Mason City’s Arlee Theater Reopening This Week

posted by btkrefft on March 22, 2004 at 10:18 am

MASON CITY, IL — The Arlee Theater on Main Street in Mason City is about to reopen after four years of sitting vacant, according to this report in the Lincoln Courier.

The theater was last used as a country western music venue. Before that, it was a movie house from 1936 until 1984. But in May of 2003, John and Gaye Maxson of Mason City purchased the 450-seat Arlee, and since then have put a good deal of time, effort and money into cleaning up the theater. “I bet I’ve scraped 2,000 pieces of gum off the floor,” says Gaye, “Some of it’s pretty old.”

The Maxsons hope to bring a place where people can go for live entertainment and classic films to downtown Mason City. Currently, Mason City residents need to travel over a half hour away to cites like Lincoln or Peoria to see a movie.

Opening night for the Arlee is next Sunday March 28th, and a gospel music concert will be the newly-refurbished theater’s debut.

Theaters in this post

Comments (3)

edward on March 22, 2004 at 6:28 pm

Hopefully someone can post some new photos of this theater.

writingal on March 29, 2004 at 5:38 pm

I am the Maxsons sister, and here is an article I wrote about The Arlee:

Resurrecting an icon
Velvet cloak reveals a jewel/Arlee Theater back in business
By Becky Billingsley

The Arlee Theater was conceived in a leap of faith, and it is being resurrected with the same outlook.
In 1936, when the late Art Struck looked at the Buick garage on Main Street, he saw beyond greasy engine parts. The entrepreneur saw velvet majesty.
The building wasn’t that old then; Jimmy Moslander built the garage in the late 1920s. Struck knew a theater could work in Mason City, because the Liberty Theater, which started as a nickelodeon, prospered across the street. He also knew what he’d name his masterpiece: The Arlee, after himself and his wife, Leah.
But much work had to be done to transform a car garage into movie theater.
The floor was built up, so that a steep foyer led up to an apex where 503 plush red velvet seats started a gradual decline to the screen. Art Deco wood trim, lighting fixtures and tile were installed. A glorious velvet curtain cloaked a genuine “silver screen.”
“The screen was actually silver colored,” says 76-year-old Mason City native Dale Fancher, who was 9 years old when the Arlee Theater opened. “It was perforated completely, and laced in a frame just like a drum head, real tight. Any bump put a wrinkle on it, and the bright light made [the wrinkle] show up like a sore thumb.”
Even more amazing than the artistic touches, Fancher says, was that the theater was air-conditioned.
The old Liberty Theater was cooled with fans blowing across ice that was delivered every day from the Ainsworth Ice and Feed Co.
The Arlee, however, had honest-to-goodness air conditioning, although it lacked a thermostat. When people laughed at funny scenes, Fancher said, the temperature in the theater went up two degrees, and when the movie ended and people got up to leave it rose four degrees. Theater employees had to anticipate the fluctuations, and turn on or off the air conditioning or heater to make the space comfortable.

Show time

The stage was set, and in November 1936, the Arlee Theater’s neon marquee beckoned townsfolk to see “Swing Time,” the sixth of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s dance duo films that’s heralded as their finest movie. Appropriately, the movie features glorious Art Deco sets.
The theater was a smash hit from the beginning. Mason City’s 1,800 citizens, and people from 15 miles around, kept the theater busy every day of the week.
A film was shown Sunday and Monday evenings, with a matinee on Sundays. Tuesdays were bargain nights, Fancher said, with a “single stand” B-movie. A new film ran Wednesday and Thursday nights, and another new movie came to town for Fridays and Saturdays, with a Saturday matinee.
“Regular admission for adults was 35 cents,” Fancher said, “including tax. Matinees were 25 cents for adults. Bargain nights were 20 cents. All the time kids were 9 cents.”
During World War II, when Fancher was 15 years old, he became a part-time usher at the Arlee. Before long he was promoted to projectionist, and made a king’s ransom weekly salary for a teenager during the war: $32.
In those days concessions were not sold at the theater; that didn’t start until the 1950s, when an enterprising fellow not connected with the theater set up shop on the street with a portable popcorn popper. Struck, after urging from Fancher, decided he wanted a piece of that action, so he purchased what Fancher calls “the Cadillac of popcorn poppers” from Manley, Inc.
The theater turned out to be quite profitable, between ticket sales and concessions.
“Crowds lined up to the north around the corner,” Fancher says. “And not just in a single line â€" you couldn’t even walk through the sidewalk. The theater opened at 6:30, and the first show was at 7. If I didn’t get there before 6:30, I had to go in the rear of the theater.
“It was nothing to sell 500 boxes of popcorn an evening at 10 cents a box. One hundred pounds of popcorn, unpopped, cost $9, so it was pretty lucrative.”

No easy job

Running a busy theater took a lot of hard work. A custodian cleaned up between the matinees and the first evening movie, and between the 7 and 9 p.m. shows. Even in the days before concessions were sold, gum had to be scraped off the bottoms of seats.
The theater’s brass fixtures were polished â€" not just wiped, Fancher emphasizes â€" every day.
The ticket seller, the late Hazel Donavan, had her work down to an art.
“She could fill that house in 15 minutes,” Fancher said.
Fancher’s job was perhaps the most demanding. In pre-digital days movies were on highly flammable celluloid film. The projection booth is a concrete box with a heavy steel fire door, to contain flames and protect the customers. It became so hot in the projection booth while the movie ran that Fancher wore cut-off pants and no shirt as he worked. The booth has a shower, and the projectionists used it at the end of the night to wash off their sweat before donning street clothes.

Love and laughter

The Arlee Theater became a point of pride for Mason City citizens, and a way of life.
A film truck arrived four times a week, in the middle of the night, to pick up old movies and leave fresh ones. Often the Arlee showed new releases before Springfield and Peoria theaters, due to a rule that prohibited those venues from showing first-run movies earlier than 30 days after their premieres in big cities.
Mason City was so small, Fancher said, that for years they got around the 30-day moratorium because the Arlee was considered too tiny to make a significant impact on ticket sales.
So the Mason City folks enjoyed their blockbusters and B movies. They saw cartoons, newsreels, episodic serials, short films and wide screen wonders. People had their favorite seats, and many a girl received her first kiss in those dim environs.

Time marches on

Art Struck welcomed a few generations through his doors. Dave Myers of Mason City, who is 61 years old now, remembers going to the Arlee with his parents or his older brother every Saturday in the late 1940s and 50s.
“They had usually Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy for the kids,” Myers said. “There was a matinee at 2, and then a movie again at 7 and 9 on Saturday, and it was full all the time.
“ ‘King Kong,’ the original, that was a blockbuster. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ we went every time that was ever there. There was always a cartoon, then a short feature like ‘Three Stooges’ or ‘Little Rascals,’ previews and newsreels. The newsreels showed every week, told you what was going on in the world, with World War II and the Korean War. There are a lot of memories there. It kept the community together, kept people home, [instead of] going out of town.”
After Myers grew up and married his wife, Laura Lea, their three children went to the Arlee. By then Struck had leased the theater to Charlie Thomas. Myers’ 43-year-old oldest child, Kyra Myers Stankiewicz, recalls the weekend movie ritual.
“I remember when we started out going, Mom and Dad would drop us off and pick us up. I saw “Jaws” and “Planet of the Apes.” I remember when we first started going, when we were little; we sat down close to the screen. As we got older, we moved to the middle, and by junior high, we were getting there early to get the back seats, to sit with your boyfriends without people watching you.
“It was just fun to grow up there…It gave us a nice safe place to go and enjoy our friends, and a good movie. Now the kids don’t have anything to do. I think it was a relief to our parents to know we were driving up to the Arlee. And we weren’t having to drive all the way to Springfield or Lincoln…Our parents knew where we were for two and a half, three hours.”

Decline and rebirth

John and Gaye Maxson of Mason City know the Arlee well. The couple, who are in their late forties, first went to the Arlee as children, when grade school students received free matinee tickets so their parents could go Christmas shopping. They remember feeling awed by the theater’s colored lights and plush velvet seats.
When John was in eighth grade, he got a job at the Arlee doing clean-up duty for Charlie Thomas. The next year he was promoted to usher, ticket-taker and concessionaire, and after high school, after John had a job in Peoria, he still came back on weekends to manage the theater.
Eventually Larry Rogers of Mason City leased the Arlee, then Don Keith bought the theater and had Nashville Sound Country Opry and various community shows. That lasted about a decade â€" the last function was in 2000 â€" and the theater was sold again to Dale and Cindy Roddy, who started to renovate the theater and planned to reopen it. Those plans didn’t pan out, and the theater sat unused.
When the Arlee went on the market in 2003 at an extremely reasonable price, the Maxsons bought it. The purchase included a recently renovated apartment upstairs, and an office next door.
John, a printer, and Gaye, a freelance journalist, and their four children had a dream of re-opening the Arlee and making it a community hub for quality family entertainment.
“I’ve always felt the need to do something to help Mason City come back to life,” John said. “When this came available and was affordable, we just felt it was the right thing to do at the time. There are a lot of memories [at the Arlee], not just for us but everybody we talk to has memories of it. And the more we get into it, the more we know it was the right thing.”
But getting to the point of reopening has meant a lot of hard work. John spent the last year working all day in Peoria, then heading to the theater for another hour or two of labor. He also worked on the remodeling most weekends. Gaye and the children, Mary, Marcia, Dale and Daniel, plus lots of friends, have pitched in. Gaye figures she has spent more than 200 hours just on cleaning the wood floors.
The entire interior was repainted, from the theater walls to the concession area. The restrooms are in the process of being refurbished, doubled in size and being made wheelchair accessible, and the heating and air conditioning systems were overhauled. There are new exit lights, emergency lights and smoke and heat detectors.
“And we’ve been going through the [lights on the theater walls],” John said, “to repair and replate the glass slats in them.”
“And we’ve been replacing a lot of light bulbs,” Gaye said, referring to the unique color-changing wall lights. “It’s a challenge to find the colored lights. You can’t go buy those at Lowe’s or Wal-Mart.”
John said customers who attended the Arlee in years past will notice the decor is slightly different, but he hopes they agree they’re attractive changes.
“We’re trying to stay true to the Art Deco theme, and I think we’ve been real successful. It’s similar, but the theater does look different. There’s a lot more color now than it ever had.”
Kyra Stankiewicz worked for more than a decade as a purchaser for a major movie chain. She has eagerly lent her expertise to the Maxsons, and her experience with modern theaters has given her a deep appreciation for the old style.
“What is so amazing to me is how much of the original stuff is still in there,” she said. “You don’t find curtains that open any more, and a nice open space for a large screen…The walls now in theaters are fabric, and John has made the Arlee’s walls look so nice now. And the seats â€" the structure of them â€" those are iron. Now they make aluminum theater seats. It’s so cool that all that stuff is still there and still working.”

Stories out of the woodwork

As the Maxsons worked on the theater, countless townspeople stopped by to check on progress. They shared Arlee memories, and other stories popped out of the woodwork.
Someone told John that a murder took place in the building, back in the 20s when it was a car garage. A criminal chased by police ran into Mosslander’s, and the bad guy shot a policeman.
The Maxsons have heard several love stories associated with the theater. Many an 80-year-old has shared that they received their first kisses there, and the Arlee was where Mason City natives Margaret and Don Swaar had their first date.
“They didn’t come together, though,” Gaye said with a laugh. “Margaret and her boyfriend had a spat, then she sat down with Don and they left together. Don and the boy got in a fistfight later in the parking lot.”
Some love stories were recorded on bathroom walls, with boys’ and girls’ names etched into the tiles and proclaiming undying affection.
Other stories had to be found. When Gaye was cleaning the floor, she tried to rub away a Hershey Bar wrapper, but it wouldn’t budge. She discovered the vintage logo had been there so long, it is permanently imbedded in the wood. When the old carpet was pulled up from the aisles, Dale and Marcia found a penny that had lay there so long, and had been trod upon so many times, it was squished flatter than a normal-size penny. One of the most recent discoveries was an old whiskey bottle, tucked inside a bathroom wall.
“It has the Illinois tax stamp from 1936,” John said. “The bottle was put there when they were turning it from a garage to a theater. Dale Fancher even knew whose bottle it was. He said there was a painter who was a heavy drinker, and he knew it was his…even the gold foil is still on it, like it just came off the shelf.”

Show time…again

While the Arlee Theater’s grand re-opening is scheduled for March 28 with a Gaither-style gospel concert by Ivan Parker, a complete re-opening will happen in three stages.
First will be occasional live performances.
Next will come movies, and the Maxsons hope to secure high-tech digital equipment. That will have to wait a while, though, because right now the theater is lacks its movie “guts,” including a screen and working projectors.
Once they do start running movies, the couple plans to offer them every weekend and alternated with live performances.
“We’re still debating what the first movie will be,” John said. “It will probably either be “The Majestic,” (which stars Jim Carrey and features a resurrected movie theater) or “Swing Time,” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Or maybe we’ll just show “The Money Pit,” Gaye said. “Or a combination of “The Majestic” and “The Money Pit.”
The third phase of the Maxsons’ plans is to make the theater an educational center for community events and school classes. They would love to see area groups, clubs and businesses use the theater for meetings and special events, and have the schools hold drama or film classes there.


As March 28 nears, townspeople are excited about what the Arlee’s reopening could mean for the community.
“This town is empty of an evening,” Dave Myers said. “On weekends and of an evening this town is just dead. If we get some good movies, it’ll liven it up.”
“I should think folks would be just tickled to death,” Dale Fancher said. “Everybody I’ve talked to hopes the town will support it.”
“This theater is going to have charm that the new theaters don’t have,” John said. “It’s going to be really good for the community.”

MOTY on October 18, 2004 at 10:41 pm

I’m the Maxson’s daughter, Marcia. They just got the screen up and are hoping to open for movies within two weeks. Also, a new website is nearly finished, complete with photos of the restoration process.

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