Hollywood film legend John Wayne was born in Madison County, in my hometown of Winterset, IA in 1907. Wintersetians take this seriously. If we had to choose between being known for the covered bridges or being known as the spot on the globe where The Duke took his first breath, we’d suck on our collective teeth and shake our collective heads and have to take the latter. Then we’d ask you for your delicious cookie bar recipe and hold the nation’s first presidential caucus.
This weekend was John Wayne birthday celebration weekend and I was here for a particularly exciting part of it: an outdoor screening of John Ford’s classic The Searchers, starring John Wayne in one of the most important roles of his career. The screening took place on the town square, right on the lawn of the courthouse. This was the first time a movie had ever screened there, birthday weekend or no. Who do you suppose orchestrated the event? My sister and my mother.
My mother, as many of you know, purchased the movie theater in Winterset when it went up for sale some months ago. The restoration project is well underway; seven trips to the dump emptied it of garbage, rusted stuff, rotten boards, etc., and every day that passes more wonder is discovered in that old movie house. One of the treasures is the screen itself. It’s in great shape. And it was the Iowa Theater’s very own screen that was put up by our beloved contractor, Steve, for the movie last night.
Families came. A few teenagers came. Old folks came. There’s a film crew making a movie of the restoration project and they were there. My might-as-well-be-my-cousin cousin Will played his guitar and sang folk songs to the audience as we waited for it to get dark enough to start the movie. The air was sweet. With the music and the sun slowly sinking down the sky — the rain that was predicted never even threatened to fall — an eventide spell was cast. The Chamber of Commerce sold candy, soda, and popcorn from a popcorn cart. I can’t confirm or deny that I had a bottle of Stella Artois in my hoodie pocket, nor can I confirm or deny that anyone else had a go-cup of anything similar, but doesn’t that sound nice? We’ll never know.
My sister Rebecca is the head of the entire Iowa Theater restoration project; she’s writing the grants, touching every logistic from projector to neon marquee rebuild, doing strategic planning — everything. She was the engine behind the outdoor screening, too, and my brother-in-law ran the projector. Before the show began, Mom and Rebecca gave a speech about the future of the theater, how 95% of the work being done is being done by locals, how the goal is to make a space the town loves and uses and grows for a long, long time.
About thirty minutes into watching The Duke search for Debbie, I gave into the desire for popcorn. I went over to the Chamber kiosk.
“Hi! I think I’ll get some popcorn,” I said.
The person who scooped some up for me was a bubbly, attractive woman named Heather. She handed me a modest sack of popcorn and I was surprised at how happy I was it was not a tub as big as my head. Heather shook her head. “This is just amazing. Just amazing. You’re Rebecca’s sister, right?”
I said I was and we talked for a minute, geeking out with happiness at the scene before us: people outside, together, enjoying their town, their town’s history, tasty snacks, and a movie, all on a long Memorial Day weekend. We agreed this needs to happen every year, if not more often.
“It just makes me happy,” Heather said, looking out at the one hundred or so people in lawn chairs. “I guess it’s America, right? It’s good. It’s good that kids can come here and it’s safe. You know?”
That popcorn was a buck.