Oct. 25: Elmira Drive-In Theatre, Elmira NY

It’s Day 298 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Taking the forested short route took a little longer than swinging north to the interstate would have been, but it took less than three hours for me to drive from the Family Drive In Theatre east of Kane PA, just across the border to the Elmira Drive-In Theatre, just west of Elmira NY.

This drive-in, almost halfway between the center of Elmira and the much smaller Big Flats, has an amazing, complicated history. It was built in 1948 and opened on April 16, 1949, owned by the Elmira Drive-In Theater Co., which was mainly Harry and Benjamin Berinstein.

The single-screen Elmira had 13 ramps for 800 cars with in-car speakers. The name on its screen tower was just “Drive-In Theatre”, so some references called it the Elmira and others the Big Flats. In advertisements in the Elmira Star-Gazette, it was listed as simply “Drive-In Theater” (April 1949) or “Drive-In Theatre” (May 1949). Its concession stand may have been outsourced; a want ad for concession manager replied to Theater Confections in Rochester NY.

On May 1, 1963, The 153 Corp. took over the drive-in from the Elmira Drive-In Co. with a “long-term lease”. That put it under the control of the Dipson Circuit, which owned or ran Elmira’s indoor theaters and a couple dozen others in the region. Harry Berinstein’s 1973 obituary said that when he passed away, he was president of Cornell Theaters and “still owned the land on which the Elmira Drive-In Theater stands”, although he hadn’t lived in Elmira since 1941.

In August 1976, the Elmira’s lease, held by Cornell Theaters, was transferred to Galaxy Theaters of Rochester. The manager at the time, Shirley Owens, said that Cornell had been operating the drive-in for a year and a half. In August 1980, Samuel J. Mitchell moved into the ownership group, and his S.J.M. Entertainment Co. ran the Elmira for at least a couple of years.

The International Motion Picture Almanac listed S. Freeman as the owner in its 1984 edition. I’ve got no clue who that was. In the 1986-88 editions, the owner was G. Howell. There was a George Howell in Elmira who was a civic-minded man and the top guy at F.M. Howell & Company, a huge employer in town, but that doesn’t match the next information nugget.

In 1988, the Star-Gazette said that Conrad and Linda Zurich (misspelled Zurick) had bought the drive-in in January 1985. That year it was renamed, at least in newspaper ads, as the Elmira Bargain Drive-In. It had to end its 1986 season early after an autumn fire damaged the building. Fire hit again just after the 1987 season, this time deliberately set a week after vandals smashed the drive-in’s electrical meters.

An August 1998 Star-Gazette article subtitled “Despite rundown appearance, Big Flats facility still draws the crowds” said the drive-in suffered from “badly peeling paint, broken neon lights, (and) overgrown vegetation”. Could that article have prompted the Zurichs to change managers? Dale and Karen Chapman took over the following season, starting by adding a second screen, dropping the “Bargain” from the name, and generally working to spruce up the place.

By 2008, Zurich Cinema was operating the drive-in, and they still do that today. The Elmira closed for the season after Columbus Day weekend, but it promises to reopen next spring.

The YouTube video of the day is a very short piece with a great look at the Elmira’s distinct roofed and pillared front, which looks about the same as when it opened. There’s also a bit of video from WETM, Elmira’s News Leader, about the drive-in’s digital projection system.

Miles Today / Total: 130 / 33870 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 182

Nearby Restaurant: Some folks like the Chicago-style deep dish pizza, others like the thin crust of the New York style. I like both, but while in NY state, I went with the closer inspiration served up at Vincenzo’s Pizzeria. I ordered a 16-inch Leonardo D’Vinci and a side salad to go so I could bring it up to my room, grab something to drink and chill out with a movie on TV.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Probably the nicest hotel in Elmira is the venerable Holiday Inn. My room overlooking the Chemung River was comfortable and had the full set of modern amenities. There’s a full restaurant and lounge on the property, and I got a voucher to use on breakfast. It was a nice experience, and the price was nice too.

Only in Elmira: The local newspaper, the Star-Gazette, has decades of issues available online (for a fee), providing a mountain of details for this post. What makes it more notable is that Frank Gannett bought a half-interest in the Star in 1906 and merged it the next year with the Gazette. The resulting Star-Gazette was the first newspaper of what would become the Gannett Company, publisher of USA Today.

Next stop: Garden Drive In, Hunlock Creek PA.

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