Our Town Eau Claire

thank god we have a record of our dorky past

Mike Paulus

One night a few weeks ago, I found myself watching television. I know – me? Spending a whole evening watching TV? Unbelievable. My ass must have gotten accidentally crazy-glued to the couch somehow, because that just never happens. Cosmopolitan guy that I am, I usually spend my evenings cooking Pan-Asian cuisine, dabbling with my watercolors, and writing novels. But there I was, flipping through my (basic) cable channels when I paused on our local Community Television station because they were playing an old-timey-looking film. And I, probably like you, love that crap.

CTV was replaying an old documentary called Our Town Eau Claire. It was made in 1953 by some guy named Robert M. Carson, and – through the power of black and white film montages and snappy voiceover – it visits various places and businesses around a mid-20th century Eau Claire. It appears as though the businesses shown must have paid to be in the film – why else would there be a segment about a motel on the outskirts of town?

There are a few companies out there still making these kinds of promotional videos for towns and small cities – usually places looking to boost tourism. I can’t imagine exactly where these videos are getting played in order to draw in outsiders. It’s not like WEAU’s going to play Let’s Go Fall Creek! in a prime time slot in an attempt to lure Eau Clairians down Highway 12.

Anyway, like all nutty films from the past, this retro-documentary-type thing is kitschy and awesome, especially if you’re savvy enough to recognize Eau Claire landmarks – the ones that have changed, the ones that haven’t, and the ones that aren’t there anymore. A few of the businesses mentioned are still around, and a lot of the buildings are, too. Call me a geek, but seeing a wide shot of the three-story, stone eagle-topped Federal Building on Barstow Street and hearing the voiceover announce “Eau Claire Post Office serves ...” well, that just makes me smile. (Seriously, compare it to the current post office.)

I’m not sure how Mr. Robert M. Carson made these things, but I’m told he used to drive town to town. I can imagine him pulling a van into various Midwestern towns with his ad hoc camera crew, leaping from the side door, a cigarette clenched in his grinning teeth, exclaiming with gusto, “Here we are boys – Our Town! Unpack the movin’ pictures gear an’ let’s make us a film!”

Obviously, the Eau Claire Bears were at an away game when they visited Eau Claire, because Mr. Carson’s baseball segment consists mostly of the snappy grounds crew doing a bang-up, crackerjack job raking dirt around and scooting wheelbarrows down the first base line. 

My favorite segment shows a couple on their honeymoon, “just in from the TWIN CITIES!” They check into the Eau Claire hotel after being greeted at the door by a nice guy in a suit who looks like he’s the accounts receivable manager. They go to dinner and enjoy the entertainment of Tony’s Tiny Trio (mysteriously composed of four people) and order a nice meal of Giant Slabs of Beef w/ Small Bowls of Cottage Cheese – looking scrumptious in juicy black and gray celluloid.

There’s another set of spectacular segments within a downtown department store showing a lady trying on fur coats as her friends sit on a tasteful little couch and smoke like well-mannered chimneys. Later, they show an older woman, probably in horn-rimmed glasses, I can’t remember, mixing up cosmetic powders at shop counter. I’m not sure how ladies’ makeup used to get distributed back in the day, but it looked like this woman was mixing up some sort of killer cocaine concoction. Then they show a young girl who’s obviously been ordered to sit and smile in the toy department before naturally running over to ogle a display of dollies.

There’s also a riveting section devoted to a local dry cleaner with many, many shots of a lady and some dude pressing pants. Yep, that’s our town, baby.

Right about now is when I should segue into some crap about not forgetting our past or celebrating our quasi-urban local history or how you should support Community Television. Yeah ... whatever. The question burning in my mind is this: Why do 50-year-old films make everything look so much cooler yet so much geekier all at the same time? Exactly how does that work? Why do we laugh at – and simultaneously yearn for – that old stuff? Why does a guy wearing a suit and tie opening a hotel’s front door look both awesome and goofy? And why did everyone used to pull up their pants so damn high? 

Well, like most of the junk you see on TV, perhaps these issues shouldn’t be analyzed too obsessively. That’s what the internet’s for.