Oct. 30: Unadilla Drive-In, Unadilla NY

Unadilla Drive-In marquee and screen

Photo from the Unadilla Drive-In Facebook page

It’s Day 303 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. On the Monday before Halloween, nobody was going to be showing movies, so I might as well start checking in with more drive-ins that are closed for the season. On this day, that meant driving an hour and a half from the Circle Drive In Theatre in Dickson City PA to the Unadilla Drive-In in Unadilla NY, of course.

Like the Garden Drive In, which I visited four days earlier, the Unadilla is adjacent to the Susquehanna River to its south. This is where I like to list the full history of the drive-in, but the The Daily Star of Oneonta beat me to it in an article on May 22, 2016. According to the newspaper accounts of the day, two guys from Albany built the Unadilla – John Gardner, operator of the Turnpike Drive-In, and Al LaFamme, manager of the Strand Theater. The new drive-in opened on a Tuesday, May 29, 1956.

(An aside: The 1957 International Motion Picture Almanac said the owners were Gardner and “A. O. La Flamme”, with an L. I don’t think that’s a typo. There was definitely an Alcide LaFlamme who lived in Albany in May 1956 and was mentioned as living in Unadilla during 1961-67 at least. That seems like quite a coincidence in a town of fewer than 4000 residents. But newspaper articles about the drive-in consistently use LaFamme, so that’s how I’ll spell it for the rest of this post.)

The Daily Star quoted its Aug. 22, 1986 article when “Michael and Beatrice Chonka were determined to keep their drive-in open, as they had for the last 17 years.” That put the purchase date around 1969. But the Binghamton NY Press and Sun Bulletin wrote in August 1983 that Michael Chonka had “31 years in Unadilla – 15 years as owner”, which would make it 1968.

The 1986 Daily Star article mostly concurred, “Chonka, a Binghamton native, started in the business almost two decades ago when Al LaFamme, who built the Unadilla theater, asked him to come to work. … when LaFamme wanted to sell some time later, Chonka bought the theater.”

Michael Chonka passed away in August 1994, and the theater closed earlier than usual that season. Trevor Ladner and Thomas Owens bought the Unadilla from his widow and re-opened it in late May 1995.

A long story in the July 15, 2016 PressConnects.com is the best source after that. It said that “Unadilla’s current owners are Eric and Marcia Wilson, who bought the property in 2000”. The old wooden screen was blown down in a windstorm “three years ago” and was replaced by a steel screen. The Wilsons’ children work there now, and Rob Tracey is the general manager.

And that brings us to where we are today, with the Unadilla closed for the season.

Miles Today / Total: 92 / 34307 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 185

Nearby Restaurant: The humble Parkview Deli in Unadilla looks like a converted house, but the food is big on the inside. There’s a lot more than just deli food; I had the redneck burger with bacon and habanero salsa, plus a side of garbage fries topped with onions, olives, peppers, and lots of other stuff. It’s not hard to get full here.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotel to the Unadilla is the Super 8 in Sydney nine miles west. The price is so reasonable that I upgraded to a suite to get my favorite modern amenities in the room. The wifi was solid and the continental breakfast was the usual Super 8 quality. It’s nice to have such a decent hotel close by.

Only in Unadilla: The most famous athlete associated with Unadilla wasn’t human. Spectacular Bid, the winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, won over $2.7 million in his short career. He spent the last 12 years of his life in semi-retirement (still occasionally servicing mares) at Milfer Farms in Unadilla.

Next stop: Jericho Drive-in, Glenmont NY.

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