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
theyll see on a warm summers 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 dont 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
Its the drive-in
movie that we remember from when we were kids. There arent many
available any more and this is just a real nice set up, Frank
Schottel says. Its 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.
Arnold, coos at a baby in the theater snack shop. Iris worked in
the snack bar on opening night and later married the founders
son, Dan. The couple took over the theater in 1978.
All this equipment
was here opening night and its still operating, says Iris
Arnold, who worked behind the snack bar that first night and later married
her high school sweetheart, the theater owners 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.
Arnold watches the movie while Andy Sterling changes reels on one
of the theaters 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
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 projectors lens. I
dont know a soul whos using carbon projectors but us,
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.
arrive at the Macon Drive-In after the first feature starts on opening
night of the 2002 season.
People come out because
its 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. Theres
action in here and were friendly, she says.
Over the past few years one
question has weighed heavily on regular patrons minds: When will
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 were going to bulldoze
her in because we dont want anybody else messing with it,
Theyve 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.
are projected from atop the snack bar.
Ive worked for
USDA for 20 years and youd hate to walk away from that, but Id
also hate to see this place close. Its just always been here,
my whole life, says Mike, whose home sits just beyond the theater
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 didnt work too hard.
Still, its probably
just a matter of time before the Macon Drive-In goes dark forever. The
Arnolds live next door to the theater and dont relish the idea
of having someone elses drive-in for a neighbor. Plus, they say
they cant stand the thought of a new owner not caring for the
theater the way they have all those years.
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
All the time weve
operated it weve taken pride in it and tried to keep it clean
and looking good and neat. We dont 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.
Its just really hard to disappoint them, Iris says. Thats
silly but its 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