By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
LAMAR, Mo. —
There are moments at certain places that a person never forgets. For Frances Cato, one of those places is the Plaza Theater on the south side of the square in Lamar.
“I remember having my picture taken there with Smiley Burnette,” she said. “I was about 10 years old then (circa 1953). The owner of the Plaza had a lot of contacts in Hollywood. Burnette showed up with a van. There was this banner with a cookbook for sale. I had my picture taken with Burnette inside the van.”
Burnette was a popular country music performer, and a comedic actor in Western films, radio and TV. He was often a sidekick to Gene Autry.
The photograph with Burnette is not Cato’s earliest memory of the Plaza.
“The Plaza was also used as a stage,” she said. “My sister and I were taking tap-dancing lessons from Frances Woodward, who gave her spring review at the Plaza. We tap-danced to ‘I’m an Old Cowhand.’ Our mother dressed us up in fringed skirts and boleros. I was 4 years old then.”
Cato said it was an experience she would like to forget.
“I didn’t practice much,” she said. “I watched my sister’s feet and did what she did. Everyone thought that was so funny. It was terrible for me.”
Cato, now the treasurer of Barton County, said one of her most memorable days at the Plaza was when she had her first date with her husband, Dennis. The movie was a romantic comedy, starring Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.
“It was 1960, and the movie was ‘A Summer Place,’” she said. “I was 17 then.”
The Plaza, built in 1934, was saved from the wrecking ball in 1993 by a nonprofit community group led by Lamar resident Betty Kuhn. The group named itself CPR for Community Plaza Rescue. It consisted of Kuhn, Lynn Calton, Kathy Jenkins, Jerri Finley and Richard Scroggs. After five years of work, the newly remodeled Plaza Theater opened on Nov. 5, 1998.
Today, the 358-seat theater faces a new and costly challenge. It must convert from 35 millimeter film to digital projection within the next year or so at a cost of about $75,000. The CPR group is working to raise that much money and more to do the same thing at the Barco Drive-In, south of Lamar.
So far, the group has raised about half of the $150,000 goal.
Not doing the conversions would bring an end to the Plaza and the Barco.
“It’s sad to see the end of 35 millimeter film,” said Scott Kelley, who manages both theaters with help from his family. “I’ve been working with film since I was 15. I’m 50 now.”
The advantage of digital is that the images on the screen never show signs of wear. Film can get scratches.
“With digital, the print is perfect, sharp and clear,” Kelley said. “You get a digital copy of the film and download it into the projector, which is a computer. This conversion will happen sometime in 2013.”
Other theaters and drive-ins are facing similar challenges. Among them are the Webb City Route 66 Movie Theater, a theater in El Dorado Springs and a drive-in in Aurora. The 66 Drive-In, near Carthage, made the conversion earlier this year.
Nancy Hutson, owner of the Webb City theater, said: “You have to make the conversion if you still want to keep running. We are in the process of changing to digital, and that should happen in six to eight months.”
Hutson said the price of the conversion has gone down in recent weeks.
“But it’s still a large expenditure,” she said. “Fortunately, we are a small theater and need only one system.”
The conversion has forced her to bump up ticket prices from $5 to $6. Items at the concession stand have gone up by 25 cents each.
“We want to keep it reasonably priced for families to be able to go to the movies together,” Hutson said. “We show only family-friendly movies. The community has wrapped their arms around our little theater because of that.”
The cost is high at the Plaza because the projection room will need a dedicated air-conditioning unit to keep the computerized projector from overheating. The theater also will need to upgrade its sound system to accommodate digital.
The cost will be even higher for the Barco. Its electrical system will need to be replaced. The system dates to the 1950s.
Kelley thinks the residents of Lamar and Barton County will rally to preserve the Plaza and the Barco because of the memories that so many have there.
“We have people come to the Plaza and say, ‘We sat right there when we kissed for the first time,’ or ‘This was our spot to park at the drive-in,’” he said. “There are not many places like this with such history for so many people.
“And, it doesn’t hurt that we have the best popcorn around.”
Tax-deductible donations to Community Plaza Rescue may be made by mail to Pat O’Neal, Lamar Bank & Trust, P.O. Box 190, Lamar, MO 64759.
The Plaza Theater in Lamar will have a special showing of “Wyatt Earp,” a 1994 movie starring Kevin Costner, in connection with Wyatt Earp Days on Oct. 12-14. Earp was one of the first constables of Lamar, which is featured in the movie.