeclared by Congress, only precursors to streets riots and even threats of civil war that would follow up to today. My husband volunteered in the Marines in World War II and survived Iwo Jima. Former students and neighbors have fought around the globe for our country. Today I  worry about civil unrest right here in our own country. I miss the  innocence of childhood.

2 Responses to “Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall: “The Wizard of Oz,” the Civic, and Armistice Day”

  1. Bob Caddy

    Jan 27. 2021

    Lots of memories in your articles. Hope there are more.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Mickey Rogers

    Jan 27. 2021

    I attended Maple school for three years until it closed, and grew up just a block from the Coke Plant, so I know that memory of watching the bottles go by through the window quite well.

    After Maple closed, the old wooden scoreboard from the gym hung in our garage for many years until my parents downsized.

    Reply to this comment

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