Dec. 4: The Bar-Ann Drive-In, Portage PA

It’s Day 338 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. There sure are a lot of drive-ins clustered close together in Pennsylvania, and that’s a good thing. On this day, it meant that my drive was less than a half hour from the Silver Drive In in Johnstown to The Bar-Ann Drive-In in Portage.

The Bar-Ann is a rare example of a drive-in where I know more about its early ownership history than more recent years. Part of that was the consistency of that early ownership. George Wasko owned and operated the Bar-Ann from its opening through 1994, the year before he passed away at the age of 82.

I’m not sure when the Bar-Ann opened. Wasko’s obituary said it was 1954, but a 1985 article in the Altoona Mirror said “Wasko has owned the Bar-Ann since its construction in 1955.” A 1991 article in the Mirror said that the idea for the theater “came to Wasko in 1955 after a vacation trip”.

The occasion of that June 1991 Mirror article was the happy reopening of the Bar-Ann after it had been closed for the 1988-1990 seasons while Wasko battled cancer. Reminiscing about the inspirational trip in 1955, he said “I had heard so much about this (outdoor theater stuff). We went up to Canada and saw it and we said, ‘This is it!’ And we opened a drive-in.”

Wasko picked a 13-acre wooded tract on a hill, built a 40×80-foot screen, cleared out nine acres of viewing space, and installed in-car speakers. He named the drive-in after his two daughters, Barbara and Peggy Ann.

When Wasko had recovered from his cancer scare, the townspeople of Portage urged him to reopen the Bar-Ann, so that’s what he did. At the time he had planned to run it for two more seasons.

There followed a couple of decades where I’m not sure what happened. In 2013, the Bar-Ann advertised in the Mirror to drum up votes for Honda’s Project: Drive-In. Owner Don Gawel told The Tribune-Democrat, “I’m just doing what I have to do to keep our little piece of history alive here. We don’t have much of a choice.”

The Bar-Ann got in the middle of a spat the following winter about its sign which happened to be in the middle of an alleyway. The Portage Township supervisors noticed that it was a liability to have the sign where it had stood for 58 years and sued the owners to get it removed. A Change.org petition with over 3000 supporters laid out the drive-in’s perspective. Fortunately, the supervisors came to an agreement in April 2014 with the drive-in, as reported in the Mirror, to move the sign to the side of the alley and to provide sufficient liability insurance to cover it. Once that issue was cleared up, the Bar-Ann converted to digital projection, and it’s been going strong ever since.

The embedded YouTube video of the day comes from WJAC, Johnstown’s News Leader, quickly showing off that new digital projector.

The drive-in had closed for the season after Labor Day weekend this year. I’m glad it will be back in the spring.

Miles Today / Total: 17 / 38732 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 199

Nearby Restaurant: Half-hidden in an alleyway is some fine Italian cuisine. Nonna T’s Cucina serves up plenty of pizza, but there’s a lot more in its little restaurant. I had the chicken parmigiana with a salad and garlic rolls. I love garlic rolls.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Google said that some of the closest hotels to the Bar-Ann were back in Johnstown, which meant that I went back to the Hampton Inn for the pleasure of two nights in the same hotel. There were still plenty of cookies and coffee available at check-in. My comfortable room had all the modern amenities. And breakfast was the Hampton standard with plenty of hot protein choices to keep me going on increasingly cool mornings.

Only in Portage: Just five miles northeast in Lilly, there’s a monument to the night of April 5, 1924 when Lilly’s residents repelled 400 armed KKK marchers. As reported by the Discovery PA blog, “Armed with few firearms and fire hoses the townspeople rioted against the Klansmen being in their home and successfully drove them out. … The story made national headlines about how the small town stood up and took action against them.”

Next stop: Carrolltown Hi-Way Drive In, Carrolltown PA.

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