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Sense of community remains at the core of this family-owned movie theater

Daniel Caudill

Despite rising costs and inflation, one of the last locally owned theaters in the area is keeping families in front of the big screen.

The first showtime of the night is approaching at Derby Plaza Theaters. Popcorn is popping. And with it, comes a warm buttery aroma.

As regulars line up for tickets and concessions, employees behind the counter greet them by name. Parents drop their teenagers off for a safe night out, and many of them head to the arcade they’ve played in since they were little.

Posters on a wall in the lobby advertise upcoming movies.
Daniel Caudill
Posters on a wall in the lobby advertise upcoming movies.

All the pieces come together to form the familiar touch that owner Lori Armstrong said makes her family’s theater stand out from the rest.

“I think it’s the camaraderie that you have with your guests. That hometown kind of feeling, you know,” she said. “And getting down there, and talking with them and getting involved with their lives.”

Armstrong’s parents built Derby Plaza Theaters in 1995. And she’s worked just about every job there as it became a mainstay in the community over the years.

Now, she owns the venue and runs it alongside her daughter, Beth, who works as the general manager.

Armstrong said the theater has remained successful in part because it’s close, not only for people in Derby, but also Haysville, Mulvane and Rose Hill.

“All the surrounding towns help support us, too,” she said.

In the nearly three decades since Derby Plaza Theaters opened, the number of theaters in the U.S. has declined by more than 25%. In the same time frame, the average price of a ticket has more than doubled.

A study by business news site The Hustle also found that the price of a family outing at the movies has increased at twice the rate of inflation since the 1960s.

Armstrong said she tries to keep prices on tickets and concessions as low as possible, despite the impact of inflation.

“We’ve had to learn how to roll with the punches with that, and find different avenues for our products,” she said.

Relationships with regulars

Ernie Shrubshall and Linda Mitchell have been going to the theater in Derby since its early years. To them, the appeal is simple.

“It’s close, and their prices are reasonable,” Linda said.

Daniel Caudill
Concessions are a big selling point at Derby Plaza Theaters, and the owner strives to keep prices affordable.

The two were seeing “Black Adam,” the latest superhero movie to hit the big screen. Aside from cost and location, they say the hometown feel of the theater keeps them coming back at least twice a month.

“They’re always friendly, [and they] keep a real nice, clean theater,” Ernie said. “And like I said, it’s always convenient.”

Forming relationships with regulars like Ernie and Linda ultimately paid dividends for the theater when it had to close down during the early days of the pandemic.

The owners set up drive-thru concessions on the weekends, and it was a smash hit.

“We would come in on a Thursday, and make, you know, 100 bags of cotton candy. And we’d sell ‘em, Friday and Saturday,” she said.

“We’ve never sold that much cotton candy.”

Armstrong said that support indicates just how much the community theater means to people in Derby and the surrounding area.

“Some people would come by and give us money. Just [because] they wanted to see us stay. And that was very, very humbling.”

Daniel Caudill reports on Kansas state government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. He was a general assignment reporter for KMUW and a reporter, photographer and digital content manager for The Derby Informer and an editor and reporter for The Sunflower. In the spring of 2020, Daniel helped cover the legislative session in Topeka as an intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @CaudillKMUW.