LARNED – There’s something about a night at the movies that transcends mere entertainment. Sharing a great drama, adventure story, or pure laugh-out-loud comedy with neighbors and friends amplifies the experience to a true night out. But for a few years, Larned and surrounding cities faced a long drive, taking them, and their dollars, out of town when the State closed its doors and idled around the turn of the 21st century. It’s been a long road, but now, board members of the State theater Association are looking ahead to a big anniversary coming up.
Jim White is the president of the board of directors for the Larned State Theater Association of Larned formed in 2002. Not the first community to consider a volunteer staffed and run movie theater, they found inspiration in what other Kansas towns were doing, and agreed to give it a try. Members began raising funds and spreading the word. Between raising money through private and business donations and selling Krispy Kreme donuts on the street corners of the community, they raised enough money to purchase the building and its contents.
Then, the real hard work began.
“Getting an idle theater up and running again isn’t as simple as turning the key in the door,” White said. “Some of the existing equipment could still be used, but just as much needed to be updated or replaced.”
Many Larned area businesses stepped up to the plate and donated their time and expertise. New electrical, plumbing and HVAC had to be installed. The rear wall of the building had been neglected for years and needed repair. And, they needed to get the projection equipment up and running.
The State’s doors reopen
After almost a year of renovations, the grand re-opening happened on July 4, 2002. Civic organizations and other community and school groups then, as now, volunteered to completely staff the theater one night a month. The theater is open every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday evening. Admission prices are kept low to encourage families to attend, and for that reason the theater rarely offers an ‘R’ rated movie. The theater was a hit, and after expenses, all proceeds are put back into improvements.
Since it is only open four nights a week, it can’t show “first-run” movies, but that hasn’t been a problem. As of this 2018 writing, it has featured two of this summer’s blockbuster movies, The Incredibles and Jurassic World, both just a few weeks after their release. Both were well attended, White said.
Over the past 16 years, there have been many renovations. One of the first major undertakings was the replacement of the old narrow seats. When the theater opened in 1949, it is estimated it had over 700 seats. Later, that number was reduced by a few hundred. In 2005 the State Theater Association reduced that number by nearly half again, providing a much more comfortable experience for its guests, White said. That same year, the restrooms were remodeled with an eye towards ADA standards, and the projector and sound equipment was upgraded.
Big changes bring theater up-to-date
In 2009, State Theater Association members became serious about transitioning from 35 mm to digital projectors when it was predicted the analog equipment would soon be obsolete. They travelled to the Dream Theater in Russell, Kansas in May. There, they viewed a 3-D movie, and were convinced digital was the way to go. The cost to switch was a daunting $90,000 to $100,000, so another fundraising campaign was in order, White said. They began their campaign right away, and were installing the new digital equipment in August.
“The citizens of Pawnee County, Larned, Garfield, Burdett, and Rozelle, have always done a tremendous job of supporting their theater,” White said.
In addition to being able to show regular and 3-D movies, the association was then able to run locally produced advertising before shows, which provided a new stream of income.
After the new projection and sound equipment were installed, the concessions and lobby areas were remodeled, with soda lines installed under the floor. Early on, there was no ice maker, so Dairy Queen and later Sonic supplied ice to the theater. Now, the theater produces its own ice. A few years later, the original 1949 popcorn popper finally gave out.
“We were getting parts from a collector from around Boston,” White said. “Finally, we’d scabbed everything we could, and when it finally gave out, that was it.”
Volunteer staffers had only one demand -- that the new popper be big enough to keep up with demand.
“We bought a huge popcorn popper, enough to feed two-thirds of western Kansas,” White jokingly said. “It was worth the money we spent on it.”
In 2011, the old fabric curtains inside the theater were replaced, and the ceiling color changed from white to black. The transformation made a huge difference.
“We made a huge investment into this building and into this equipment, and it’s paid off,” White said.
What remains is important too. The original 1949 Marquee has been rewired, and there are no plans to replace it. Also, the doors leading from the street to the lobby and the linoleum lobby floors are 1949 originals and are lovingly kept. And, White added, the theater still has a cry room which is utilized often.
Since 2011, the State Theater Association hasn’t needed to take out any further loans or conduct further fundraising campaigns, White said. The members continue to show their appreciation for all the community has done to support the theater by always looking first to local contractors and suppliers when work needs to be done.
“We use local businesses as much as we can for every improvement in order to give back to the people who made the theater possible,” he said.
And now, the Theater is able to give back to the community in other ways, and it does often.
Each year, schools throughout Pawnee County mark the end of each semester with a field trip to the movies, where every student receives free admission, and discounted concessions. The theater provides the occasional free movie, especially during community-wide events like Santa Fe Trail Days. Sometimes, there are double features. The State Theater is also available as a venue to some community organizations and groups who wish to offer specialty shows. This year, the theater was even able to offer monetary support to the Pawnee County Humane Society.
“We really appreciate doing it, because the community did so much for us,” White said.
New drive-in experience coming
In 2016, the State Theater Association took on a new venture, offering outdoor movies. They first contacted an Overland Park company who makes a business of organizing outdoor movies. They rented an inflatable outdoor movie screen, and had the company present a drive-in movie at the Larned High School athletic field.
White grew up attending drive-in movies with his family, and said the board wanted to offer the same experience to the community.
“There’s a lot of kids these days don’t know what a drive-in was like,” he said. “We’re happy to share the experience with a new generation.”
The Larned High School Sophomore class ran the concession stand, keeping the profits from the sale in their class fund. The theater charged $5 a car-load, and when students showed up in groups on-foot, they charged just $5 for the group, he said. The evening was a success, one they hope to repeat soon.
That success prompted the association to purchase its own inflatable drive-in movie screen, equipment, speakers and antenna. All of this with an eye to serving the community, and also to rent to area groups for similar events. White said the groups would need to make arrangements to book a movie on their own, but the association can handle the rest. Their first show happened one of the evenings of the 2018 Santa Fe Trail Days in Larned for the Larned Area Chamber of Commerce. About 250 people came.
“People seemed to really enjoy it,” White said. “It’s just another avenue of entertainment we can provide to citizens of Pawnee County and surrounding towns.”
A repeat event is in the works for the end of September at the high school.
Also on the horizon are plans for a 70 year anniversary celebration to be held Saturday, April 6, 2019. On one wall of the theater are period photos from the original 1949 grand opening, and the association is taking its cues from those pictures. Already, the members are on the lookout for period movie posters. White believes the movie that was shown that night which starred Fred MacMurray may have been “Father was a Fullback.” Other “coming soon” posters can be seen in the photographs.
They are also asking around to find cars that match those in one of the photos for a special photograph they’d like to take. It is believed that at least one of those cars may still be in existence locally. Admission prices will also be adjusted to 1949 prices: 50 cents for adults and 12 cents for kids. So, be sure to mark your calendars now for a night to remember. But then, aren’t most nights at the movies ones to remember?
(A condensed version of this feature will appear in the 2019 Pawnee County Source, coming soon.)