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The March of Civilization

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was Wednesday, January 18th, 1921. Late afternoon. Although she was only one of six usherettes at the opening night of the new Fort Armstrong Theater in Rock Island, Alberta Stegemann felt herself as much a star as Lila Lee, the heroine of "Midsummer Madness," about to be shown for the first time on the new screen. Lila Lee had wished she could be here for the opening, but Alberta was. This new theater was progress in capital letters.

The six usherettes were admitted ahead of the crowd gathering outside the theater doors. They dressed in their white organdy outfits, and met with Mr. Hopp, one of the owners, for a last-minute inspection of the nursery and women's rest room. Everything was spotless, the three cribs for babies, the playthings, stuffed toys, large rubber balls, and the sandbox. In one corner was the rocking chair for Mable Swail, the nurse on duty.

Then the usherettes took their stations at each aisle, and the doors opened. Eddie Stein at the organ began to play, the seats filled, the musicians in the orchestra pit began to play. The lights dimmed, the red velvet curtain drew back, and the news came on the screen: news of the march of civilization. There was a brief concert by the orchestra, and then the main feature.

For several nights, Alberta got to watch the whole show as civilization marched on. Then, the manager decided the girls should wear heavy turbans, and she rebelled.

Alberta Stegemann did not return to the Fort Theater until a special family event brought her back there in the late 1950s. There were no usherettes. Instead, an older man now and then would go down the aisle to stand near a group of teenagers, trying to scare them into quieting down and stop throwing popcorn.

And the beautiful lobby had been taken over by a candy counter, a gaudy popcorn machine, and cash registers. The carpeting was covered with wrappers and spilled popcorn.

The nursery was gone, and the ladies’ room was full of spilled water, lipstick writing on the wall, and cigarette ashes over everything. Civilization had certainly marched on, way past Alberta Stegemann.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.