Small town has big reach

Steve Tarter

Few small towns in Illinois can claim both an active movie theater and busy comedy club as downtown attractions.

But Mason City can. The Mason County town of 2,500 that's located 50 miles south of Peoria is home to both the Arlee Theater and Mason City Limits.

The City Limits comedy club recently celebrated its second anniversary, proof that a small town venue can attract both comics and crowds.

"People say this is the middle of nowhere. I correct them. We're in the middle of everywhere," said club owner Chris Speyrer, a former stand-up comic himself.

"There's Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield, Havana and Pekin. We draw from all those places," he said.

Next door to the comedy club on Chestnut Street, the town's main drag, is a restaurant complex owned by another former stand-up comedian, John Means, who, in 1998 returned to his hometown after 20 years on the road touring as Dr. Gonzo.

John Maxson has also made his own contribution to the town's entertainment center with the revival of the old Arlee Theater. "I worked here as a kid in the 1960s. It was the place to go," said Maxson, 52, who, along wife Gaye, has been operating the refurbished movie house for the past four years.

Despite the entertainment venues, the Mason City economy suffers from some of the same problems faced by other small towns across the country, said David Rodgers, president of Mason City National Bank.

"There's not a lot of growth going on right now in Mason City," he said.

Jobs are in short supply in town so the rise in gas prices has had an effect on commuters, said Rodgers. "Residents either commute east to Lincoln, south to Springfield or north to Pekin and Peoria," he said.

One of those Mason City residents racking up the miles is Lois Rickard, who logs between 200 and 300 miles a week selling ads for the Mason City Banner, Olympia Review, Prairie State Journal and Manito Review.

"The newspaper business has been in my husband's family since 1867," said Rickard. Her husband, Victor "Joe" Rickard, died in 1998.

Retired after working for 38 years as a state employee, Rickard said she decided to keep working for the publication business her husband had been devoted to. "I love it," she said of her weekly travels through central Illinois in search of advertising.

The former mayor of Mason City, Rickard, who remains on the City Council, looks forward to some of the downtown improvement plans. "We'll be tearing down three buildings that are in bad shape. They're trying different things to get people to stay here and live here," she said.

"Mason City was going gung ho for awhile but it's sitting back on its laurels right now. But everything goes in cycles," said Rickard.

Jump-starting the Mason City business district isn't easy, said Rodgers from his vantage point at the bank.

"It's hard to get local business going after the big chains have taken some of the business out of town," he said.

"When I was a kid, there were seven gas stations in Mason City - all owned by different families," said Rodgers, 46. "Today there are just two - both owned by national chains," he said.

One local business that perseveres is the Mason City Pharmacy, operating on one side of Chestnut Street or the other for the past 60 years, noted pharmacist Judy Douglas.

"My brother-in-law started the business across the street," said Douglas, 67, a pharmacist in Mason City for 45 years.

The drug store has changed over the years. "The soda fountain went out in 1970 and the photo business dried up," she said. But the pharmacy still provides hometown service, she said.

"We do a very good business for a small town," she said. While only greeting cards and medical items now line the store's sparse shelves, "customers can order an item and we'll have it the next day," said Douglas.

Means wants to see Mason City recapture some of the vitality of its soda-fountain past. "When my parents moved here in 1955, it was Mayberry, I've seen the pictures," he said.

Means opened Jack & Jo's Steak House and PJ's Pizza & Pasta six years ago. "I wanted to open a restaurant where people could sit down and talk about what could happen here," he said of Jack & Jo's, named after his parents.

"My father was the last old-time country doctor here in town while Eleanor, my mother, was an artist. They really influenced my life," said Means.

What influenced Maxson was the role the movie theater played in the small town when he was a kid. "Grade-schoolers would go to the movie shows on Friday night while Saturday night was for the high-schoolers. On Sunday, it was the adults' turn," he said.

Like most small-town theaters, the Arlee, originally built in 1936, fell into disrepair and disuse before Maxson and his family came to the rescue five years ago.

"We bought it in 2003 but spent about a year fixing it up," he said. Neighbors joined the Maxson family in the restoration of the old theater. "It was a community effort," he said, noting that the theater now offers family entertainment Fridays through Mondays.

Ticket prices haven't changed much since the Arlee's heyday: $4 for adults and $2.50 for children.

"Soda, popcorn and candy - it's all sold for a dollar. We get people here from Peoria," he said.

Maxson serves as transportation director for Illini Central High School, where his wife works as a special education aide. "When we're not at the school, we're here," said Maxson, who also serves on the City Council.

The theater, which seats 450 people, also books the occasional live show, he said. "We've had Peoria barbershoppers, Beatles tribute bands as well as the Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey orchestras along with Christian bands. Peoria comedian Royce Elliott has been here a number of times," said Maxson.

Larry Crossett, a local freelance writer, cited a number of recent improvements in Mason City.

"Ground was broken last month for a new water treatment plant, and a new water tower is soon to follow. Illini Central, a consolidated (school) district with all 12 grades in Mason City, is also getting a new geothermal heating and cooling system," he said.

The First Christian Church in town also will soon begin construction on a new facility, said Crossett.

Mason City is also home to a well-developed recycling program. The town recycles three tons of glass a month, said Ernie Schmidt, the retired 86-year-old farmer who heads up the program.

"I'm here five mornings a week," said Schmidt, feeding flattened cardboard boxes into a baling machine at the city building devoted to the program, called Save Our Area Resources. "We collected 66 tons of cardboard last year," he said.

Arriving in the area in 1948 after serving in the military, Schmidt called Mason City a friendly town. "There's a lot of volunteer help here," he said.

Schmidt doesn't wait for people to drop off material. He makes daily rounds in his truck to pick-up recyclables. "I'll stop at Casey's, the plumber's shop, Dollar General and the autobody shop (where) they have boxes stronger than those plastic bumpers," he said.

Schmidt takes a realistic approach to the town's economy. "When you're competing with the big boys, we're fighting to stay alive," he said.

That's a fight that Donna Mayer relishes. As the author of a history of Mason City, she likes reminding people of the richness of the town's past. "There's a lot of history here," she said of Mason City, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

The 19th-century buildings standing in downtown Mason City need to be preserved, she said.

John Means believes the same thing. He also knows that the trick is getting viable businesses into those buildings. "The town needs help - a generation dropped the ball here. Now it's time for us to reinvent ourselves," he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or