Dec. 8: Starlight Drive-In, Butler PA

It’s Day 342 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. The twisty, busy roads around here in western Pennsylvania aren’t made for speed; it took me almost an hour to drive the 35 miles from the Riverside Drive In Theatre in Vandergrift to the Starlight Drive-In northwest of Butler.

The Starlight spent most of its life as the Pioneer. Chester Demarsh opened the place in 1958, although his obituary said “After the war in 1947, he helped his dad convert part of the (family) farm into a drive-in movie theater.” I’m not sure whether that meant he did it a decade after he returned, or that he took a long time to build the Pioneer, or something else.

The Pioneer added two more screens between before 1993 (based on old aerial photos) and two more by 2006. Demarsh still owned the land when he passed away on Christmas 2012. Long before then, he’d given control of the Pioneer over to his business, Epic Theaters, eventually run by his sons.

The founder’s passing, and the need for digital projection equipment, caused some changes. In August 2014, one of Chester’s sons, Epic vice president Clint DeMarsh, told the Butler Eagle, “We’re not sure what will happen, but most likely the drive-in will open next year.” But it was an open question who would be running the place, since Epic had put the Pioneer up for sale.

Enter John and Beth Manson, who bought the drive-in, installed three digital projectors, performed other serious renovations, then reopened it as the Starlight. “We’d come here on a Friday or Saturday night,” John told KDKA, Pittsburgh’s News Leader. “…And we often would talk about what would we do differently if we owned it. Well, we own it now, and we implemented those changes.”

The renovated snack bar has a wider menu than in its Pioneer days, which is important since concessions account for most of a drive-in’s profits. They improved the rest rooms, and added some arcade games and a mini-golf course.

The most important part of the Starlight, for me on this night, is that they had a special Christmas drive-in weekend featuring The Polar Express and Elf. “Bundle up and Merry Christmas,” they wrote on their Facebook page. The special holiday menu included BBQ pork roll with homemade mac and cheese, rotini and homemade meat sauce, and lots of other hot comfort food. Which was a good thing, because the temperature during the movie was in the 20s.

The embedded video of the day is an episode of Faces and Places, thankfully available on YouTube.

When I started this odyssey over 11 months ago, my goal was 200 nights of watching a movie at a drive-in. This was the night I met that goal.

Miles Today / Total: 35 / 38849 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: The Polar Express / 200

Nearby Restaurant: I love getting more breakfast served to me for lunch, which is why I stopped in at Mac’s Route 8 Cafe. There’s nothing like huge pancakes on a cold day, especially with hot sausage and plenty of coffee to go with them. I barely had room left for dinner that night.

Where I Virtually Stayed: After a cold night at the drive-in, I was happy for the fire pit they had at the Hampton Inn in Butler. Meanwhile, everything else about the place was typically nice, including the coffee and cookies waiting for me at check-in. My room had the full set of modern amenities, and breakfast was the fine Hampton standard.

Only in Butler: Classic film fans might want to visit the Evans City Cemetery a few miles southwest of Butler. There aren’t any commemorative markers, but Roadside America assures us that this is where George Romero filmed the opening sequence of Night of The Living Dead.

Next stop: Hilltop Drive-In Theatre, Chester WV.

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