Small town theaters hang on to summer moth brigade


It seems like only yesterday when I raced my buddies down the red-carpeted ramp of the Pix Theater in Hoxie trying to nail down those good seats. You know the ones I’m talking about—those in the front row where tennis shoes could be heard latching into congealed soda from the earlier matinee.

Back in those days, “the guys and me” could watch Davey Crockett, Old Yeller or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for only a quarter and a seal from a milk carton produced at Ada’s, our hometown dairy.

Outside as we waited in line for our tickets, you could smell the popcorn and glimpse the soda machine as it dropped a cup from its innards and spewed forth an overly sweet combination of syrup, carbonated water and ice. Sometimes the cup turned sideways and the liquid missed and sprayed the hand of the kid expecting a tasty treat.

Mom didn’t keep chocolate at home, so going to the movies meant we splurged. I couldn’t wait to eat my favorite candy—a Denver Sandwich. This bit of heaven consisted of two long strawberry wafer cookies with oodles of caramel and peanut bits wrapped in a thick coating of milk chocolate. It only cost 5 cents and as I recall it was almost as big as an ice cream sandwich.

Other movies I loved were westerns starring Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and my favorite, Randolph Scott. When I was five years old, I saw my first horror movie—The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

This movie premiered in the early ‘50s and, like so many of the other films of this period, featured a nuclear explosion that freed a frozen dinosaur from his icy tomb. This armored giant reaped his prehistoric fury on modern man and my young psyche. I suffered nightmares for weeks.

When we grew a bit older, we drove nearly 80 miles to Hays to attend a larger theater. This theater overwhelmed our tiny, one- aisle venue and featured a beautiful balcony. Being the older kids now, we always sat upstairs where we could hold hands and carefully put our arms around our girlfriends.

The point of all this, I guess, is they don’t make movie theaters like they used to. The multi-screened mazes and cinema complexes that thrive today are designed for volume and efficiency. Forget cozy, close and jam packed. This only happens occasionally when a blockbuster is released and lasts for usually the first day.

And sneaking into one of these new theaters in our high security world is also a thing of the past, not that I ever tried such a prank as a youngster.

I have nothing against these modern, chain theaters of today. I guess it is just good business in this age of DVDs, palm-entertainment systems and satellite television. They have to compete and who doesn’t like to watch some of the latest Hollywood offerings on the giant screen?

Still, whenever I travel in rural communities across Kansas, I keep an eye out for the little movie houses that may have survived in small towns. I can name a few on one hand.

Owners of such small operations lament the price to be paid for keeping up with new technology, the fewer number of movie-goers in their shrinking communities, the long wait for new releases like Harry Potter or parts for their old, tired projectors.

Several have managed to hang on, and their battered neon lights still attract the summertime moth brigade and sweaty-handed kids on first dates.

Most of these operators have outside jobs. They cannot make it by running a theater in a rural community alone.

One operator I ran across several years ago in south-central Kansas told me he runs a small printing operation and dons the robes of a municipal judge.

“I keep the theater open,” he said, “to keep the kids out of my courtroom.”

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.


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