ALBEMARLE, NC (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – There was a long-held sense of anticipation in modern-day Stanley County as we watched local historian John Williams pop a batch of popcorn in a vintage machine that dates back decades.
He piled in the kernels, flicked the switch, and was almost immediately back to happy times.
“It’s like a time machine going back to my childhood,” said Williams, who spearheaded the effort to bring the popcorn machine back home to Albemarle.
It was once the location of 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 downtown Albemarle to fund revitalization projects.
But Williams also dreams of recreating the city’s more cinematic past.
“The smell of popcorn just hits you. It just brings back the days when I saw each otherSmokey and the thug are there and Bambiand typical things like that,” he told Queen City News.
The audio-visual combination evokes nostalgia and magic when it comes to popcorn. But it’s not just about men’s dishes.
The plot twist is that long before Albemarle was known as the home of American Idol contestant Kelly Pickler, as the sign downtown says, motion pictures were a prominent form of pop culture.
“There were 13 different theaters at different times,” Williams says.
According to the Stanley County History Center, there were at least nine movie theaters in and around the county in 1949.
That aforementioned popcorn, which was such a downtown staple, eventually found its way to South Carolina and was recently spotted for sale on Facebook Marketplace. A GoFundMe page helped the Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation get the relic back.
The former owner’s father received the car as a gift from the late Mayor Roger Snyder, who purchased and restored it for his restaurant.
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Private individuals and the Uwharrie Bank contributed to the effort to bring the car home.
“We’re hoping it brings back a sensory experience for people,” says Williams, whose goal is to give this popcorn machine a permanent home.
“We would like the theater to be restored in the city. It would be great to have the neon marquee back,” he said.
We got a rare look inside the Alameda Theater, which was built in 1916 and closed in the early 70s.
“Are you going to knock out all the cobwebs?” Williams joked as he walked inside.
It’s pretty dark inside, but with a light and a little imagination we were able to see a glimmer of the glory days.
“It’s incredible,” Williams says, pointing to the cool window in the screening room, a source of entertainment for three generations.
“Oh, I think a lot of people look at it and think it’s unsalvageable, and when I see things like that in my head, I see it’s over,” he suggests. “So I can see how it should be or how it was.”
William hopes that at least one of the historic theaters is waiting for an encore. Acquiring an old popcorn machine is part of a bigger vision.
“I’m hoping this will be a catalyst to maybe reopen the theater or at least light up the marquee or something downtown,” he said.
So maybe the return of the popper will plant the seeds for a movie theater revival in Albemarle.
Albemarle’s vintage popcorn machine brings back memories of downtown theaters
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