Kenda Drive-In Marshall, Arkansas

Arrival

Driving 100 miles for a drive-in movie would seem like a crazy concept to some, but for many, the drive to tiny Marshall, Arkansas was worth it. Kenda Drive-In movie theater in Marshall, Arkansas attracted many customers from all over the state of Arkansas since it opened in the 1960s.

The drive from Searcy, Arkansas was a little over an hour and a half, but with a few good songs and some best friends, it only added to the fun of the drive-in movie experience. The winding roads traveled to Kenda Drive-In provided a beautiful tour of the Natural State, especially in the fall.

Kenda Drive-In was located right off of Highway 65 in Marshall, Arkansas. The first thing that greeted customers when they pulled up to Kenda Drive-In was the cute, teal box office, easily visible from the street. Kenda, whom the drive-in was named after, stood here as cars drove up to purchase tickets and to borrow speakers and heaters. The box office was a tiny, concrete rectangle, allowing only a few people in at the same time. Old speakers were stacked on shelves along the back walls of the box office, waiting for Kenda to grab them and place them in the hands of an eager movie-goer.

Kenda opened up the box office promptly at 6:30, an hour before the movie was scheduled to start. Cars lined up down the street waiting for the box office to open so they could purchase their tickets. The first car, eager to experience the drive-in, had arrived at 3:30 that afternoon and spent two hours patiently waiting for the box office to open and take their pick of spots in the lot. When 6:30 p.m. arrived, customers drove up to the window, and were immediately greeted by Kenda’s enthusiastic voice. The line of cars often backed up to the highway as they waited their turn to purchase tickets and then enter the outdoor theater.

The community aspect of the theater was immediately noticeable as Kenda asked the child in the back seat of the car how his science experiment went that day in class. This was one of the ways that Kenda’s love of her community manifested itself. Kenda’s involvement in the local school system made her a recognizable figure of leadership for many of the children who came to the drive-in movies. Kenda embraced this, and asked children how their classes were going, or how their math test or science experiment turned out.

Kenda would ask the customer how many people were in the car and would quickly calculate the overall cost. The cost for an adult ticket was $6, children ages 6 to 11 were $2 and children under 6 were free. After taking the money and handing back the appropriate change, Kenda would ask if they wanted a radio or a heater for their car, both of which could be plugged into one of the many electrical posts that surrounded the outdoor theater. Some groups would take a heater, some a radio while others took both. Even if the family didn’t take a heater or a radio, Kenda would still give them a blue strip of plastic to insure that everyone had to stop the car on their way out and hand something back. This blue strip had “88.1” printed on it, providing each car with the FM radio station where the movie would be broadcasted.

After purchasing their movie tickets and getting the radio or heater, the car would then pull through the long driveway that curved around the back of the outdoor theater. The driveway was littered with pine needles from the trees that formed a natural fence for the property. A crunching sound could be heard as the vehicles slowly drove down the gravel driveway, which was covered in pine needles, leaves and pinecones.

After breaking out through the trees that surrounded the outdoor theater space, customers parked on the grassy ramps and set up for a movie. On the warmer days, many people would pull out picnic blankets and enjoy the movie from the grass. Throughout the years, kids who grew up in town considered these six acres that made up Kenda Drive-In a second home.

History

Kenda Drive-In is located in Marshall, Arkansas. Marshall has a population of 1,313, and was incorporated in 1884. The population has never exceeded 2,000. Searcy County contains 23,372 acres of the Buffalo National River. Marshall is dependent on the tourism brought in by the river.

The Civil War was a significant event for Marshall, causing a revival in population growth and the name of the town to change. What was once known as Burrowsville became Marshall. The Civil War also brought a negative effect, bringing destruction of the town. The courthouse, including county records, was burned and many residents fled to the northern states. After the war, the Missouri and Arkansas Railroad helped revitalize the town during the early twentieth century. The population broke 1,000 for the first time in 1950.

Marshall is also home to a family favorite restaurant called Daisy Queen. Daisy Queen and the Kenda Drive-In both celebrated their 50th anniversaries in 2016. The restaurant was bought in 1966 by Bill and Patsy Mays, who hoped it would be a long-term success. Daisy Queen's business comes from both Marshall residents as well as tourists who stop by while traveling to Branson or the Buffalo National River which is located just a few miles north of Marshall.

Just like Daisy Queen, Kenda Drive-In attracts the same crowd. The Kenda Drive-In is the only year-round operating drive-in movie theater in Arkansas. There were once five drive-in theaters in the state, but two have since closed and the other two only operate from March to November.

On March 17, 1947, Howard and Marguerite Sanders opened a movie theater on the square in downtown Marshall, Arkansas. Little did the Sanders know they had started a tradition when they named the theater “Ken Theatre” after their son and that the family would continue in the theater business for three, possibly four, generations. In addition to helping run the theater his parents owned, Kenneth Sanders and his wife, Marilyn, built and opened the “Kenda Drive-In,” named after their daughter, Kenda Dearing, a few miles down the road in 1966. The drive-in sat on six acres of land where Kenneth eventually built a house at the back of the property for his family of five. Kenneth believed in entrusting local businesses to build all the parts of the drive-in, and he did exactly that with everything except the projector. Kenda said that her father had no clue how to run it, but he and her mother used to go to the drive-in in Little Rock to get ideas. Kenda’s grandparents’ theater, Ken Theatre, burned down on August 11, 1968, leaving the family with the decision to invest further into the drive-in. Kenda’s parents, Kenneth and Marilyn, ran the Kenda Drive-In for 37 years before retiring.

Ken Theater on the square in downtown Marshall; Kenneth and Marilyn Sanders in front of the concrete, teal, projector room at Kenda Drive-In; the original drive-in grounds in 1966.
“The drive-in was my playground,” Kenda said. “I played here, I rode my bike here, this was where I grew up.”

The only times Kenda felt homesick while away at college was when she would go to the movies with her friends, because it reminded her of the movie drive-in she grew up living near and working at with her family and friends from Marshall. The past 10 years the family has seen a shift in customers from a majority of locals to more tourist visitors. Kenda and her husband, Todd, officially took over the drive-in in 2003, but had been helping her parents with maintenance, mowing the property, concessions, etc. for years before then. The Dearings eventually bought Kenda’s aunt’s house right next to the property so they could be closer to the drive-in.

Kenda and Todd Dearing

“Mom and dad believed in working us,” Kenda said. “That was just the family deal. And we were the same way with our boys.”

Kenda Drive-In oversaw six decades of change, but was especially revamped between 2011 and 2016. One of Kenda’s two sons set up a Facebook account for the drive-in as a way to get the word out about showings and events. The drive-in went digital in March of 2013, but before that they used old projectors with film.

When the digital projector is running, Kenda said that they keep the projector room at 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Through all of the renovations, the Dearings decided not to re-paint the projector room or concession stand because of signatures on the wall from Kenda’s father, brothers and any others who used to run the movies. The original screen, made of steel, lasted longer than 50 years, but in February of 2016 they resurfaced the 72-foot screen, with a baked-on finish that matched well with their new digital imagery. The Dearings added all new restrooms to the lower building on the property, as well as upgraded to a digital FM station so viewers could listen to the movie through their car radio. In addition to the FM station, they put up $8,000 worth of speakers on the buildings and around the perimeter of the campus.

“We try very hard to make sure everything is running good,” Kenda said. “We’re pretty good at customer service, but there’s always something else that we need to do.”

As mentioned before, any given night could bring people in from a 100 mile radius, but June and July are the busiest months of the year for the drive-in. Kenda’s mom, Marilyn, continued to call Kenda from her house on the back of the property, to discuss the nights turn out. Kenda said she would sit and watch from her house every night.

Kenda Drive-In won Business of the Year in 2016 from the Chamber of Commerce. In the summer of 2016, the drive-in had a big 50th Anniversary celebration. Kenda said that her favorite part was the memory wall where people came and wrote down their favorite memories of the drive-in over the course of 50 years. For a family who's loved the movie industry for more than 50 years, Kenda said that she and Todd actually watched very few movies.

“I love the business, but we probably watch fewer movies than anybody,” Kenda said.

Concessions

Halloween and a bag of candy. Forrest Gump and a box of chocolates. Marshmallows and a mug of hot cocoa. Popcorn and a movie: a classic combination that, for the Sanders/Dearing family, has been paired for three generations. When most people think of the movie theater, they think about buttery popcorn, boxed candy and sipping soda through a straw. Nothing was different when it came to Kenda Drive-In. Viewers would drive in, pick a spot on the lot and, soon afterward, head to Kenda Drive-In’s concession stand, unable to resist the smell of buttery, movie theater popcorn waiting for them. As customers made their way to the Kenda Drive-In concession stand, they didn’t have to think twice about what they wanted, because the drive-in had everything a regular theater would have had, and more. The concession stand was stocked with hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hotdogs, barbeque, grilled chicken, Frito pies, nachos, barbeque nachos, Pepsi soda products, sweet tea, Gatorade, candy, chips, pickles, cotton candy, popcorn made with pure coconut oil and a Search County specialty — chocolate rolls.

For most of the family’s time in the business, the bulk of their profit was made through concessions sales. Usually around 60 percent of the box office sales went back to the movie makers for royalties, leaving 40 percent for the drive-in's other expenses. Kenda explained that unlike a typical movie theater, the drive-in didn't charge eight dollars for a bottle of water. Kenda Drive-In relied on the quantity of sales instead of the up-charges. She added that in addition to the sales they made through the concession stand on movie nights, they open the stand for lunch three days a week. The Dearings said they did not think people would enjoy traditional movie snacks for lunch, but it turned out to be one of the busiest times in the concession stand.

Although the whole family was involved in helping work and run the drive-in, growing up, Kenda spent most of her time working in the concession stand. When she and, her husband, Todd began dating, he would come help out at the drive-in; naturally, Todd and Kenda would end up working the concessions together.

For decades, each and every concession stand worker left their mark at Kenda Drive-In by signing their name on the wall inside the concession stand. Other than Todd, Kenda, and occasionally their two sons, Kace and Jaden, the Dearings had only a handful of women who would come and help out in the concession stand. All of the drive-in workers wore tie-dye, Kenda Drive-In T-shirts, each hand dyed. After the workers had been wearing the tie-dye T-shirts for a while, the Dearings started selling them to drive-in visitors. Kenda hand dyed over 700 T-shirts that the drive-in sold to customers in 2016.

“We figured out a long time ago that butter and stuff doesn’t stain on tie dye,” Kenda said. “That’s exactly why we wear tie-dyed shirts. Because if you wear a plain T-shirt, and you get butter or mustard on yourself, that’s it. But with tie-dye ones, you can’t tell.”

The Kenda Drive-In concession stand was indeed full of stain producing condiments, especially on a busy night in mid-June or July. On one of their busier nights, the concession stand line would be backed out of the concession stand building to Kenda’s parents’ house at the back of the property (about 40 yards away from the stand). To alleviate the crowd at the current concession stand, the Dearings planned to open a second concession stand. This concession stand would be for those who did not want a burger or hotdog, but just a refill on their soda, popcorn or candy. Kenda said even though they would have people come and stand in line for an hour to get into the concession stand, customers were okay with the wait.

“You know — I love the business and I love the people,” Kenda said. “We have the best customers in the world. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Grace Starr Photography

Romance

Kenda Drive-In was not only used for movie nights. According to Kenda, the theater has been used for everything from birthday parties to proposals. Some of these events required renting out the entire venue, but for proposals, Kenda only asked that everyone coming for the proposal purchased a movie ticket to get in. Proposals at the movie theater became extremely easy after the movie theater went digital, Kenda said. Kenda was able to easily slip presentations or slideshows prepared by the soon-to-be fiance into the advertisements or previews.

Just like all the couples who get engaged at Kenda Drive-In, for Harding University juniors Jake Buchanan and Haley Fields, Kenda Drive-In will always hold a special place in their hearts.

“Jake and I went on our first date at the Kenda Drive-In we both really like movies and retro things and he thought it was a good idea to take us there,” Fields said. “Every anniversary since then, he’s taken us there so that’s why we got engaged there.”

Fields said she suspected that a proposal could have been happening that night of September 30, 2016 because Kenda Drive-In was such a significant place for them as a couple.

“For me it was kind of a full circle event,” Buchanan said. “It started there, our first date and then the start of our lives together forever.”

The Kenda Drive-In staff was nothing but friendly through the whole process, Buchanan said, and even gave them an iconic Kenda Drive-In tie-dye T-shirt. Kenda was actively involved in the planning process and assisted greatly in getting the presentation ready for the big screen. Kenda worked hard on the presentation up until the minute that it was shown, Buchanan said, and the proposal went off without a hitch.

“It takes an hour to convert a 30 second video,” Kenda said. “I didn’t have time to run it before on the big screen. I did that one blind.”

After a proposal, the entire audience always goes wild, Kenda said. It was not uncommon for everyone to flash their car lights and honk the horns out of excitement and celebration.

Buchanan proposed to Fields and shortly after, they went to get food from the concessions stand. Fields said everyone was still overflowing with excitement for them. Although Kenda had never officially been introduced to Buchanan or Fields, she said she recognized them as soon as they arrived because of how frequently they attend. Kenda always recognized the soon-to-be engaged couple, she said.

“It’s always funny because when they come in, of course I never say anything but the guy always looks at me like ‘don’t you dare say a word.’”

Kenda Drive-In is not new to budding romances. Many of Kenda and Todd’s first dates were at the drive-in because Kenda spent most nights working. When Todd wanted to date Kenda, he jumped right in and worked in the family business alongside his girl.

“Once we started dating, he started spending time here working concessions with me. He could run concessions and clean up as well as I could because that’s where we had our date,” Kenda said.

Community

Kenda is not the only one who grew up at the theater.

“You see kids grow up,” Kenda said. “You see them date. You see them get married and then here come their kids. It’s generational.”

This kind of community was one of the reasons why Kenda loved the drive-in.

The theater hosted two family fun nights, one in June and one in July. The events were free and it was described as a “carnival atmosphere”. The concession stand sold 50 cent hotdogs and handed out free cotton candy and snow cones. Kids got their faces painted and games were set up with prizes. Around Halloween, the drive-in put on “Spooky Fun Nights” and local businesses would set up booths and interact with those who attended. R-rated movies were avoided during the summer since most of their business comes from families. Generally, a setup of a PG movie followed by a PG-13 would occur to give families the ability to bring their kids to the first showing and leave, or stay for the later showing. In the fall, Friday nights were not very busy due to high school football and basketball games going on in Marshall. They saw most of their business on Saturday evenings.

Todd and Kenda’s love of people and the family unit was reflected through the stories Kenda shared about families who had visited the theater.

A family from Little Rock, with two autistic children, made the trek to Marshall in order to watch a movie all together. The drive-in not only offered them the opportunity to watch a movie together, but also allowed them the chance to relax and not worry about being too loud or distracting to the people around them. Kenda said that a man from Conway who was paraplegic traveled to the drive-in because he would not be able to sit near his family if he went to a regular movie theater.

According to Kenda, traveling long distances to the drive-in was sometimes the only way that many families could experience a movie together. Kenda valued the community-building aspect that the drive-in provides to families. As the Dearing family continued to invest in families across Searcy County and beyond, Todd and Kenda hoped to, one day, hand the business over to their sons, Kace and Jaden Dearing for a fourth generation to continue the love of movies.

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