The Sunset Drive In has entertained moviegoers since 1951

When Larry Marks went to work as a teenager at the Sunset Drive In movie theater in Aurora, Mo., in 1965, he never imagined he would still be there, now as the owner, more than 50 years later. 

“I started to work here in high school for the first owner, Ralph Hough,” he laughed recently on a Friday night, waiting, like his many patrons for the darkening sky to allow the movies to begin, a double feature of Jaws and Jurassic Park on this particular evening. 

“The Houghs built this place in 1951 and I worked for both the father and the son, Ralph Hough Jr.”

The Sunset was one of four drive ins in nearby towns back when mid-America’s love affair with the automobile was in full swing in the 1950s and 1960s. There were drive ins located in Monett, Cassville and Mount Vernon, as well as Aurora. 

Today, the only two drive in theaters remaining in southwest Missouri are the Sunset in Aurora and the 66 Drive In at Carthage, Mo., near Joplin.

As one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the country, the Sunset has seen the evolution of the industry. 

The Sunset Drive in was built to hold 300 vehicles at a time when the average car, truck or station wagon was considerably smaller than many of the vehicles on the road in the 21st century. 

“Today, we have to work on getting the trucks and SUVs parked just right to get them all in,” Larry added. “Sometimes, that can be a problem.”

While parking bigger family vehicles today can be a little problematic, showing the movies has actually gotten much easier. 

“When I started, it took 18 reel changes to do a double feature. I was right there, changing those reels on two machines, every 20 minutes to keep the show going. Today, we have a Christie DLP projector, which uses digital light processing technology. The movies come in on a hard drive which I just load in and then the machine does it all,” Larry said. “People tune in the sound over their car radios rather than the speakers we once had on poles, which is much better. By the end of the season, those old pole speakers were so worn out, sitting in water a lot of times after a rain, they were quite a mess. Now folks can listen to surround sound or the like on their car radios.”

Larry’s father David Marks purchased the Princess Theater in downtown Aurora in 1971 and Larry worked at both. The Princess was rebuilt after a fire in 1943, and the Marks sold it in 1982. Today the building still serves the community as a local church. Larry bought the Sunset in 1977 but closed it for a year in 1987. 

“When I re-opened it, it was on a month-by-month basis,” he recalled. “I had to get a brush hog out here to cut down the weeds that were as high as the speaker posts. Each month, if I could get the bills paid, I’d advertise that we’d be open for another month and slowly, things got better.”

“Cable TV was the beginning of the decline for all the movie theaters but it was particularly hard on the drive ins and then VHS came along, videos and video players and that made things even worse. I had to have one, too. I paid $1,100 for my first VHS player and I’ve still got it.” 

Today, steaming services and companies offering more “stay-at-home” entertainment options has made the movie business a little more difficult, as well as delayed new releases.

“Business had been down this year, of course, with the virus and so many of the big studios like Disney, putting off the release of their new movies,” Larry said. 

To offer people some new experiences at the movies, particularly in light of the recent lock down caused by the COVID-19 virus, Larry and other theatre owners have added some new twists to going to the movies. 

“We had a flea market out here earlier in the season,” he added. “Later this summer, we’ll have a live comedy act and we had a live Christian concert scheduled in early July. We are also starting to hold some group meetings for an addiction recovery group on Wednesday nights.”

Other theaters are also hosting live concerts and shows since so many of the earlier indoor events had to be cancelled. Garth Brooks did a virtual concert at the end of June, appearing on the big screen in 300 drive ins across the US and Canada, all on a single night, playing many favorites, much to the delight of his fans.

“There’s been a lot of ideas tossed around out there about what to do that’s new or different. Maybe if I was 30 years younger,” he said with a grin. 

A retired school bus driver and the father of six sons, adopted from both the U..S and Central America, Larry Marks has obviously always had a heart for kids. 

Today, his grandchildren can also be seen, buzzing about the Sunset on movie nights, like everyone else, enjoying the still delicious snacks like the popcorn – a taste that hasn’t changed since the ‘good ol’ days’ of the heyday of American movie-going. Larry has devoted his life to the world of movies, a realm that fuels every youngster’s dreams and fantasies at some point in their childhood and adolescence, carrying them safely into adulthood. Larry Marks chose to stay in that world of movies and in doing so, has shared those dreams with all of us, carrying us all safely from one century to the next. L. ValentiOzarks Rootsaurora,Larry Marks,Missouri,Sunset Drive In,theatreThe Sunset Drive In has entertained moviegoers since 1951 When Larry Marks went to work as a teenager at the Sunset Drive In movie theater in Aurora, Mo., in 1965, he never imagined he would still be there, now as the owner, more than 50 years later.  “I started to work...The Ozarks' most read farm newspaper, reaching more than 58,000 readers in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma