Rural Missouri Magazine

There's no business
like family business

The Owen Drive-In has brought
Hollywood to Seymour for years.

by Karen Stockman

Georgette Reynolds of Seymour sits in her van and watches the premiere of “Ratatouille” at the Owen Drive-in in Seymour. The outdoor theater has been operated by the same family since 1950.

The sky fills with the warm glow of orange and pink light as you pull up onto a gravel drive and are met by an 87-year-old man reading the newspaper and selling movie tickets. Through your open car window, you can hear the laughter of children playing tag, and smell sweet, buttery popcorn being popped. The sun finally dips below the horizon and the movie starts. Although this sounds like something you might have seen years ago, this scene still takes place every Friday through Tuesday in the summer at Owen Drive-In in Seymour.

Located in Webster County in southwest Missouri, the Owen Drive-In is one of 12 outdoor movie theaters still open in Missouri today. At one time, there were at least 118 drive-ins scattered throughout the Show-Me State. The decline of the drive-in is attributed to the fact that cities expanded and land prices skyrocketed. Despite the many closings, the Owen Drive-In is open for business.

Harold Owen opened the business in 1950 with help from his father, George Owen. The Owen family has been in the theater business since 1908 when George started his business with still pictures. In 1911, he sold a buggy for $75 to finance his first movie theater. “I can remember cranking the old silent projectors and that was way back in the 1920s. Just always been in it my whole life,” Harold says.

Harold Owen counts money in his brick box office building while waiting for the next car.

In 1941, George opened Owen Theater in Seymour’s town square. Today Harold carries on the tradition and operates both the Owen Theater and the Owen Drive-In. The theater is open in the winter when the drive-in is closed. The drive-in is on the outskirts of the town of 2,000 and was designed as a drive-in and fly-in. Small planes could land on a runway adjacent to the theater and the pilots could catch a movie. Aviation and movies have been Harold’s love for most of his life.

The future of the movie industry is uncertain due to new the practice of releasing movies on DVD instead of film.

“There’s no telling what’s going to happen,” says Harold. He says if he can still get the film, the drive-in will remain open. But if he’s forced to switch technology the cost may be too much. “You can’t spend that kind of money in Seymour,” says Harold. Despite an unknown future, Harold keeps the business alive with help from his daughter, Betty Graf, and grandson, Kevin Wright. Betty cooks and is in charge of the concession stand.

Harold Owen stands in the projection room and reads the movie synopsis of “Ratatouille.”

When Kevin can help, he runs the projector.

During a regular summer night, Betty arrives about 5:30 p.m. Harold is already in his booth waiting for cars to pull up the gravel drive. Betty makes most everything you’ll see and smell behind the concession stand counter.

The “Betty Burger”— a burger with everything on it — is her specialty. She patties her own meat, cooks and puts just about everything between the hamburger buns.

“We get people from all over,” Betty says. “The best thing about the drive-in is the customers. They make it fun. They’re good, loyal people.”

Angel Reynolds, 8, Mia Maxfield, 10, and Mia’s mother, Georgette Reynolds of Seymour, came to opening night of “Ratatouille.” They usually come every week to see the show. “You can’t beat the prices. It’s good family fun,” Georgette says. “If they go out of business, I don’t know what we’d do.”

“The hamburgers are even good!” adds Mia.

Younger moviegoers love the fact that they can be outside. “What I like about the drive-in is that you can play and see friends. And there’s usually more light out so you can visit with friends, too,” say 12-year-old Leroy Glenn Jr. of Fordland.

The drive-in takes parents back to when they didn’t have as many worries. “It’s nostalgic like the good old days,” said Stormy Silkey of Rogersville.

Hannah Wilson, 8, plays a pick up game of baseball with her siblings before the movie starts. Her family’s car was the first one in the lot that evening.

“It’s a good place of entertainment. You can do things that you can’t do in theaters. Bring the little kids out and play out here before the show starts. It’s just a good family thing more than anything,” comments Harold.

After being in the movie business so long, Harold doesn’t have a favorite flick. He hardly gets a chance to watch the movies.

“There’s always something to do, you never get a chance to sit down,” he says. “Too much to do.” A couple of hours before the show, Harold sells tickets in the little brick building in front of the screen. “Some times people come at 5:30,” says Owen. The show usually starts around 9 p.m., depending on the setting sun.

It takes hard work to keep the drive-in in business. Harold goes to bed at midnight or 1 a.m. (depending on the length of the show), and wakes up at 5 a.m. “It makes a short night. All my life I’ve been getting up early. You get so much done in the morning,” he says.

Harold’s mornings usually consist of picking up trash from the previous night and, once a week, mowing the lawn. “There’s something all the time. Once in a while, you’ll have trouble with a film and you have to fix that, you just never know. When you have a storm, lights go off so the projector goes off, too, so the film has to be fixed,” explains Harold. He says he doesn’t mind the work. “Anything to keep from sitting down. That sitting down will kill you.”

The popcorn is popped, the candy is on display and the food is ready to be sold. The concession stand is ready for the hungry moviegoers.

It’s opening night, and even though the skies might open up at any minute, cars are still lined up in front of the white screen. The Owen Drive-In shows movies rain or shine.
“People just put on their windshield wipers,” Owen says. The business can be good or bad depending on the weather. During stormy nights, the lot isn’t packed like usual.

Moviegoers pull out lawn chairs, and umbrellas, they tune their car radios to 91.5 FM to listen to the previews. Nearly two hours have passed. It’s now completely dark, and the only light is coming from the stars and the departing head and taillights. The only sounds are of cars starting and gravel crunching. The scent of popcorn still hangs in the air.

The night is over for Harold and Betty, and another day of hard work will begin in a few hours. “I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can,” says Owen.

Owen Drive-In is located just south of Highway 60 and east of Highway K. Movies start at about 9 p.m. and show Friday through Tuesday. The drive-in is closed Wednesday and Thursday. For more information call (417) 935-2232.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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