The smell hits you when you open the door at the Historic Artcraft Theatre. One of the first things your eyes go to is the giant popcorn maker at the concession stand. After scanning your ticket, you get in a line full of chatter and buzz. You eagerly wait your turn to get a large bucket of buttery popcorn, a Triple XXX root beer soda, and Reese’s Pieces. Before you even make it to the auditorium, the movie-going experience immerses you.
Popcorn in a theater was unheard of at the turn of the 20th century. However, by the '30s, the treat was introduced as a business move to survive the Great Depression. By the '40s, there was no turning back—popcorn and movie theaters were inseparable. In 2022, watching a movie without the crunchy, salty snack at a theatre like the Artcraft is like missing out on the entire experience
Artcraft volunteers John, Janet, and Lisa at the concession stand for a matinee showing of The Wizard of Oz.
The Artcraft's popcorn will probably be some of the best popcorn you'll ever eat. Why? Because it's grown just five miles away from the theatre at Norton Grain Farms. Norton Farms grows a whole field of corn for the Artcraft, a significant donation. The theatre uses roughly two and a half 5-gallon buckets of popcorn each weekend. If you multiply that by 52 weekends a year — adding in private showings, field trips, children's theater, concerts, corporate parties, and wedding receptions — that is a lot of popcorn.
Purchasing a bag of locally grown (and internationally known) popcorn from the Artcraft won't put a hole in your pocket. While the average price for a medium bag of popcorn is $7-8 at a regular megaplex, a medium bucket of popcorn at the Artcraft is just $4. Along with Norton Farm's generous popcorn donation, the many volunteers running the concession stand keeps the prices affordable and reasonable. The Artcraft volunteers know their way around the counter to keep up with a sellout crowd, and they occupy a place where a well-known figure in Artcraft history worked.
This prominent face in Artcraft history is Mrs. Irene Petro.
Irene, often referred to as "The Popcorn Lady", was the theatre staff member who ran the concession stand for over 30 years. She was known for making the best popcorn around. In a July 1977 issue of the Daily Journal, staff writer Jo Ann Bingham writes about Irene. While megaplexes at the time sold pre-popped popcorn, Irene had her secret recipe that was unmatched compared to other theaters in the area. People who would go to the Franklin Theater, which closed its doors in the ‘60s, would first get popcorn at the Artcraft. Back then, you could get a bag of popcorn for just 10¢ at the Artcraft.
While Irene didn't watch many movies, she loved the people who visited the theatre every weekend. Petro told Bingham in the '77 Daily Journal article, "I've met a lot of people over the years, and sometimes I'll see old friends or acquaintances I haven't seen for years when they come to see a movie."
Many Franklin residents remember Irene fondly. One person is Jane Hughey, the educational coordinator at the Johnson County Museum of History. Hughey remembers going to the Artcraft in elementary school with her friends, meeting at the corner of Home and Jefferson St, and then walking to the theatre.
"I would get a box of popcorn and Lifesavers or a box of popcorn and Junior Mints,” said Hughey. “[Irene] had a secret recipe [for popcorn]; it was delicious and always fresh. I also remember that you were expected to behave, but she was very nice, friendly, and accommodating. And she treated the kids with as much respect as we should have given her."
Dan M. Mitchell also remembers how good the popcorn was. "They use coconut oil," he recalled. "They had big five-gallon cans of oil sitting behind the counter. It would make the popcorn taste so good."
"I also delivered her newspaper," said Mitchell. "I was there before she left for the theater on Saturday because I had to collect the money for the paper route. She was always nice."
Bob Heuchan recalls going to the Artcraft to watch westerns and cartoons with his brothers. His favorite choice of concessions were popcorn and Milk Duds. "I always felt that going into the theatre was a good experience," said Heuchan. "Seeing Irene always reminded me that I was glad to be there. I don't remember speaking to her much. She was a nice lady, but I didn't feel I needed to mess around."
Irene also had a firm way with the kids that came into the Artcraft; if someone was misbehaving, she would make them go to the very back of the line. "You were expected to behave," commented Hughey. "I remember a group being in line and misbehaving. Irene asked them to go to the back of the line, and they didn't, so she told them to leave. And I believe their parents brought them back and made them apologize to her."
Irene Petro held great respect from all that knew her. To still be spoken of fondly after her passing, she has made an impression on everyone who came to the Artcraft Theatre. "I don't think she would have thought that 40 years later, people are still talking about her," said Rob Shilts, Executive Director of Franklin Heritage, Inc.
When visiting the Artcraft now, the group of volunteers behind the concession stand continue Irene's legacy, serving drinks and snacks, serving everyone and getting them into the auditorium to begin their movie. The location of the concession stand has changed; it used to be located on the right side of the lobby, hugging one of the Art Deco pillars. However, everything else -- the counter, glass candy case, leather, and cabinets -- are original to how it was in its glory days. The original Manley Popcorn Machine that Irene used to make and serve her popcorn is located at the Johnson County Museum of History, a block away from the theatre. The Manley machine and other Artcraft relics will be on display at the museum during the 100th Anniversary Gala Event taking place on September 10, 2022.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.