Barco Drive-In has been lighting up the night since 1950

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Barco 5

Approximately 400 cars can visit the Barco Drive-In at one time — and all of those spots were taken when “Twister” was shown back in ’96. “It was huge,” says manager Scott Kelley. “I remember we turned (people) away.”

LAMAR – From a distance, the line of cars looks like a slithering snake along the side of the road. The wait — one for good reason — is illuminated by an Ozarks sunset aflame with screaming hues of orange, purple and fiery red.

It’s almost time.

As the cars begin to move, this epic backdrop slowly sinks as colors give way to stars. Which, in this case, is the point: After all, these cars and their people came for a moon-lit show at the Barco Drive-In, just as they’ve been doing for 65 years.

There’s not very many drive-ins left,” says Scott Kelley, general manager of the Barco, noting just two other similar theaters nearby. “There’s less than 400 in the country now and at the peak there was (around) 5,000.”

Back when the Barco — short for Barton County — made its debut, it was just one drive-in among the crowd. Today, however, it’s nearly the star of the show. “There’s not very many drive-ins left,” says Scott Kelley, general manager of the Barco, noting just two other similar theaters nearby. “There’s less than 400 in the country now and at the peak there was (around) 5,000.”

That peak year — defined by an article on as 1958 — was eight years after the Barco began. Since then, the theater hasn’t changed much, at least when it comes to aesthetics. “This one is truly pretty much how it was when it opened in 1950,” says Scott. “The only thing that’s different is that we’ve got air conditioning in the projection room.”

Barco program

The 1950 poster advertising the Barco’s first show reveals something besides the movie title: Look closely and you’ll see the drive-in was originally located “1-2 mile east of Lamar.” Today, it’s on the town’s outskirts.

Timeless tradition

Barco manager Scott Kelley sells tickets before a Saturday show begins.

Even though the drive-in concept has become a rarity, the Barco’s visitors don’t think the theater is a has-been. “We like the drive-in atmosphere,” says Doug Righter, who lives in nearby Golden City and says he visits as often as he can. “It reminds me of my youth.”

His wife, Sheri Righter, can agree with that statement — but on a much more personal note, as she regularly attended shows at the Barco as a child. She notes some things that aren’t the same today, such as the absence of car speakers and humps used to angle the cars toward the screen.

But not everything’s different. As Sheri speaks, you can hear children’s laughter in the distance. The youngsters are sailing high on a swing set near the screen, offering Sheri a dose of deja vu. “I can just remember always playing on the swings and then when the movie started you went back to the cars,” she says.

Nearby, another group of kids runs sprints while waiting for the show to start. The kids — ages 5, 8 and 11 — are on their first trip to the drive-in with their grandparents. Instead of “real” seats, there’s a patterned quilt spread on the ground for when the show begins. “The kids can relax instead of being stuck in a chair,” says Kelly as the kids run off again, offering another benefit in her eyes. “That right there will wear them out,” the wise grandmother remarks.

As Kelly oversees the future track stars, Perry notes another positive aspect: memory making. “Someday it’s probably going to disappear,” says he says of drive-in theaters. “And they’re not going to be able to pass it on.”

Yes, those are windows at the bottom of the screen — and they identify, believe it or not, an apartment that’s inside. Wanda and Butler Felts lived inside the screen for years, something that wasn’t unusual back then. “Because (drive-ins) were built on the outskirts of towns, (people) would live in them to keep them protected,” says Scott.

Keeping the drive-in alive

The Fowlers are able to pass on those memories due to the hard work of a key group of people. One of the names at the top of the list is Butler Felts, who was contacted in 1949 to design the Barco. Apparently the gig was a good one, as he stayed on to manage the theater, and later bought it in 1968.

He wasn’t alone, though: He met his future wife, Wanda, while working at the theater. “They actually got married a week before the drive-in opened, so they didn’t really get have a honeymoon right after,” says Scott. But the Barco wasn’t the couple’s only foray into the movie business: At various times, they also owned other theaters including the Fox Theater and the Trail Drive-In in Nevada.

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Another mainstay is Scott, who’s been at the drive-in for decades. “I immediately fell in love with the theater when we moved to Lamar,” says Scott.

Of course, it should be noted that when Scott moved to Lamar, the year was 1968. “I actually started following Bulter around when I was 5 or 6 years old,” says Scott with a chuckle. “(It’s) something I’ve enjoyed and it’s just stuck with me.”

After spending years just helping out where he could, Scott was officially hired at the theater when he was in high school. “I started out when I was 16, and they started teaching me the projection systems,” says Scott.

Scott Kelley (far left) is pictured with son Zach (front row, center) and other Barco employees.
Scott Kelley (far left) is pictured with son Zach (front row, center) and other Barco employees.

They say that history tends to repeat itself, and Scott’s story proves it’s true: Just like his role model, Scott also met his wife, Pam, through the drive-in. Today, the whole family — Pam and their two children — works there, as well as at the Plaza Theater in downtown Lamar.

“I love the movies and just seeing all the people,” says Zach Kelley, Scott’s 23 year old son. “I have a real fun job.” And, in a case of “like-father, like-son,” “When I was younger, I’d always just come and hang out until I was old enough to work,” the younger Kelley says.

That love of the theater is shared by lots of locals. After Butler passed away seven years ago, the Lamar Community Betterment decided to lease the theater to make sure it stayed open. And three years ago, when digital conversion became a must, the group — aided by the community as a whole — stepped up to fundraise the $50,000 necessary for the transition. “That’s kept us going,” says Scott.

But now that conversion hurdle is out of the way, the Kelleys can fully enjoy their job — which at times seems more like a hobby than work. “When you think about it, very few people have the chance to work at a drive-in because there’s not that many of them left,” says Zach. “And I think that’s what makes it so cool to work here.”

Want to visit?

The Barco Drive-In (57 South East 25th Lane, Lamar; 417-682-2434) has showings every weekend, and plans to operate until at least the beginning of November (if not longer). Prices vary depending on age. You can connect with them through their website or on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Barco Drive-In has been lighting up the night since 1950

  1. Butler and Wanda Felts’ great grandson is working there now. He is the fourth generation to work at the theater.

  2. Butler and Wanda Gay are my aunt and uncle and I spent as much time with them as I could growing up. Loved the drive in. Spent many nights in that bottom apartment listing to the movie above me. Two people in my life that I love and admire and always will. M cousin Jim and I are close to age and had lots of laughs and fun times together. I thankyou for bringing back some precious memories to me.

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