Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Dan and Iris Arnold have been trying to
close the Macon Drive-in for years.
The 2002 season may well be their last
Twilight at the Picture Show

by Bob McEowen

Patrons enjoy a movie at Macon Drive-in from the comfort of their convertible. The theater, which has operated continuously since 1952, has spaces for 410 cars, with traditional drive-in speakers located at nearly 300 spots. Customers can also tune in the movie on their FM radios.

As the sun sinks below the horizon Frank Schottel and his wife, Jean, set up folding chairs, pour two glasses of red wine and settle in to watch the first of two movies they’ll see on a warm summer’s night.
Before the last rays of light fade from the sky a giant image of teen sensation Britney Spears fills a weathered screen that has been the focus of drive-in moviegoers in Macon for 51 years. While the film seems an unlikely choice for the couple, they don’t seem to mind. They came for the drive-in movie experience.

The Schottels live in Utica, near Chillicothe, but often bring their camper to an RV park near Macon. While there they make a habit of attending the Macon Drive-In, an old-fashioned outdoor movie theater that has changed remarkably little since it opened in 1952.

“It’s the drive-in movie that we remember from when we were kids. There aren’t many available any more and this is just a real nice set up,” Frank Schottel says. “It’s just like we remember it.”

The Macon Drive-In is typical of outdoor theaters built in the late 1940s and early ’50s. At the front of the 10-acre lot at the outskirts of town sits a neon marquee and a 56-foot-wide wooden screen. At the back of the lot, 400 feet away, is a small white frame building with a snack bar on the main floor and a projection booth upstairs. In between lays an undulating field of grass sprouting nearly 300 posts, each topped with a pair of speakers, placed there while Harry Truman was president.

Iris Arnold, coos at a baby in the theater snack shop. Iris worked in the snack bar on opening night and later married the founder’s son, Dan. The couple took over the theater in 1978.

“All this equipment was here opening night and it’s still operating,” says Iris Arnold, who worked behind the snack bar that first night and later married her high school sweetheart, the theater owner’s son.

Her husband, Dan, was also present opening night, though no one seems to remember exactly what he was doing there. “I just came out and ate popcorn and drank Coke,” admits Dan. “I sampled the merchandise.”

According to Driveinmovie.com, an Internet guide to drive-in theaters, there are 15 outdoor movie theaters operating in Missouri. Surprisingly, a few have reopened in recent years after going dark decades ago. A handful have survived all these years, never missing a summer season, even during lean years when drive-in theater attendance faltered.

The Macon Drive-in, served by Macon Electric Cooperative, is one of the die-hards. It has never gone dark and has remained in the same family for 51 years. Originally built by H.P. Arnold and his nephew O.M., the theater cost nearly $100,000 to design, build and equip. H.P. ran it until his death in 1978, when ownership passed to his son Dan and Iris.

Dan Arnold watches the movie while Andy Sterling changes reels on one of the theater’s two RCA Mighty 90 projectors. The 50-year-old projectors burn carbon as a light source and require a reel change every 25 minutes.

Through the years Dan learned to do much more than raid the snack bar. These days he spends most show nights in the projection booth where he helps change film reels every 25 minutes. Not only has Dan resisted installing a large film platter that would allow him to splice the reels together — like virtually every theater in America does — he also continues to use the two RCA Mighty 90 carbon-arc projectors his father installed a half century ago.

The projectors — the best and brightest available in the 1950s — operate much like an arc welder. A brilliant spark forms between a carbon rod and an electrode and the blazing glow — the equivilent of a 4,000-watt bulb — is focused by a powerful mirror into the projector’s lens. “I don’t know a soul who’s using carbon projectors but us,” says Dan.

Besides the original projectors, the drive-in boasts its original screen, popcorn popper and tube-operated sound system. In fact, about the only modern equipment Dan has brought to the theater is a small FM radio transmitter for people who would rather listen to the movie on their car radio.

The old-fashioned equipment and facilities add a sense of nostalgia that some of the more up-to-date drive-ins lack. But like all outdoor theaters, the drive-in offers more than just a double feature on Friday and Saturday nights and a single show on Sunday.

Moviegoers arrive at the Macon Drive-In after the first feature starts on opening night of the 2002 season.

“People come out because it’s a chance to get outside and do something,” Dan says. “You can come out and you can eat, you can drink Cokes, and you can let the kids run around.”

“People just love to come out here and watch the movie underneath the stars,” adds Iris, between waiting on customers in the snack bar where hotdogs still cost a dollar and a jumbo tub of popcorn is just $2.50.

“I think almost everybody that comes to the show comes in here and makes an appearance. There’s action in here and we’re friendly,” she says.

Over the past few years one question has weighed heavily on regular patron’s minds: When will it close?

Iris and Dan have wanted to close the Macon Drive-In for years. With their children grown and their retirement secure they see little reason to keep it open.

“We always think this is going to be the last year we operate it and we’re going to bulldoze her in because we don’t want anybody else messing with it,” Iris says.

“They’ve been saying that each year but they do it again,” says the Arnolds’ son, Mike, who chose a government career rather than following in his parents’ footsteps at the drive-in.

Movies are projected from atop the snack bar.

“I’ve worked for USDA for 20 years and you’d hate to walk away from that, but I’d also hate to see this place close. It’s just always been here, my whole life,” says Mike, whose home sits just beyond the theater grounds.

The possibility the theater might not open seemed especially strong this year when Dan suffered a mild heart attack in February but Iris and their daughter had other plans. Susan Burden moved back to Macon from Iowa and wanted her two children to experience a summer at the drive-in. That was enough to convince Dan to light the Mighty 90s at least one more year.

“Between her coming home and me wanting to run it another year we kind of overpowered him,” Iris says. “But we didn’t work too hard.”

Still, it’s probably just a matter of time before the Macon Drive-In goes dark forever. The Arnolds live next door to the theater and don’t relish the idea of having someone else’s drive-in for a neighbor. Plus, they say they can’t stand the thought of a new owner not caring for the theater the way they have all those years.

The marque of the Macon Drive-in has lured movie -goers for 51 years. The 2002 season may be the theater's last if the owners decide to retire.

“All the time we’ve operated it we’ve taken pride in it and tried to keep it clean and looking good and neat. We don’t want to take the chance of selling or leasing it out to somebody and watching it just go to the dogs,” Dan says.

And so — for one more year anyway — the Macon Drive-In comes alive each weekend with a parade of cars arriving, the flicker of light on a 56-foot screen and moviegoers flocking to the snack bar for a bag of popcorn, a Coke and a visit with Iris.

And that, more than anything else, keeps Dan and Iris coming to the theater every week.

“We love the people. It’s just really hard to disappoint them,” Iris says. “That’s silly but it’s really the truth.”

For more information call the Macon Drive-In at (660) 385-3417. Internet users can also find a list of every active Missouri drive-in at www.driveinmovie.com/MO.htm.

 

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