CARNEGIE — Jerry Applewhite has a secret formula for success: open a hotdog stand and show some movies on the side.
Actually, that’s the 75-year-old’s way of joking about the business plan that’s kept Liberty Theater operational for the past 48 years, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. An added bonus is the $4 admission charge — which he says includes taxes — $1.50 for popcorn, inexpensive soda pop and the state’s best-tasting chili dogs.
Applewhite claims to have taken the chili recipe from Jim’s Coney Island in Tulsa, made a few changes and turned it into his own by using better ingredients. “My idea is that it takes both of them in a small town like this. I have a hotdog stand and a movie theater to go with it,” he said with a chuckle.
Applewhite boasts that people from Lawton, western Oklahoma and even the Panhandle drive to Liberty Theater for an inexpensive night out that includes a first-run major theater release and great tasting food. “I’ve even had requests to send the hotdogs to Afghanistan, but I haven’t found a way to do that,” he said.
Liberty Theater, with its patriotic color scheme of red, white and blue and its old-fashioned black and white tile floors, shows top movies on three screens. The largest of the three theaters seats 220 people with the other two seating 90 and 79, respectively. Applewhite operates his theater on a volume basis, which allows him to keep ticket prices down. In 1990, a survey of theaters nationwide showed the average ticket price was $4.22.
“We’ve always tried to keep it low and we’ve been successful,” he said. “Every week we have a new product and I’m always trying to figure out what people want to see. It’s show business.” Liberty Theater, until the pandemic hit, was the longest continually operating theater in Oklahoma. Still, Applewhite hopes he won’t be shut down much longer. During the pandemic-forced shutdown, Applewhite has stayed busy reworking the sound system and putting together a few surprises for moviegoers once the theater reopens.
Liberty Theater opened for business in 1915 and has played all of the major movies for the past 106 years, including box office hits Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, the Godfather trilogy, Young Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove and everything in between. However, the movie that generated unexpected sellouts was Scooby-Doo, a computer-animated supernatural adventure that hit theaters in 2002.
“Everyone wanted to get a smile, I guess,” Applewhite said. The longtime theater owner said he can’t imagine doing anything else with his time or money. Applewhite’s parents leased and operated Liberty for 20 years before he bought it from the original owner’s wife in 1972.
“The movie business has been good to me,” Applewhite said. “I see all my friends come in every week at the show and I have a good time. Why would I want to retire? Talk to me in five years when I’m 80.”
Applewhite isn’t sure when the theater will re-open, although he’s hoping it will be sometime in mid-summer, but the timetable will depend primarily on the pandemic and the ongoing vaccination program in Oklahoma. Debbie Clinton, Carnegie’s city clerk, said she remembers going to the Liberty and spending less than $1 for admission, a Coke and a candy bar.
“That was a treat,” she said. “There’s lots of memories from that theater with my kids and grandkids. I remember some people would buy the hotdogs and not go to the theater. There are people who drive up (from Lawton) to the movie so they could get a hotdog.”
Theater sell-outs can often create a crowded downtown Carnegie, Applewhite said. “When I’m busy and we have a large crowd at 7 p.m. and another one at 9 p.m., you see these two large groups of people converging on downtown. That’s an odd sight when the entire population of Carnegie is only 1,600 people and there’s 750 to 800 people going to the movies on the same night,” Applewhite said.
For more information about Liberty Theater and updates about reopening, visit www.libertytheatres.com or call (580) 654-1776.