50-Year-Old Popcorn Machine Brings Nostalgia, Joy To Moviegoers In Lexington : The Salt In Lexington, Tenn., a century-old cinema is celebrating an important birthday: The Princess Theatre's popcorn machine is turning 50.
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A 50-Year-Old Popcorn Machine Feeds Nostalgia At The Movies

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A 50-Year-Old Popcorn Machine Feeds Nostalgia At The Movies

A 50-Year-Old Popcorn Machine Feeds Nostalgia At The Movies

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nowadays, there's no shortage of competitors for your entertainment dollar - on demand television, games on your phone, workouts, cooking videos, movies streamed into your home - not to mention the World Cup, about which we will have more to say later. But in Lexington, Tenn., one century-old, one-screen theater is taking a decidedly homespun approach to winning over and keeping its customers. WESA's Megan Harris takes us to her hometown.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVID CAMPBELL-WATTS: We're going to get started here in just a few minutes. If you've got your cellphones, would you put them on silence or vibrate?

MEGAN HARRIS, BYLINE: That's David Campbell-Watts, still in his apron, talking to a mostly full house inside the Princess Theatre. He always waits to start the trailers so he can catch folks up on big happenings downtown and offer - one last time - personally to grab a refill if any of y'all need one.

D. CAMPBELL-WATTS: Everybody has to have something that they do or in their business that kind of sets them apart.

HARRIS: His favorite something right now is squeezed into a corner behind the concessions counter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you want butter on the popcorn?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I need a large butter.

D. CAMPBELL-WATTS: We call it It - It. It makes great popcorn. We always refer to it as It, so it sounds like something off "The Addams Family" - Cousin Itt back here.

HARRIS: It is 50 years old and taller than both of us. Campbell-Watts opens a pair of Plexiglas doors to refill a soup pot-sized kettle. The old popper served its first batches of buttery joy beneath Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" in 1968. That showing was also the Princess's first picture shown to a fully integrated crowd. Former Henderson County historian Clay Crook remembers walking over that year on a school field trip.

CLAY CROOK: We'd all taken our seats. And a very wonderful and lovely woman of color, Ms. Robinson, was one of our second grade teachers. And she looked up towards the back, and then down at us. And she said, this is the first time that I've ever been downstairs.

HARRIS: It was a big milestone for Lexington. But people often share personal memories of the Princess, like when country stars Roy Acuff and Gene Autry drop by, or the real-life inspiration behind the "Walking Tall" films shook hands with locals in the lobby. Seventy-three-year-old McArthur Lewis remembers vividly the years when a school bus driver would haul the farm kids into town on Saturdays for 10 cents a head.

MCARTHUR LEWIS: I can't imagine anybody not coming to the theater that lived in Lexington and close to Lexington regularly.

HARRIS: And everyone remembers when Elvis made his film debut. Lewis says lines went clear around the block.

LISA CAMPBELL-WATTS: Thank you. Y'all have fun.

HARRIS: Owner Lisa Campbell-Watts says she revels in that nostalgia. When her family took over two years ago, folks needed peace of mind to know the Princess and its history would be appreciated.

L. CAMPBELL-WATTS: Everybody wants to be a part of a family. And you want to have people who love you, and when you come in, they're excited to see you. I think that's a very important part of this business, and I think it's something that's missing in the world today that we need to bring back - that people are accepted and that they're loved.

HARRIS: Those announcements down front and anecdotes about a very old popcorn machine - for the Campbell-Watts family, they're all part of the same story - one they hope to savor with a large buttered popcorn or two for years to come.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Harris in Lexington, Tenn.

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