On the movie screen, a full moon rises in the night sky over a dark tower. Above the screen, another full moon, a real one, casts a soft, pale light on the upturned faces of the audience. It's summertime in the Hill Country town of Wimberley, where the open-air Corral Theatre is enjoying a good crowd. Tonight, as usual, the real attraction is not so much the outdoor movies as it is the theater itself -- the fact that it does not have a ceiling. Just the big Texas night sky.
On balmy Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Wimberleyites show up at the Corral to catch an outdoor movie and play catch-up with their friends. On this particular night the picture is The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn't seem to matter what's showing. The Corral is simply the place to be.
"I've already seen the movie," says Mary Ann DeLeon, who has come to the Corral faithfully since she moved to Wimberley as a child 31 years ago. "I just like the open air cinema atmosphere and all the friends you see here."
In the twilight before the movie starts, DeLeon is sitting with friends, watching the children of several families play on a blanket.
"I have a daughter, Kara, who likes to hang out with her friends," DeLeon says, pointing to the bleachers at the back of the theater, where preteen kids hang out. "She's back there."
For 54 summers, since 1948, families in Wimberley have made heading to the Corral for outdoor movies a summer tradition. Sitting in the open on lawn chairs or blankets, eating fresh-popped popcorn or a picnic dinner brought from home or the local Dairy Queen, they watch movies unreel under the Texas stars.
"It's an experience," says 16-year-old high school student Matt Langston, who was a regular at the Corral long before he got a summer job there last year. "It's the place to go hang out. There's not much else to do."
A modern megaplex the Corral is not. The walls are cedar stockade fencing about 8 feet tall. Instead of a colorful carpet, grass alternates with hard-packed dirt. No plush chairs: the seating is metal and plastic lawn furniture, some of which has been around for decades.
There is stadium seating if you count the gymnasium-style risers at the back. You can have cup-holder armrests, too, if you bring a cooler or your own folding chair with the cup holder built in.
The screen, made of Masonite panels, looks like a billboard painted white. Freshly painted, in fact, on May 24, the day the 2002 summer season opened.
As for the speaker system, well, let's say it works pretty well, considering the nonexistent acoustics. The theater got some big new speakers a few summers back -- there they are jutting up beside the screen. If the cicadas get too loud or the preteens in the bleachers giggle too much, just tell Arthur Rivas, the projectionist, and he'll probably turn the sound up for you.
On a clear night the sky in Wimberley is brimful of stars, despite the light from the screen. The Corral is outside town, so the modest night lights of Wimberley do not detract from the celestial glories.
That starry sky sometimes proves a surreal backdrop to the movie on the screen -- like the weekend the picture show was the space movie Apollo 13 and sometimes the line between screen and sky seemed to disappear.
Yes, the nights can be a tad warm, and copies of the local newspaper, the semiweekly Wimberley View, are often turned into makeshift fans.
But the theater is near the banks of the Blanco River, so there's often a breeze off the water to lower the temperature and keep mosquitoes at bay. And because the show is outdoors, it never starts until after the sun goes down, which is after 9 p.m. in the summer.
Think of it as a drive-in without cars and you pretty much have the picture. But unlike a drive-in, this theater brings people together rather than separating them in their vehicles.
"There's no other place where you can go outside, bring your snacks, bring your drinks and sit down and watch a movie," says Wimberley mom Diane Fine, who attends with her husband, Gary, and a pack of kids, mostly their own. "And you get to visit with everyone."
The Corral does have a few features no modern city megaplex can hope to match.
"There's something special about everybody getting there with their chairs and their pillows," says Jeanette Scott, a motion-picture set decorator (Spy Kids) who lives in Austin. Scott and husband Don Sembera bring their daughter May, 10, to the Corral two or three times a month all summer.
"This is a real quality-of-life thing for me," says Scott, who has made the Corral a family ritual for several years. "The Corral is one of the reasons I wanted to move to Austin after May was born. I wanted it to be part of her memory. It's been as much a part of her life as elementary school. It's a disappointment for her if we don't go."
Perhaps because she's from elsewhere, Scott may analyze the Corral more than folks who grew up with it.
"We love going out of the theater after the show in the dark and seeing the headlights of people leaving, instead of a mall parking lot. I love how it's not a slick, prepackaged experience in an anonymous theater and you don't even know where you are."
Take that, Urban Megaplex 38!
And things seem to happen at the Corral that just don't occur at other theaters.
Like the night of the horse stampede.
The Corral is on the grounds of Rocky River Ranch, a 26-acre summer camp for girls. Mary "Skeet" Anderson, owner of the theater and the ranch, keeps her horses in the pasture on the other side of the theater's fence.
"When we showed The Man From Snowy River, the running of the horses and neighing of the horses in the movie got my horses excited," says Anderson, smiling at the recollection. "So they'd run this way, and then they'd run that way. Made it real."
Then there was the weekend it didn't rain but the customers got soaked.
"Last year we were sitting over here, and all of a sudden we got a splash," says Damon Haire, who sits on the very front row with his son Randy, age 7. "It was a couple of kids throwing water balloons from behind the fence. We got a little wet, but it was funny."
At the back of the theater, between the bleachers where the preteens chatter and giggle, stands the concession booth. It's open to the inside of the theater, so if you forgot to bring snacks or drinks, you can get popcorn or soda or candy -- all 75 cents or less -- without missing any of the show.
One night the local teens who staff the booth suddenly made a mad dash out the back door.
It didn't take long to discover the cause: Somehow a skunk -- perhaps wanting popcorn? -- had wandered into the booth, unintentionally creating the frantic exodus. It was several minutes before an adult staffer could gently coax the skunk out and the teens back in.
Fortunately, the skunk left no calling card.
Wimberley was just a tiny community hidden in the Hill Country 30 crow miles southwest of Austin when twin brothers Roy and Ray Avey decided to bring a little Hollywood to town.
The brothers had an uncle who was a movie exhibitor in Oklahoma City. With his advice they figured out what they needed and went into business.
"We built it all ourselves," says Roy Avey, now 84 and still living in Wimberley, not far from the current location of the Corral.
Just off the town square, near a former lumberyard now converted to a sales lot for sports cars, they put up the distinctive fence that gave the theater its name.
"It was sawed cedar logs in a high vertical fence," Avey says. "We went to Bastrop, they had a saw mill down there, and we'd load these cedar slabs on a trailer and put 'em up.
"We couldn't afford to build an enclosed theater. Wimberley was probably 300 people in the whole community."
Fortunately for the Aveys, the chance to see a movie was a draw for folks in the surrounding ranch country. Back then, Austin seemed a long way off on the tiny, winding country roads.
"People came from quite a ways around, off the ranches and so forth," Avey recalls of those early days.
The Corral proved an attraction, even if the sunset starting time meant a lot of country folks had to stay up almost until time for early-morning chores.
The Avey brothers had a machine shop in nearby San Marcos. They ran the shop during the day. With their wives, Bee (married to Roy) and Ruth, who are sisters (and also sisters-in-law), they ran the theater six nights a week.
"Never on Sunday," Bee Avey recalls.
Admission was a bargain: 9 cents for children, 24 cents for adults.
"If it was under 10 cents and 25 cents you didn't have to pay admission tax," Bee Avey says.
"Popcorn was 10 cents for a great big bag," Roy adds, "and Coca-Cola and drinks were a nickel."
Michael Butler lived in Houston in the 1950s but came often to visit family in Wimberley. He remembers his aunt dropping him and his cousin Johanna off at the theater with a single dollar bill. "We'd sit there and eat for the whole movie."
Roy Avey still chuckles when talking about the theater and some of the good times they had.
"One Halloween the weather was good, so we were still running," he says. "We cleared all the benches back, and we built a bonfire in the middle of the theater. The floor was just dirt.
"We had a spook show, and we let the kids roast marshmallows. The ghost from the projector was flickering through the smoke from the fire, and it was really effective."
The Aveys managed the shop and the theater until the mid-1960s. Then they got the additional job of building an amusement passenger train -- engine, cars and caboose -- to carry guests at the 7-A Ranch just outside Wimberley.
To have more time, the brothers sold the theater to Carol "Mama" Knolk, who ran the Rocky River Ranch summer camp for girls. Knolk, who has since died, moved the theater to its current location on the ranch.
The Avey brothers and their wives are all retired now, Roy and Bee in Wimberley, Ray and Ruth in San Marcos. Their old machine shop is now Avey Plastics. Roy proudly notes that some of the parts they made for NASA are still on the moon.
The Corral's current location is just outside Wimberley, about a mile northeast of the square on Ranch Road 3237 at Flite Acres Road. Much of the material from the original Corral was used for the new theater. The old canvas screen, not big enough for the modern "scope" (widescreen) pictures, was replaced by the present Masonite wall. A stockade fence replaced the former logs.
By the mid-1960s, movies were changing, and not necessarily for the better. "Mama" Knolk -- the nickname came from running the girls camp -- declared that the Corral would continue to show only family-friendly movies. "There'll be no sex or monsters," she said, according to Linda Allen's book Wimberley ... A Way of Life.
It was about the same time that Mary Anderson, the theater's current owner, went to work at the Corral.
"All those metal chairs out there," she says, nodding to the front of the theater, "I sanded and painted by hand in 1966."
A few years later Anderson bought Rocky River Ranch. When Knolk died, Anderson kept the theater going.
"I thought it was something Wimberley needed," Anderson says. "It would be a shame to shut it down. It was really important to local folks back in the early days. You didn't go into San Marcos or Austin to see a movie very often. This was the summer thing to do."
"It's a Wimberley landmark," says Butler, who now lives in Wimberley and often attends the theater, just as he did as a boy. "Some of the people who go there are second-, third-generation."
The theater is still going strong.
"We don't make a big profit," says Anderson, "but we make enough to pay for the kids working for us and to start up the next year."
The theater has seating for about 200, but with all the open space for lawn chairs and blankets, a lot more can get in.
"The largest group, I think, was (for) Jurassic Park," Anderson says. "We showed it for three nights and sold a total of 1,500 tickets, 500 a night.
"At times we have had to turn 'em away. When it gets packed, I go out in the street, and when they start slowing down to let some teen-agers off, I say `Sorry, we don't have any more room. Come tomorrow night.' "
Anderson has kept the theater pretty much the same as in its early days. Most of the movies are PG or PG-13, though this summer Anderson showed the R-rated Black Hawk Down, because it was a war film and, she notes, "Wimberley has so many veterans."
Anderson says it's important to keep the theater family-oriented.
"So many of the people bring their kids here and drop them off. They expect us to have good movies that are safe for their kids to watch. Once in a while we get a PG-13 with too many bad words in it. Once or twice we've had a movie we objected to on Friday night so we didn't show it on Saturday."
With San Marcos less than 30 minutes away and Austin 45 minutes, not to mention satellite TV and video, the theater is certainly not crucial to Wimberley's movie fans. Anderson will tell you that most of the kids who pack the theater on weekends have already seen the film.
"They come to see their friends, because in the summertime there is no place to get together unless they go to each other's house," she says. "I tell the kids, `I can't believe you pay $3 to come over here and not watch the movie.' "
The kids don't think they're the odd ones.
"A lot of adults come and, like, actually watch the movie," cracks young Langston, getting laughs from his friends.
The movie can also be more an excuse than a destination for kids. The weekend before the season opened, Anderson got a checkup call from a parent looking for her daughter.
"She said, `What time is the movie over?' I said `Ma'am we don't have a movie tonight.' Sunday morning she called me and said, `Did you have a movie last night at the Corral?' I said `No, ma'am. We haven't started our season yet.' She said `Are you sure? My daughter told me she was at the movie theater last night.' "
Anderson, practiced from years of running summer camps, knows most of the tricks. She often sits at the theater's entry gate keeping an eye on things.
"Sometimes they go back out and take their stub to somebody else," she says, sounding amused.
If preteens start to leave during the movie, Anderson will get their names and call their parents to pick them up.
Anderson also continues another of Mama Knolk's traditions, a prize drawing. About 20 minutes into the film the screen goes black and Anderson comes out with a bucket, from which she draws a ticket stub. The prize usually isn't big -- a $3 ticket to next week's show or a coupon for a free sandwich somewhere -- but most people loyally check their tickets and clap if a friend wins.
"Mrs. Knolk started the tradition because she was a very outgoing person and liked to get up and greet people," Anderson says.
Though it's a lot like the original Corral of 54 years ago, the theater is "modernizing" all the time. In addition to the new sound system a few years back, some of the 1920s projection equipment was replaced six years ago with parts from the 1930s. One of the two projectors dates from 1950. The theater can show all the latest movies, though the ancient arc-lamp projectors show the wear and rust of decades. "We have a real good company in San Antonio that takes care of them," Anderson says.
A few years ago a short awning was put across the top of the screen.
"We wanted protection from the rain, 'cause it made streaks on the (screen)," says Anderson. "A lot of people stay and watch the movie while it's raining."
This year's upgrade: A brand new popcorn machine replaces the 38-year-old popper. But popcorn is still served in those old-style striped movie cups, and it's still made fresh throughout the movie. No one is happier about that than Anderson's horses.
"When we clean up the popcorn machine, some of the kernels fall down in the bottom," she says. "We throw it over the fence for our horses. A couple of our horses know that when the movie goes on, they're going to get popcorn."
The movies are arriving sooner than ever, too, usually only a few months or even weeks after they play the big cities. This weekend's show, closing tonight, is The Scorpion King. Next weekend brings Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
A visit to the Corral can refresh old memories and make new ones.
"These kids are going to remember this the rest of their lives," says Wimberley paint contractor, pastor and dad Gary Fine. "When they get together in their 20s and 30s, they're going to say, `Remember that theater we used to go to outside? Didn't we bring our own food?' It's building traditions."
The truth of that can be found all through the crowd. On this summer night, 22-year-old Misty Mitchell stands at the back of the theater, watching the movie with some friends. She lives in Austin but was born and raised in Wimberley. In her late teens she stopped going to the Corral while she did "my own thing."
But now the memories have drawn her back.
"All my friends would sit in the bleachers when we were really young, and we'd play spin the bottle behind the bleachers and do goofy stuff. We wouldn't pay attention to the movie too much. We would talk back there and get in trouble once in a while for being too loud. I guess now we're a little better behaved."
These days she looks forward to a time when she can bring her own children to the Corral.
"I count the days," she says. "I can't wait. There's nothing better than Wimberley."
Official website: www.corraltheatre.com. Read full article at: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/texas/1451645.html