Local movie legend Norma Leveridge’s death marks end of a cinematic era
by Chris Harris Commonwealth Journal
“It would never seem the same to go to the movies without Norma being there.”
Sue Stogsdill worked for Norma Leveridge at Showplace Cinema, once the hub of weekend activity in Pulaski County. Her words recall what a fixture Leveridge was there — and before Showplace was a twinkle in a mall developer’s eye, at the grand old movie houses downtown as well.
Leveridge passed away Tuesday at the Cumberland Nursing and Rehabilitation Center at 83 years of age. Only a couple of days earlier, she had celebrated her latest birthday.
Her death comes oddly soon after Showplace Cinema closed its doors in the Somerset Mall for the final time in late December. Leveridge served as manager of the theater, which opened in 1981, essentially throughout the run of its existence. Only in the last few years did she finally step away, following the purchase of the mall theater by Somerset Cinemas 8.
Long before Showplace, however, Leveridge was an essential part of the average Pulaskian’s moviegoing experience. In 1952, she started her long run at the Virginia Cinema on East Mt. Vernon Street in downtown Somerset and managed it as a do-everything dynamo — ordering movies, selling tickets, serving popcorn.
“When I was young, in my early teens, I’d come from Whitley City (to Somerset for the movies) and she’d be right in there,” said Leveridge’s cousin Don Stricklin. “She was there all the time.”
“She’d tell me who she hired in to run the projectors; it seemed like half of Somerset worked for her at one time,” said Stogsdill. “She’d come in so sick sometimes I’d be concerned for her, in the last three or four years before she had to retire. She got to where she was unable to stand on her feet and tear the tickets. But she made it in and ordered the movies. She never missed a day.”
It wasn’t just at the Virginia Cinema — Somerset’s other downtown theater of the time, the Kentucky Theatre, was also managed by Leveridge.
“Every time I’d see her, she’d be working late into the night,” said Stricklin, who also recalled visiting Leveridge at the mall theater. “You knew she’d be there. You could peck on the window and someone would see and let her know.”
J.T. Stogsdill, Sue’s husband, became friends with Leveridge when his wife worked at Showplace Cinema. The two talked on occasion, and Leveridge would share stories about her past.
“I remember seeing her as a kid at the Virginia,” he said. “I just remember her selling tickets, tearing the tickets in two, and giving it to you.”
J.T. Stogsdill never recalled Leveridge ever pointed to any defining moment as inspiring a love of the movies that prompted her to get into the industry. Rather, it was a good job that a young girl from McCreary County could get at the time, starting out as a “captain,” he said, and working her way up from assistant manager to manager.
“She felt that she was lucky to be able to serve the community for so many years, and lucky to know everybody around town,” he said. “She was dedicated to the theater.”
Brandon Hurley worked for Leveridge at Showplace Cinema from 1998 to 2004, and recalled her as a firm but fair boss.
“She was very old school — an ‘I’m the boss’ kind of thing,” said Hurley. “... She knew some of the shenanigans we were pulling, but she made sure we knew that if we needed a dollar or two for gas money, she had us covered. She’d give us a lesson in life — you’ve got to get the lecture before you get the cash — but if you were in a real spot, she’d make sure she was there to help.”
Hurley, like so many others, first encountered her as a kid going to the movies. He said that she initially “scared him,” as she was always “casting an eye.” It wasn’t until years later, working for Leveridge at Showplace, that he realized what was actually going on.
“Any kid that she saw that she thought might be getting into trouble, she’d let them into the movies for free, to keep them off the streets, or from getting into drugs or something,” he said. “She was just a nice person but she never went out of the way to show what a nice person she was. She didn’t want any notoriety for it.
“When you grow up, it’s like, ‘There’s that old lady that works in the movie theater,’” he said, “(but) to be able to have worked for her and with her, it was super cool. She wasn’t scary anymore. She was a real person with real feelings.”
Among those “nice” things both Hurley and Stricklin recalled was Leveridge taking in a younger girl with a disability to live with her, to help take care of her as a foster parent for around 20 years.
“(Leveridge) kept her in the apartment, and during the day, she’d go to a workshop,” said Stricklin. “As the little girl got older, Norma wasn’t physically able to get her in and out of the bathtub, but she kept seeing her.”
Leveridge never had any children of her own, but to a person, each individual asked about Leveridge’s relationship with the theater agreed that those that worked there, those that regularly attended movies — that was just like her family.
Stricklin recalled that Leveridge also enjoyed the subject of politics, and watching both professional and college basketball. She was “unbelievably articulate,” he said, and Hurley noted that it took a while for her to open up until she knew you, and then she was happy to discuss whatever topic was at hand.
But it was the theater life — perhaps more than even the movies themselves — that she treasured most.
“I think she just really liked the experience of going (to the movies), the social aspect,” said Hurley. “(In her early days), the whole moviegoing experience cost 35 cents. Just the amount of things she saw change in the industry (is amazing).”
Cinephiles whose lives were touched by Leveridge’s presence considered her an icon and a friend.
“I’ve spent my entire life going to the movies. And until recent years, the one constant in my local movie-going experience was Norma,” said local movie enthusiast John Alexander, who maintained a close relationship with Showplace Cinema, even contributing artwork to its walls. “With her and Showplace Cinema, part of my childhood is now gone.
“Ever watchful over us all, Norma was the ‘guardian of our dreams.’ She ushered us into great adventures and sweeping romance,” he added. “Without her I wouldn't know who Indiana Jones or James Bond or Han Solo are. Since the advent of digital technology in cinemas, I've missed very much the sound of the gears of the old projectors. Anytime I hear an old projector fire up, I'll think of Norma. ... and I will miss her very much every time I watch a film.”
See a full obituary for Norma Leveridge on page A3 in today’s edition.