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.
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.
“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.
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.