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Drive-in done in by storms

Wednesday, May 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

On its opening night in May 1952, Kenneth Mears and his date attended an open-air show at the Macon Drive-In Theater on the outskirts of town off U.S. 63. That night, the theater sponsored a raffle. Mears saved his ticket stub hoping he would win one of the prizes that included a set of fishing tackle.

The following week, Mears again took his date to the theater. When he went to the concession stand, he learned he had won the fishing tackle.

“I still use it,” he said. “I just picked that because I like to go fishing.”

Mears, along with countless patrons of the theater, was disheartened to find that after 52 years of entertaining thousands, the Macon Drive-In Theater blew away. It will most likely shut down after fierce storms caused its 60-foot-tall screen to come crashing down Monday night.

“It’s a real shame,” Mears said. “I’ll be sorry to see it go.”

Iris Arnold, who co-owns the theater with her husband Dan, said the damage is too great and they will not rebuild. The storm cost $30,000 damage to the theater, and the Arnolds did not have insurance for the business.

“We were always kind of concerned when a bad storm came through,” Iris Arnold said. “That night, we could see all the storm spotters in the area, and we felt like we were in an area where something was going to happen.”

The Arnolds live next door to the theater and were in the basement during the storm. At about 8:30 p.m., they heard an “awful, strange noise,” Iris Arnold said.

“I went out there to check it out,” said Susan Burden,the Arnolds’ daughter, who was also in the basement at the time the screen went down. “When I came back in, I just said, ‘Mom, it doesn’t look good.’”

The Arnolds, who assumed ownership of the theater in 1978 after the death of Dan Arnold’s father, have not recruited any contractors to assess the damage and clean-up costs.

“We’re just kind of numb right now, and we’re trying to handle all of the supplies that are supposed to come in,” said Iris Arnold, who began working at the theater’s concession stand when she was 15.

The theater was scheduled to open Friday, playing the features “Laws of Attraction” and “Along Came Polly.” The Arnolds had already ordered an abundance of items for the concession stand, and “Laws of Attraction” was already on the projection reel.

Many area residents were gearing up for this summer’s trips to the theater.

“My husband and I take the kids in the truck and fill it up with pillows and blankets,” long-time theater patron Stacey Stuart said. “We have supper out there and have fun watching the show.”

The theater attracted residents not only of Macon, but from all areas of mid-Missouri. As of 1999, it was one of only 14 remaining working drive-in theaters in the state, according to driveintheater.com.

It also may have been the only area drive-in theater that still used its original screen, Iris Arnold said. In addition, the theater still used many of the old machines and operating devices to run the show, including the speakers and marquee.

To keep up with the times, the Arnolds installed a radio system that allowed movie-watchers to tune into the sound on their car radio, and created a Web site that posted featured titles and show times. However, the nostalgic nod that the Arnolds hoped to create resonated, and thismore than anything, may be the most missed.

“It was a true old 1950s drive-in, and it’s going to be tremendously missed,” Iris Arnold said.

In addition to the theater, the downtown area of Macon, a town of about 5,500 residents about 60 miles north of Columbia, also suffered some damage because of Monday’s storms.

The top portions of adjacent Ben Franklin crafts store and Sherry’s Flowers suffered brick damage. Both stores were able to remain open, but were left to operate out of their back doors because of repairs and construction taking place in the front.

“We’re just trying to get everything down that isn’t safe, and get down the damaged brick,” said Lester Stevenson of Stevenson Construction.

The interior of both stores remained undamaged, and other than the inconvenience of having to walk around to the back, business remains steady, said Sherry Lenzini of Sherry’s Flowers.

“It’s not easy to get to us today, but no one was hurt. That’s what’s important,” she said.

The repair work to the two stores is scheduled for completion by the end of this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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