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September 6, 2002

See where the Penn Square movie complex in Okie City is to be reopened soon under new management. It’s been closed for several months, presumably a casualty of the intense competition among exhibitors in the Big Town. For one thing, the new folks are planning to install stadium seating as they try to catch up with the features now found in the newest film “palaces.” Laura and I hope they also will have cup holders at each seat to hold those huge Cokes from the concession stand. It is hard to balance a cold drink in one hand and the essential box of popcorn in the other while watching the flickering images on the big screen. And you can’t go to the movies without those items, can you?

Reminds me of a brief episode from childhood days when our family had a drug store on the north side of the square. This was during the Depression era of the 1930s, when the cash flow in every kind of business was a cause for concern. In other words, customers were hard to come by and we had to scramble to keep the store solvent. One of our responses was the purchase of an industrial strength popcorn machine. Not one of those lightweight counter-top models, but a massive, chrome and glass, self-contained, wheel-mounted device like the ones you see in movie theater concession stands today. They were made in Kansas City, Mo., by the Birch Co. We thought popcorn would be a reasonably good complement to the cold drinks and ice cream concoctions from our soda fountain. The machine cost around $600, a huge investment for that time of economic distress, but the Birch Co. put it on time payments and we hoped it would pay for itself. It was one of the few good decisions our family made during that time.

The machine was mobile but when we had nice weather it took two of us to wheel it out the front door onto the sidewalk during business hours (7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., seven days a week). Pedestrians could hardly avoid seeing it and inhaling the tantalizing fragrance emitted when a fresh kettle of popcorn was being whipped up. The sight and sound almost guaranteed quick sales regardless of the time of day. By popular request, we began distribution of popped corn in gallon-size aluminum cans to many of the family grocery stores then located around the square. H.C. Galaway’s Royal Food Market on the south side of the square and the Johnson family store on the east side were good customers. Shoppers had a choice of regular popcorn, cheese corn, caramel corn or strawberry-flavored corn. They sold for $1 per can and the grocer realized a small profit. As the head popper, I was given the responsibility of seeing to it that only fresh popcorn was on the grocers’ shelf. (I guess I was also marketing director.) That responsibility necessitated periodic checkups and the disposition of anything more than one week old. Business was good, but the profit margin was not high, especially while we were making monthly payments to the Birch Co. in Kansas City, Mo.

Seeking new outlets, I called on Mr. Charlie Wolleson at the Roxy Theater and Mr. Henry Tate at the Annex, both on the east side of the square, to see if we could work out some kind of deal to offer popcorn to their movie patrons. I thought it was a wonderful idea, since neither theater had a concession stand and, as a vendor, I would see some of the movies for free, but Mr. Wolleson and Mr. Tate could not envision it as a profitable service for them, so they declined to take part. They said they did not think movie theaters should allow patrons to eat or drink on their premises, so that ended my dreams of expansion. In time, local grocery store patrons also seemed to tire of popcorn in a can, and all that led to the inevitable decline of our drug store’s venture into a new field. I was about to graduate from high school, anyway, so retirement from the popcorn business seemed like a logical thing to do. We sold the machine to Mr. Charlie Forney, who had just opened a soft drink parlor and sandwich shop on the west side of the square. We closed the drug store, and waited hopefully for new opportunities.