A quick trip down Memory Lane
Visit Mason City for a movie, comedy and a down-home meal
When I was in seventh grade, my friends and I got our parents to drop us at the local small-town movie theater on Saturday nights. We would buy tickets at an enclosed booth, shell out a quarter at the concession stand for popcorn and settle into seats as close to our crushes as we could get without being too obvious.
Sometimes we would be enthralled with the show; other times we were more concerned about which eighth-grade boys might gaze our way in the cavernous dark. Those “going steady” would cuddle together and hope to sneak a kiss or two when the theater owner wasn’t looking.
All those memories and more came flooding back at the restored Arlee Theater, a must-see in Mason City, just 33 miles up Rte. 29 from Springfield. Throw in lunch or dinner at a local café, and Mason City becomes a quick trip to nostalgia.
If your tastes run more modern, you can visit the Mason City Limits Comedy Club, which boasts “big city comedy at small town prices” next door to a Mexican restaurant. The town of 2,300 is an easy stroll from place to place.
The Arlee is on Main Street with an old-fashioned marquee advertising the movie of the day and a stand-alone ticket booth in the entry. Buy your $5 ticket and head inside to see old movie posters and smell the popcorn at the small concession stand in the lobby.
Once you are loaded up with snacks, you can enter the massive theater and pick a seat from the 500 wooden ones. The tall ceiling, wide aisles, Art Deco lights and old film projector on display in the back add to the aura.
The building began as a Buick garage in the 1920s, servicing traffic on the then-main Lone Star Route between Chicago and St. Louis and eventually Brownsville, Texas. That was in the days before Route 66, according to Gaye Maxson, Arlee co-owner with her husband, John.
The original owner, carpenter-musician Roy Gardner, built it with good acoustics so it could be used as a theater eventually, and in 1936 new owners took over, pushed out the back wall and turned the building into an Art Deco theater. The first film for the grand opening featured Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time.
The theater changed hands, went through several closures and for a time became the Nashville Sound Country Opry. It closed again in 2000, but the Maxsons decided to make it a family project after their four children convinced Gaye and John the town needed a movie theater.
“John had worked there as a kid and had very fond memories of it,” Gaye explained. Community members backed the family with money and volunteer effort during the year it took to renovate. It runs as a nonprofit enterprise.
The Arlee shows first-run and family favorite movies on Friday through Monday evenings and on Sunday afternoons all year long. Tickets are $3 for children and $5 for adults, and most concession snacks are under $3.
Generally, 50-100 show up on a Saturday night, Gaye said, with about half from out of town. Special events such as a Christmas season showing of The Polar Express drew 200, and the theater sometimes raises its movie screen to host local bands, school plays and traveling orchestras. In November the theater will celebrate its 80th anniversary with something special, John said.
For another taste of nostalgia in downtown Mason City, try the Do-Drop In Café, where you will find owner James Bell, a variety of pies and a wall full of clocks set to various times around the world. Bell said the clocks have been in a Mason City restaurant for as long as he can remember and were part of the café’s décor when he bought it.
The café features diner-style breakfasts, down-home meals and sandwiches, sprinkled with a dose of small-town friendliness.
The Do-Drop does not offer alcohol so if you want a drink with dinner, head to Smokey’s Bar & Grill, specializing in burgers, steak and pizza, or El Patron Mexican Restaurant, where you can sample the margaritas.
El Patron sits on Chestnut Street near the Mason City Limits Comedy Club, which offers shows most Friday and Saturday nights. Prices usually are $12.50 but will be higher for special shows with better-known comics. The comedy club seats 100, has a full liquor license and recommends reservations.
You might catch acts that have appeared on late-night television shows or in clubs elsewhere in the country, but you only have to travel 30-40 minutes from the Springfield area.
Mason City’s downtown is so small you are unlikely to get lost, but don’t be surprised if you take a turn down memory lane.
To see what’s playing at the Arlee Theater, visit www.arleetheater.com. For information on the Mason City Lights Comedy Club, go to www.MCLimits.com.
Mary Bohlen, a freelance writer and editor from Springfield, alternates writing the Midwestern travel column for the IT with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.