LOMBARD – Magic swirled inside the DuPage Theatre in Lombard when Betty Bean was a girl, years before she was crowned the 1947 Lilac Queen.
Outside the theater, the country was still fighting to escape the grips of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Her father’s wages had been reduced, and both of her parents worked. On Saturdays, her mother would drop her off at the theater at 9 a.m. and pick her up after work at 6 p.m.
Betty gazed at the screen all day, watching the same two features again and again.
And life was glamorous for the prospective queen, if only for a short while.
“I could immerse myself in movies so when I walked out, I really believed I was Shirley Temple – for about a half hour,” said Betty Powers, now 85 and living on her own on the North Side of Chicago.
“Movies were real, life wasn’t,” Powers said. “They weren’t showing that dad almost lost his job or that mom had to work or that we didn’t have fancy clothes.”
Lilacia Park, where she was celebrated as Lilac Queen nearly 70 years ago, was another favorite escape for a teenage Powers. It was a romantic destination for her and her boyfriend. And she would cut through the park nearly every day, to and from the train, while working in Chicago after high school.
This Saturday, a new group of Lombard teenagers will own the spotlight as the 2014 Lilac Queen is crowned. However, they may not realize what royalty is watching from the crowd. Powers was the first Lilac Queen honored after World War II.
Powers, in her first visit to the park in as long as she can remember, plans to attend Saturday’s coronation, which marks the start of Lombard’s two-week Lilac Time celebration.
The idea to return started with Powers’ daughters, Linda Gibson and Carol Gibson, who hope to capture a sense of their mother’s deep connection to the village.
“We thought it was a good way to spend the day together and learn a little more about her, about her growing up,” Linda Gibson said of her mother. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her childhood home, so I hope it’s still there.”
Powers lived in two homes growing up, one on Grace Street and then as a teenager on Ash Street, about a block from Lilacia Park.
“From my home on Grace Street to Roosevelt Road, it was all prairie. There was nothing there,” Powers said.
After the coronation, Powers looks forward to strolling through the park with her daughters before leading a memory-filled tour of the village.
Maybe, this time, it won’t rain.
The skies opened up the day Powers was crowned. The court, crowd and photographers ran to a nearby school, where she received her honor. Metal was scarce because of war rationing, and Powers said her crown was forged from scrap metal like tin cans – nothing like the sparkling tiara to be presented Saturday.
“I don’t have my tin crown anymore,” Powers said. “I wish I did.”
Life as royalty wasn’t new to Powers, who was named prom queen a year earlier as a senior at Glenbard High School in Glen Ellyn, now Glenbard West.
Rivaling those riches, a 50-cent tip highlighted Powers’ time waitressing at Betty’s Restaurant in Lombard. She also worked at DuPage Theatre, where she’d do her homework in the cashier’s booth before watching unlimited free movies.
“I was really embedded in Lombard as far as early life goes. It was wonderful,” said Powers, who even sold lilac bouquets from her yard to passers-by in town for the festival.
After watching classics such as “Gone with the Wind” at DuPage Theatre, Powers does not have much time for zombie or sci-fi flicks. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Raging Bull” still stand atop her all-time best-movie list. But for something more current, “American Hustle” and “August: Osage County” come highly recommended.
Powers said basking in the glow of the silver screen was a great way to grow up.
“But they should have kept DuPage Theatre,” she said of the nearly 80-year-old theater, which was torn down in 2007. “There were little lights in the ceiling and when you looked up, it looked like tiny stars.”
It was all part of the magic befitting a future queen.
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If you go
What: Lilac Queen Coronation,
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lilacia Park, 150 S. Park Ave.
Guests of honor: The 2014 Lilac Princesses include Morgan Fugiel, Wendi Guraziu, Morgan Mueller, Rebekah Ernat and Kendall Kott. The 2014 Lilac Queen will be announced during the coronation.