MIDLAND, Tex. — It was early in the show when members of the audience grabbed fistfuls of popcorn and threw them toward the stage. They chucked more popcorn as the evening went on, onto the floor of the crowded downtown theater, up in the air and at the people around me. The behavior was not only expected, but encouraged.
On Friday and Saturday nights in the summer, Midland sets its West Texas manners aside.
This is when thousands of people pack the Yucca Theater each summer for a raunchy, corny vaudeville-and-dancing melodrama during which members of the audience boo, cheer and toss popcorn at the stage and at one another. It is a 67-year-old Midland tradition called Summer Mummers, and it has quietly become one of the rowdiest and messiest experiences in American theater. Buttery popcorn is sold, thrown and occasionally eaten in bulk — in grocery store paper bags cut in half. The organizers claim Summer Mummers sells more popcorn in its annual three-month run than any local movie theater sells in an entire year. This summer, popcorn sales were expected to hit $110,000.
Midland is a conservative oil town with a button-down business culture, the kind of proper place that is the hometown of both former President George W. Bush and the former first lady, Laura Bush. That is why, in the middle of the show, I looked around slack-jawed: Adults were dumping bags of popcorn on the heads of friends and strangers, the way football players pour Gatorade on coaches.
They were in their 20s and their 60s, sober and not so much, first-time popcorn-tossers like me and seasoned pros like Ashley Frennier, a secretary from nearby Odessa, who pulled open my shirt and threw popcorn down my chest. Her table had a stockpile of bags, so I backed away.
The actors must have been thankful the audience was no longer allowed to toss peanuts, as they had been when Summer Mummers first started in 1949. Popcorn was $5 a bag, but most people bought it by the tray, paying $20 for a four-bag tray. Plastic lids on some of the cups kept the popcorn out of the beverages, and an umbrella hat on the head of the band leader, Mike Sherrod, 58, tried but mostly failed to deflect it off the keys of his piano.
Midland Community Theater produces Summer Mummers as an annual volunteer-run fund-raiser, and on a recent Saturday the show was called “Midland’s Master Munchie Maker, or Are You Gonna Eat That?” It was a variety show with toilet-humor gags, dance numbers, men in drag and a low-budget “Moviola,” a black-and-white film with local actors and sets. I had more fun tossing popcorn at Terry Cargile, 56, a Midland businessman who was behind me.
“I think it’s just a way to get the community to blow off steam during the summer,” he said.
When the lights came up, a woman was in tears. Her ring slid off her finger as she threw popcorn, a common Summer Mummers occurrence. The theater looked like Orville Redenbacher had a huge fit: The popcorn was ankle-deep in places. A cleanup crew used rakes and industrial-strength vacuum cleaners to clear the aisles. I joined the ring search. Using flashlights, we sifted the stuff with our hands and feet.
Suddenly, a worker steering a vacuum, Charles Griffith, 28, shouted “Hey!” and held up the ring. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
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