Vintage popcorn machine brings back memories of downtown theaters to North Carolina

25 January 2023

ALBEMARLE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – In modern-day Stanly County, there was an old-time sense of anticipation as we watched local historian John Williams make a batch of popcorn in a vintage machine dating back decades.

He poured in the kernels, flipped a switch, and was almost immediately transported back to happy times.

“It is like a time machine, going back to childhood,“ said Williams, who spearheaded the effort to bring the popcorn machine back home to Albemarle.

It was once a fixture at the Center Theater on West Main Street, which first opened as the Stanly back in the 1930s. The goal is to use the popcorn machine at community events to raise money for Albemarle Downtown Development to fund revitalization projects.

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But Williams also dreams of restoring more of the city’s cinematic past.

“You’re just hit by the popcorn smell. It just brings back the days of me seeingSmokey and the Bandit there and Bambiand those type things,” he told Queen City News.

The audio-visual combo is nostalgic and sheer magic when it comes to popcorn. But this is about more than one just man’s munchies.

The plot twist is that long before Albemarle was known as the home of American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler– as a sign reads downtown– motion pictures were a prominent form of pop culture.

“There were actually 13 different movie theaters at different times,” Williams says.

According to the Stanly County History Center, in 1949, there were at least nine movie theaters in and around the county.

That aforementioned popcorn popper that was such a staple downtown eventually wound up in South Carolina and was recently spotted for sale in the Facebook Marketplace. A GoFundMe page helped Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation reclaim the relic.

The former owner’s dad received the machine as a gift from the late Mayor Roger Snyder, who purchased and restored it for his restaurant.

Individuals and Uwharrie Bank contributed to the effort to bring the machine back home.

“We’re hoping it brings back a sensory experience for people,” says Williams, whose goal is to give that popcorn machine a permanent home.

“We would love to have a restored theater in town. It would be great to have a neon marquee back,” he said.

We got a rare look inside the Alameda Theater, which was built in 1916 and shut down in the early 70s.

“Are you gonna knock all the spiderwebs out?” Williams joked as he walked inside.

It’s pretty dark inside, but with light and a little imagination, we could see a flicker of the glory days.

“This right here is incredible,” says Williams, pointing to a cool window up in the projection room, the source of entertainment for some three generations.

Oh, I think a lot of people look at this and think it’s non-salvageable, and when I see things like this, in my head, I see it finished,” he envisions. “So I’m seeing the way it should be or the way it was.”

William hopes that an encore is in store for at least one of the historic theaters. Acquiring the throwback popcorn machine is part of a grand vision.

“Hoping that’ll be a catalyst to maybe getting a theater opened back up, or at least a marquee or something lit up downtown,” he said.

So maybe the return of the popper will help plant the seed for a movie theater revival in Albemarle.

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