Kenda Dearing wasn’t named after the Kenda Drive In. It was named after her.
“My folks built this place in 1966,” Dearing tells me between welcoming in the cars coming into the drive in this Friday night. It’s 7:20 p.m. and the crowd is already gathering for the 9 p.m. show.
“My grandparents had an old time single cinema downtown. My dad was an only child, so they named it the Ken Theater. Mom and Dad were running that theater. My dad was bound and determined to have a drive in, and though I have brothers I’m the one named after him so when he opened it he named it the Kenda Drive In. I was 16 months old. My birthday is December and we opened in April.
“Speaker tonight, or just the radio?” she asks seamlessly as the next vehicle pulls in. The couple within have a couple of kids. Money is exchanged and the family is waved in.
“Dad entrusted several local people with building all the things the drive in needed,” Dearing continues. “He had no clue how to run it. He and mom used to go to the Razorback Drive In down in Little Rock, but he wasn’t sure everything that was needed. The screen was built locally, and so was everything else but the projection unit.
“In 1968, the Ken Theater burned, and instead of trying to rebuild it with the very little insurance money from it, the money went into this one instead.
The Kenda is open year-round, showing films every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which is unusual for a drive-in.
“Hardly anyone else does. Some might stay open down south in Texas, but up this far north? No. The other two in Arkansas will close during the winter. But there’s too many good movies, at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.’
During the summer, movies are also offered on Monday and Tuesday nights, and a couple Thursdays each month are dedicated to family fun nights and classic car nights.
“Speaker?” she offers the next family. There’s discussion in the car, and she breaks in. “Those kids are not going to want to stay in that car,” she says, handing over the unit.
Down by the screen, teenagers are throwing a Frisbee back and forth. The sound of Jackson Browne echoed from dozens of speakers hooked up all over the site.
“We watch fewer movies than anyone,” Dearing begins again. “You're always working. Very hard to watch and work. Our digital keys are activated at certain times. On Thursday nights we always preview to make sure everything’s okay with the movie, but typically we’re too tired to watch it.”
While other drive ins across the nation were struggling to finance new digital players a few years back, the Kenda was already set to go.
“We went digital three years ago in March. We had about five years advance notice. We were going to go earlier than we did, but we wanted to make sure there were no bugs in the new systems. There’s a big drive in up in Kansas City and they were having some issues, so we let them work all the bugs out. Even going as early as we did, there weren’t a lot of film prints still being produced. We’ve loved every bit (of going digital) – the picture is incredible.
“My husband (Todd, who was working at the concession stand) didn’t like it at first. He was apprehensive. He’s not as computer savvy as I am. He knew the film system inside and out and he could work on it if there were problems. But we have great tech guys if we ever have any issues or problems. We called him last night to calibrate the machine and he does it by touch screen. The next year we upgraded to digital sound, and this year we resurfaced our screen. I don’t think you’ll find a better set-up at a drive in right now.”
Another car pulls up.
“Hey, guys. Speaker tonight or radio? Radio?” A conversation begins inside the car. “She overruled you? Thank you, 88.1.”
She turns back to me in the lull between cars. “When he built the screen, it was the one thing Daddy would put money into. People told him he was crazy, because most screens were shingles at that time, or wooden with asphalt shingles on them, the standard choice. And instead he went with steel with a metal front. People told him he was wasting his money. Well, it lasted 50 years. The screen was still all right but we didn’t know how to resurface it without losing its lightness and we were scared to paint it, so we replaced the surface with metal with a baked on finish. It should be good to go. I mean, we’re putting in upgrades every time we turn around.
“Speaker tonight or just the radio?” Dearing hands out another speaker and the car rolls on. “Most drive ins leave the speaker out in the elements. We’ve always brought ours in. I think that’s why they’ve lasted so long.”
My photographer, Grav Weldon, walked up with my daughter, who’d been waiting patiently by the concession stand with her Harry Potter book. After a conversation with Hunter about the J.K. Rowling books (Dearing is a fan), she shared more about the clientele who came to the theater.
“Speaker tonight or just the… hey, that’s a gorgeous dog.” The couple that’s pulled up to the window has a Husky between them in the front seat with light, clear blue eyes. It’s gorgeous. As they pull away, Dearing turns to me and says “dogs. We get a LOT of dogs.
“All these regulars.. I don't know their names but I know them I know them I know their kids. We have some customers that come every other week. Whenever mom and dad had it was mainly locals and now it's evolved into more of a tourist attraction. It's a bucket list thing. We have a lot of people who, this is the way they watch movies. I have several families that have disabled members. Coming here they can sit together - they don't have to worry about a theater. I have a couple that have autistic children and they told me it's very, very hard to go to a regular theater because their children make noise. So they come here, where in the car we have a way of watching the movie as a family we don't have to worry about it.
“How many adults? Speaker tonight or just the radio?”
The shadows are starting to lengthen, and the sun has finally dropped below the horizon. Hunter and I are still standing by the window, and she’s just as curious as I am. The number of cars has dwindled, and I know soon we’ll walk down to the concession stand, where I’m going to buy her a chocolate roll to try.
“We have very good food here. I teach as well,” Dearing says, pointing over at Marshall Schools across the street. “But I still would prefer to be in concession because I can make burgers faster than anybody. Todd comes close but he’s still not as fast as I am!” she laughs.
“He runs a good concession. It gets very busy. Our son and daughter-in-law usually work the front. They are out of pocket tonight but most Friday and Saturday nights they keep an eye on this and I switch to in there because of the concessions. That’s why a lot of the people come out early, because they’re coming to eat.
"We’ve got really good nachos. Our barbecue nachos are great – they’re regular nachos with our own beef barbecue on top. We have cotton candy, candy, popcorn… We pop in pure coconut oil. We use margarine instead of the processed block they use at most theaters. We take margarine and melt it and take the whey off and clarify it, and that’s what we use. Our buttered popcorn tastes so much better. Real butter would be even better but obviously we can’t afford it!”
The prices at the concession for popcorn are $1 for a small and $2 for a bucket.
“What do you do if it gets stormy or there’s a tornado?” Hunter asks. I nod my approval. At seven, she’s already developing good interview skills.
“We only shut down if there’s incredibly severe storms or tornado warnings,” Dearing tells her. “We’ll get on the speaker system and let people know about it.
“The worst I’ve had (as far as stormy nights go), I had a huge crowd in here for (Fast and the) Furious 6.And I had a huge crowd and the tornado warning sirens go off at the sheriff's office right over there. Now, I’d been watching the weather. It's not like back in the day back in the day when you couldn’t tell, back before we all had radar and the sheriff would come by and say ‘hey, you got a tornado heading this way. get the people out.’ Now I'm sitting here monitoring it and I know if we under a tornado warning but it was for Chimes, which is a good distance from here. But the sirens go off and all hell breaks loose and I'm trying to tell people ‘listen you're okay, everything's fine, it’s safer here than trying to drive to this.’ But I still refunded money for the ones who wanted to leave. And that turns into chaos. When it does get bad and people feel they need to leave, I always say they can come back any time that movie is playing.
“Typically weather isn’t a problem. Everyone’s aware of snowfall and we’ll still occasionally run in snow. Sometimes we close with snow, it just kinda depends. We don’t like to run when there’s power outages. Speaker tonight, or just the radio?”
I ask her about the hours. Being the apex of summer, the movie starts at 9 p.m. But those times change.
“We always run Friday, Saturday, Sunday and in Spring and fall we go Friday through Tuesday. Now that we’re heading towards fall, we’ll keep on moving back now, first 8:45 and 8:30 and on. The earliest we start is 7:30, in the fall and winter.
“Social media has changed everything for us. I’ve had a Facebook group for the theater for five years now, and it’s a great way to get out what we’re showing and what times we open.”
The scent of popcorn had reached the front gate, and Hunter was getting restless, so we made our salutations and headed back to the car by way of the concession stand, where I bought Hunter a chocolate roll. She inhaled it.
A couple of weeks later, Grav and I were in the area covering a different story, and we dropped by to see what Family Night was like.
The crowds were substantial, in to see the helicopter and eat snowcones and cotton candy and take advantage of the cheap concession prices.
The Kenda Drive In is open every Friday through Sunday throughout the year (except Christmas week), and every Friday-Tuesday during the summer. Tickets are $6 for adults and $2 for kids 6-10. There are frequent family fun nights and classic car nights, all of which are promoted on the theater’s website.
For more information, check out the Kenda Drive In Theater’s website at kendadrivein.com or by calling (870) 448-5400.