Generations of South Sebastian people can tell you all about the Mansfield Dixie Theater. It was livery stable in the turn of the 20th century and was converted to a theater in the 1920s & 1930s when movies began to take hold and the automobile began to make horses obsolete. The people in the Mansfield area spent their weekends there if they could afford the price of a ticket. I remember paying the admission price of fifty cents. A cup of Coca-Cola was fifteen cents and a box of popcorn was a dime.
There was one bathroom at the theater. It was in the bushes between the back of the theater and Romeo Boyd’s Livery Stable. The guys went to the farthest spot and the women went to the left side of the theater. No one thought a thing about it. Fortunately, my sister and her husband lived down the block. It was nothing to get up in the middle of the film and run to her house and then back.
The owners were a brother and sister named Al Protas and Elizabeth Makarski. Everyone called Elizabeth “Peggy”. They were first year Americans from Polish immigrants. Peggy oversaw the ticket booth, concession stand and those coming in or out. She and Al were a pair to behold. Al was a tough old guy, molded after the mob in old Chicago. He was short, mostly bald except a fur piece around his head above the ears. His belly was large and hung over his dress trousers in his tucked-in white tee shirt. He was gruff and smoked like a chimney. He ran the projection room that separated the two balcony rooms upstairs. The smoke was so thick in the film room that the picture could almost be shown in the dense smoke that hung in the air above us in the theater.
The balcony was reserved for couples only. The only way to get to it was past Peggy and then you had to sneak beside the popcorn popper and through the drape-covered doorway that led to the narrow stairs to the top. Al would keep a close eye on the balcony. At intermission time, he would assist the teenaged girl who was selling popcorn and cokes but the rest of the time he was in the projection room. I snuck up there one day with a friend to watch the show. It wasn’t long until I felt a sharp pain in my neck as Al lifted me and my buddy by the naps of our necks and not-too-gently led us to the lobby where we waited on the black maroon checkered linoleum tiles until our parents came to get us.
Al had an office opposite the concession stand in the lobby. Although it was off limits too, I was able to visit with Al sometimes after the show. The walls were literally covered with old movie posters and coming attractions.
There were two movies a night. A ticket got you into both features. The lead movie playing was the good one. It was always an old one by the time it got to Mansfield but we didn’t know it. No one went to Fort Smith to see a current feature so if a movie was six months old to the world, it was brand spanking new to Mansfield. The second movie was the stinker. It was usually a pre-run film that some may have missed or a Godzilla vs. Mothtra or King Kong film. Sometime the second feature was better than the first.
Years later, when I was dating the girl that became my wife, I took her to a movie at the old theater. I had talked about how great it was back in the day and wanted her to see it. We sat in the tenth row on the aisle on the left. Clint Eastwood starred in his brand-new movie “Pale Rider.” I remember the film started and the lights dimmed. My sweetheart put her head on my left shoulder and I laid my head on hers. The next thing I knew was the lights coming on and the film credits were rolling! We slept through the entire film! That was the last movie I “saw” in the Dixie Theater.
Al sold the theater and Peggy retired to her dogs and cats on Waldron Road in Fort Smith. Peggy gave me a stack of old movie posters including stars such as Randolph Scott, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Anthony Quinn, and Marlon Brando. The new owners tried to update the old Dixie Theater but the magic seemed to be gone. Current movies and better transportation took local folks to seek entertainment in Fort Smith. The Dixie Theater seemed to be closed now forever.
After years of neglect, a committee of citizens worked hard to obtain and preserve the building. It has been completely remodeled and is now a community venue location.
(We rented “Pale Rider” later on VHS and it stunk. We were right to catch up on our sleep.)