During my 1940s childhood, the Max family owned the movie theater—the Royal. Just before each birthday, kids received in the mail a free pass to a movie. I later learned that Mrs. Max had collected names and birthdates from the school. That’s how she kept track of who turned 12 and was no longer eligible for a child’s ticket.
By the 1950s, the theatre had been renamed the Max. As an usher, I earned fifty cents an hour (I think). On weekends, I saw the same movie several times, with gaps—like scenes left on the cutting room floor—while I located a seat for someone. Perks of the job were free admission to any movie and free popcorn. I never went for popcorn because I wasn’t sure the teenager who tended the concessions knew who I was and would expect me to hand over a dime. He was the owner’s son, and he always seemed cranky.
My brother Daryl recalls cleaning the theater on Sunday mornings. “It was quiet and spooky, even with the lights on. My pay was fifty cents and free movies. I could keep any money I found; sometimes a few coins had slipped out of someone’s pocket.”
From my position in the back, I sometimes viewed as much romance and action from dating couples in darkened corners as there was on screen. The current owners, Larry and Aileen Pedley, fell in love at the Max. Larry says, “Aileen and I started working there when we were sixteen, in 1963. She was the popcorn girl and I was projectionist. She was cute and made such good popcorn I asked her to be my bride. We married in 1968, and leased the theatre from Mr. Max. When he died in 1981, we purchased the theatre from his heirs. Our life has revolved around the theatre, including raising three children who took turns cleaning, running the projectors, and making popcorn.”
The couples’ Website explains the theatre’s history.
In 1917, a Mr. Dixon purchased the closed opera house and opened Port’s Theatre. Two years later the building was razed and the new auditorium, The Royal, boasted a lobby, foyer, women’s bathroom, its own power supply, 525 seats, and the first air-conditioning in the area.
In 1929, the theatre had new management, Otto Lehman, who installed sound equipment called Talkie Vitaphone. Richard Max moved to Sibley in 1941 and purchased the theatre from Lehman. In 1951, Max designed and installed a new marquee: Max. He introduced one of the first wide screens in the area: Cinemascope. He sold bottles of soda, which had to be consumed in the lobby. Those were the days of double features, so during intermission, movie-goers filled the lobby, enjoying soda pop, a cigarette, and use of the restroom.
Pedley remembers the air-conditioning. “It was state of the art for its time and was still in operation into the 70s. On either side of the stage and screen, there were large vertical air vents. Behind the theatre, in a small garage, sat a huge blower with a well near it. The sliding doors behind the theatre were opened, water was pumped from the well and a fine mist was made over the screen opening. The blower sucked outside air in through the water, cooling it and bringing it into the theatre. Kind of like a Florida Swamp cooler.”
Pedley recalls Farmer's Day, held in conjunction with the John Deere dealer, who held an open house and served hot dogs and pop. "The theatre showed a free movie, with free popcorn and door prizes. It was a big event; unfortunately a lot of farmers wore their work boots and the theatre did not smell the best for a few days.”
Pedley writes on his Website:
During the farm crisis we had a hard time getting people to come to a movie. Ticket prices were $3.50. In 1987, we lowered the price to $.99 a ticket. People thought it was neat to hand over a dollar and get change. There was a penny jar and when it was full we had a contest to guess how much money was in the jar. The winner got a year’s pass to the theatre. The money went to a local charity. A few years later when sales tax was raised, admission went to $1.00. Not long after that, it was $2.00, due to inflation and the cost of living. Also the movie companies started having a per capita amount, and if that amount wasn't met the movie couldn't be bought.
In 1995, the theatre underwent renovation and expansion. A next door store was torn down and a new building was put up for a second auditorium. Handicapped accessible restrooms were added and sound equipment was upgraded. The concession stand was enlarged, and new seats and carpet were installed.
Alice Max Krebs contacted Pedley with information about the early years:
In 1942, the theatre was owned by Mrs. Lehman and Ray Isaac. Mr. Lehman passed away and Mrs. Lehman had no interest in running it. Ray had been a silent partner and did not want to run it, so it was for sale. Dad bought Lehman's half of the business in the summer of 1942 and later bought Ray's share. He also bought the building.
The war was on and people couldn't go far from home because gas and tires were rationed but they needed relief from the stressful times, so business was good. Tickets for children were 10 cents and for adults 50 cents. Favorite movies were Abbott and Costello, Lassie, and Bells of St. Mary's. Popcorn was a nickel, and when candy was available, it was 5 cents a bar. Popcorn business was good during a musical because kids got bored and needed a drink of water and something to eat.
When I graduated from high school Dad invited the senior class to the show and started a tradition. He also had private showings for the nuns and priests in the area for movies that would appeal to them: The Song of Bernadette and, Going My Way.
It’s great that you have succeeded in times that must have sometimes been difficult. I wish you continued success.
Pedley adds, “In 2012, we’re looking at a different storm cloud. The forecast is for all movie theatres to convert to digital movies and sound. Possibly, as soon as 2013, they will stop making 35mm film. Theatres have the option of converting or closing the door. The cost to convert is around $65,000 per screen. At our age, we ask ourselves whether or not to do this. The sad part is that the 35mm film experience, with its shortcomings of film jerking and scratches, will be gone for future generations. Currently, business is good, depending on the availability of prints. We have two screens showing different movies; we’re open nightly and admission for adults is $6.00; children $5.00. We’re on Facebook, too.”
This writer still envisions the theatre of the early 1950s: Mrs. Max at the ticket window; her son making popcorn; Mr. Max or Alice taking tickets; and the back row where I stood, flashlight in hand, ready to direct someone to a seat.
We loved the story. Bringing back stories and memories from Yesterday is like eating comfort food. I especially like the title. Very creative. Thanks. - Larry Pedley
So interesting. Larry and Aileen are very interesting people and certainly would hate to see this theatre close. That IS SAD! By the way, I think you were in my husband's class in school (1953). Larry went more by Lawrence then, I think. I was in you sister Shirley's class. - Jane (Iedema) Buysman
Your article was shared on Facebook by Max Theaters and my friend, Larry. I so enjoyed it. I grew up in Sibley in the 70's and graduated in 1983. The Max was a big part of my life. I was glad when the Pedley's were able to gain business by offering 99-cent admission and I think that business is still good. With changes coming, it is sad to think they may close because of the cost of updating the technology. Thanks for sharing your memories! - Nancy Smith Leemkull
Thank you for your wonderful article. I love the Max Theatre. Richard and Mabel Max are my grandparents and Alice Max Krebs is my mother. I, too, have great memories of the theatre. I am so sorry to hear that the theatre is in danger of closing. It is a treasure! - Barbara Graham
Thank you so much, Madonna, for sharing your story! Richard Max was my grandfather and Alice was my mother (she passed away two years ago but her brother is still living). We would visit most summers, growing up, and spend at least a couple of nights at the theatre. My grandfather would always give us an "Orange Crush" and popcorn. I hope Larry and Aileen are able to keep the theatre open. - Linda Stanley
What a great story. Although I don't understand what ever prompted Aileen to say yes to Larry. :) Maybe he told her he was going to go into the movie business? - Dan (Mr. Z)
Thanks for the comments. Jane: Yes Larry was in my graduating class. Alice's granddaughters, if you'd like a print copy of this magazine, go to the top of the page and click on "Printed Digital Editions;" click on the 2012 issue, and follow instructions. - M. Christensen
Loved this piece, one of Madonna's best (and that's saying a lot). For me it was the Crown Theater in Pasadena, CA. Of course we had the drive-in, too, the Hastings. They charged by the carload, so we of course stuffed as many as would fit into the trunk. When I drove my '57 Chevy Bel Air into the Hastings, I felt like a king! - M. Cook
Marsh, I agree. One of MDC's best! And for me it was the Comerford Theater. In Scranton, we also had the Comerford Drive-In and I, too, felt like a king in my classic '55 Chevy Bel Air (loved that car!) and it held a carload of us, as you said. - N. Burke
Wonderful memories of the theater. I remember Saturday afternoons in the late 1950's and the free movies and I believe that Santa may have shown up a time or two. I always felt like a criminal after I turned 12 and still tried to get in at the lower price. I could always feel Mr. Max icy stare! My brother Mike Wick ran the projector for a few years way back when. Larry Pedley sent me a picture he found cleaning out the projection booth of Mike. Thanks Larry. - Tom Wick
I've been reading family letters from the 1940s, my mother to my older sisters who lived away from home. In nearly every letter my mother mentions some of us kids and,or herself going to "the show." That's what we called movies back then, the show. Titles were Springtime In The Rockies, My Gal Pal, Presenting Lily Mars, and The Yearling. This would have been The Royal
at the time. - M. Christensen
Linda and I moved to Sibley in 1991 and became very close friends with Larry and Aileen. There were many evenings that we spent at The Max and I must admit one of our favorite evenings were those spent at The Max on big bowl nights. We were excited when the they renovated to the two screens and had a few evenings were we walked from one right in to other. We do miss Sibley, we miss Larry and Aileen and those big bowl nights with great movies at the Max. Thank you Larry and Aileen or keeping this part of history for us to share for the short time we were there. - Roland, Linda and Dominique Lee
Loved this article. Brought back lots of great memories of going to the movies in the 50 and 60's to that same theater in Sibley. It was always such a treat. As a teenager, you sat there while the boys threw popcorn in your hair--but you just hoped that after the show you could go hang out with the little buggers. - Kathy Kennedy Billings