The ways that Stuckey’s history = drive-in history

In-store display of Stucket's pecan log rolls and hard candies
The best part of the Stuckey’s on I-70 east of Paxico KS.

Thanksgiving often means (for me) a trip from Carload World Headquarters in Denver to Kansas City MO for a family dinner, and that’s the way it went last week. On the way back, my family indulged me with a stop at the last active Stuckey’s restaurant, gas station, souvenir shop in the state of Kansas. That’s where I took a picture of the only six feet of real Stuckey’s in the whole building – a small display with several varieties of pecan logs, some hard candies, and a bag of pecan pieces.

The experience reminded me of a lot of the Route 66 icons that I visited just a couple of years ago. All too many of them are just faded suggestions of what they looked like in their heyday, the way that several buildings along I-70 are clearly repurposed or abandoned Stuckey’s. You can tell by their ceiling ridge.

And that got me thinking that just as Route 66 history parallels that of drive-in theaters, so does Stuckey’s history, sort of. Like drive-ins, Stuckey’s was invented in the 1930s, (by William Stuckey, of course), and most were built in the years after World War II. Eventually the total hit 368 restaurants in 30 states. (You can find a wonderful 1975 location guide preserved today on Flickr.) Although Stuckey’s locations numbered less than a tenth of total drive-in theaters, they too were found along major highways. They were also known for wide structures, in this case plenty of advertising billboards to lure motorists.

According to a March 2022 article in the Washington Post, the Stuckey’s chain might have begun fading in the 1960s when it was sold to Pet Milk. It definitely suffered after the late 1970s after Illinois Central Industries (ICI) bought Pet Milk in a hostile takeover. ICI closed and sold many Stuckey’s locations; by the time the family repurchased the chain, it was down to 75 stores. They’ve grown by a few dozen since then. More than ever, they’re concentrated in the southeast. The location near Paxico KS is the third-farthest north, behind outliers in Rockport IA and North Stonington CT, and about 35 miles east of the western-most full-sized Stuckey’s, in Italy TX.

As with drive-ins, I remember visiting Stuckey’s stores when they were still active, though past their prime in retrospect. Unlike drive-ins, the experience today is a lot different. In the past, Stuckey’s splattered its name and pecans all over each store and built-in restaurant. Today, you’re more likely to find a Stuckey’s fragment – the company calls it “the store-within-the-store concept” – than an old-time free-standing location. Even in Paxico’s Stuckey’s, with its tall roof ridge, most of its generic Kansas souvenirs could be found anywhere in the state, and the quiet restaurant showed no signs of pecans.

Like drive-ins, Stuckey’s was an American icon, albeit not as ubiquitous. Most of them are gone, and many of the remainders are not the way they were. They’re another relic of the postwar highway boom, and last week, I was happy to get just a glimpse of its history in action.

Video: Wichita’s Starlite Prospers Under New Ownership

Last year about this time, the story of Wichita KS’s Starlite Drive-In Theatre was a sad one indeed. Its recently acquired owner had shut down the Starlite and was reportedly on the verge of selling the place for warehouse development.

Remarkably, the Starlite recovered. Local leaders saw the importance of the city’s last drive-in and came up with a plan that saved it. So this week’s report by KSNW, Wichita’s News Leader, is more of a quiet celebration of the end of a successful season where the only drama was on the big screen.

The news story has some nice video of the Starlite, which is always welcome here, and it includes a few interview clips with current owner Blake Smith. He said that attendance is up a bit, and that it took him a little while to learn how to execute some of the fundamentals of running the drive-in.

Souvenir cups were a big hit this season at the Starlite, and Smith said he’s considering selling season passes for 2020. I would suggest that those cups are a no-brainer; if they’re refillable, they sit around as a constant advertisement and reminder to come back for more movies. Season passes are trickier. I hope that Smith gets good advice on those.

I also hope that this note finishes the saga of near-closure and civic redemption for the Starlite, which should settle back down as just another successful drive-in. Meanwhile, enjoy the video of how it looks today.

Video: Wichita’s Starlite Improbably Reopens

This is great news from KSN, Wichita’s News Leader. The Starlite Drive-In Theatre, closed and apparently sold in a questionable turn of events, was rescued at the last minute and celebrated its Grand Opening under new ownership last weekend. And I’ve got more video than I can use, so also check out the following sources.

Blake Smith, who also owns the Admiral Twin Drive-In in Tulsa OK, told KFDI that he was excited to get started. “It got stange last year — and I didn’t even realize — and then everybody went crazy and it kinda got to me, and…it’s funny how things work out.” KFDI also posted a Facebook video of the ribbon cutting.

As KWCH reported, the Starlite already had a cold opening – really cold – on March 1. It wrote that “Smith and his staff have been working to get the south Wichita theater up and running since December.” They also have video of that frosty, happy event. Enjoy!