CORONAVIRUS

Movies on hold, but popcorn still for sale at State Theatre in Washington, Iowa

Baylee Stalder delivers a popcorn order to a customer at curbside at the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa. The theater'
Baylee Stalder delivers a popcorn order to a customer at curbside at the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa. The theater’s patrons love the popcorn, which is popped in a popper in use since 1948. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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WASHINGTON, Iowa — Shawn Simpson was the hero of his household when he stopped by the State Theatre for a curbside pickup of popcorn.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the oldest continuously running theater in the world hasn’t been able to show movies. But its staff has found a way to stay in touch by offering curbside pickup of popcorn, kettle corn, snacks and soda on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“Washington really loves the popcorn, and I think this gives them hope that we are all still here and are all in this together,” theater manager Crystle Christner said.

Christner said the popcorn-to-go began March 27, a Friday, about 10 days after the theater was closed under coronavirus restrictions.

When Christner first approached Fridley Theatres, the company that owns the theater, with the popcorn idea, she was turned down. But after corporate officials spoke with other theaters in the association, Christner was given the OK to try it out.

On an average weekend, the theater can sell as many as 400 large popcorns-to-go. Now that kettle corn is being offered, the orders are increasing, she said.

With just three people working on the orders, it can get hectic, but the positive response from customers has made it worth it, Christner said.

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“They keep trying to tip us,” she said with a laugh. “We’re not used to that.”

The new service adds to the charm of the theater, which opened on May 14, 1897, Christner said. The theater’s popcorn popper has been in use since 1948.

“Our community is amazing,” Christner said of the city of 7,400 about 40 minutes south of Iowa City. “They love the popper, and they love the popcorn.”

The Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 certified the State Theatre as the oldest theater in continuous operation in the world.

In 2010, a fire, started by a discarded cigarette in a projection room trash can, destroyed the interior of the theater, though the popcorn popper was salvaged.

The downtown building was going to be written off as a loss and a new multiplex theater built, Christner said. But the community rallied in support of the building, and it was remodeled, reopening in April 2011.

“Our community is really what saved the building,” Christner said.

Theater patron Shawn Simpson, of Ainsworth, just south of Washington, was in town to buy groceries and picked up some of the popcorn-to-go last week.

“I’m going to be a hero,” he said with a laugh.

Denise Horak, of Washington, said she has made it a point to stop by.

“This has been a weekly thing since I work right next door. We love that they’re open for us,” she said.

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“It shows the support this theater has for this community and that every businesses just wants everyone to make it.”

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