Brazos faces uncertain future


WFAA, Dallas's news leader, provided an excellent report about the funding problems of the Brazos Drive-In in Granbury TX. Not only did WFAA give us this embedded video, the web page with the story also includes some great photos and even linked to the Brazos web site, something that surprisingly few news story pages bother to do. Good job!

According to Brazos owner Jennifer Miller, converting to a digital projection system could cost as much as $100,000. Miller and Brazos manager Brenda Stewart have "teamed up to save the cinema," WFAA says, though it's hard to tell exactly what they're doing to raise money.

The story also says that no matter what happens, the screen and concession building will remain because they "are considered historical." As Miller put it, "It will look like a drive-in, but there may be 1,000 apartments in the parking lot.”

For the full story and those photos, go check out the story at the WFAA site. I also found another Brazos story from July 2012 by a different WFAA reporter but hosted by KHOU, Houston's news leader. You might want to go watch that one too.

Blue Grass Drive-In gets okay to build

It’s been a long time since we wrote about Randy Lorenz, who wants to build a drive-in theater in Blue Grass IA. Back in January, I thought that his ideas sounded nebulous and speculative. Shows what I know. This week, the Blue Grass city council unanimously approved the drive-in, and Lorenz hopes to open it in April 2014.

According to Quad-Cities Online, Lorenz plans to start with two screens with the possibility of expanding to four. The site will include a play area for children and eventually mini-golf. ”We have been working on this for six years. We are happy they’ve finally found a home for us,” he said.

There’s also more on the story from WHBF, the Quad Cities’ news leader. In the Worldnow-hosted video delicately embedded here, Lorenz talks about letting patrons text in their concession stand orders. You’ll also get to see glimpses of the drive-in’s layout and map, plus a look at the simple farmland it is now.

For the drive-ins that can swing the digital conversion, a boom time is coming soon. Looks like the Blue Grass is going to be another example on that leading edge.

Two NY drive-ins face uncertain off-season

photo by arwcheek, used by permission

photo by arwcheek, used by permission

The Daily Mail of Hudson NY recently ran a lengthy, thoughtful article profiling its two nearby drive-in theaters. The Hi-Way (Coxsackie) and Greenville (Greenville) were candidates in Honda’s Project Drive-In, and they were among the over 100 drive-ins that failed to win a free digital projector. Both owners sound ambivalently positive about their prospects for reopening next spring.

Roger Babcock, owner of the Hi-Way, is looking at spending $300,000 to convert his four-screen drive-in to digital. He told The Daily Mail that his bank has approved a loan for that amount, but he hasn’t decided whether to go through with it. Part of the question is when film will no longer be available, really. Babcock said that Fox once announced it wouldn’t produce 35mm copies of its films after September 2012. “And yet I played an awful lot of Fox films this year in 35mm,” he said. “So even though they’re giving us deadlines, they’re not holding to them. A lot of drive-ins are going to hold right out to the absolute end.”

Ed Spannagel, operator of the Greenville, only has one screen and hopes to raise $80,000 for conversion. He’s got also got a Plan B that matches an idea I had – stay with film. “The good news is those 35mm films are still there,” Spannagel said. “So as long as we’re still able to get access to them, technically speaking, we could still run older films next year once 35 is done being produced.”

But a different drive-in operator once told me that this idea of Spannagel’s and mine won’t necessarily work. There aren’t that many film copies of older movies, and the studios aren’t going to make new prints. Each showing of a film is a slightly destructive process, which I used to appreciate when I’d see the accumulated dirt and scratches on a months-old print at a second-run theater. Finally, there’s a question whether the studios are going to be willing to set a fair price on the license to show that movie. So I hope that Spannagel is right, but I’m no longer so optimistic about that particular Plan B.

Anyway, there’s a whole lot more detail and interesting quotes in The Daily Mail’s article, so you really ought to go read it!

Tiny drive-in scores a digital projector

Link to video about Australia's Jericho Drive-InHere’s a wonderful little story from ABC, the Australian Broadcast Corporation. The tiny Queensland town of Jericho (population 370) has an even tinier drive-in (36 cars), which has stayed in operation since 1969. Like drive-ins everywhere, it needed to upgrade to a digital projection system to continue showing Hollywood’s finest films. Unlike most other drive-ins, the Jericho got its town council and state government to chip in, and it’s doing great with the new equipment.

I just love what Queensland Minister for Local Government David Crisafulli said about the importance of keeping the drive-in alive. “It stacks up not just from a tourism point of view to have something like this in western Queensland,” Crisafulli said, “but for what it does for the social infrastructure of this town. It’s a point of difference. Not only can they market that to their economic advantage, but also they can proudly say they’re a town where people still matter.”

The only downside of the ABC’s video report is that I can’t embed it here. To see what a tiny Australian drive-in looks like, you’ll have to give it a click!

First and last Wyoming drive-in endures

Snack bar at the American Dream Drive-InThe Los Angeles Times gave us quite a gift this week with its profile of the American Dream Drive-In of Powell WY. There’s a great video (too bad I can’t embed it here) plus a lengthy story of the history of the American Dream, which opened in 1949 as Wyoming’s first drive-in theater and is now the state’s last one in operation. There’s also a good slide show on the side, although most of those photos show up in the video.

The article profiles Pokey Heny, the owner of the American Dream. Earlier this year, Heny faced the same decision that so many drive-in owners had to make – whether to buy digital projection equipment or close down. According to the Times, “The digital projector cost $80,000, what she paid for the place in 2004, but against her husband’s advice, she borrowed the money this year and took the plunge.”

“I’m investing in the town’s future,” Heny said. “So many businesses have closed, the bowling alley and video store. If I let this one go, it wasn’t ever coming back.”

You really need to read the article to get the full history of the place, from it’s beginnings as Paul’s Drive-In, then the Vali Drive-In, and now the American Dream, a name Heny chose when she bought it. ”It really is the American dream to be your own boss,” she said. “And there aren’t that many female small-business owners in Wyoming.” So you know what to do. Go read it!

Grand opening photo takes us back to 1950

Cars facing a narrow drive-in screen at the Meadow Lark Drive-In in 1952.

The Meadow Lark Drive-In (Wichita KS) in 1952.

Over in The News-Herald of Southgate MI, guest writer Wallace Hayden starts with the 1950 grand opening photo of the Fort Drive-In in nearby Wyandotte. Then Hayden, the historical librarian at the Bacon Memorial District Library, weaves a thorough, interesting tale of the Fort in particular and drive-ins in general.

(You’ll have to click the link to see that photo along with Hayden’s great story. I didn’t have any other photos of the Fort available, so I used the opportunity as an excuse to share another great photo from the 1952 Theatre Catalog. This one is from the Meadow Lark Drive-In (Wichita KS), which might have been the first to convert from a single screen to two of them. Don’t you just love that narrow screen? But I digress.)

Hayden provides a lot of great background information for his story. “Today this is the site of the Meijer’s store in Southgate,” he wrote. “However, at that time the area was mostly open land in Ecorse Township that was experiencing rapid development. In the years from 1946 to 1950, more than 2,000 homes were built in the township.”

He continues by painting a full picture of the drive-in experience back then, with its gravel lot, teenagers in the trunk sneaking in for free, and indoor booths at the concession stand. Hayden even adds an interesting historical footnote. “In 1951, the Fort received national attention when Boxoffice magazine cited it as an example of a drive-in showing adult material.”

Aha! I wonder if Hayden has the original source material, a really good memory, or the same Drive-in Theaters book that I do. According to author Kerry Segrave, in fall 1951, a Boxoffice writer found this ad in the Detroit Times: “Fort Drive-In – Three adult hits … The Burning Question, Guilty Parents, and How to Take a Bath. … Exposing the stark naked facts of life!” Most folks now know that first movie as Reefer Madness, and the other two were similarly “shocking” pseudo-educational short films made in the 1930s.

Not only does Hayden do a great job of telling us the story of the Fort and other nearby drive-ins, he sticks the landing. “Like the favorite doll or toy truck from childhood, most of these roadside attractions vanished unnoticed while their clientele grew older and concerned themselves with other interests. But, like those things of childhood, drive-ins still live on in memory.” For much, much more of this great writing plus that grand opening photo, you already know that you need to go read it!

Need a good site for a new drive-in?


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Every once in a while, someone asks me where they could build a new drive-in. In the olden days, the answer was pretty simple: On the highway out of town, just past the city limits. Now it’s more complicated. Here is my list of the factors when evaluating a new drive-in site:

  • Are there people around? Farmland in the middle of nowhere is cheap, but there probably aren’t enough customers willing to drive far enough to watch a movie, then drive all the way home.
  • Is civilization expanding in the site’s direction? If rings of suburbs are spreading thataway, then it might not be many years before the taxable land value will skyrocket, leaving the choice of extra overhead or selling out.
  • Are utilities available? The site needs to be close enough to water and electricity to hook up without too much extra expense.

Add these up, and you’ll see that the ideal site is close to a decent population center, but on a parcel that would be difficult to develop into anything else. I happen to have a pretty good example, 2175 River Road, Grand Junction CO. Take a look. It’s right next to major highways. It’s within the city limits. It’s bounded by the interstate highway and a wastewater treatment plant. (Hope the evening breezes are okay.) Grand Junction is large enough to support a minor-league baseball team, but its closest drive-in is 46 miles away in Delta.

Apparently, this plot is currently being used as storage by a company that sells trailers, mainly horse trailers. I have no idea who owns it, whether they’d be willing to sell or lease it, and even whether there are any utilities already serving that drive-in-shaped piece of land. But you’ve got to admit, it’s a fine example.

Now it’s your turn. You know your region better than I do. Look over a map and find something similar – a piece of land big enough for a drive-in, close enough for patrons and utilities, but homely enough for other builders to leave it alone. When you spot a good one, either start building or leave a comment here so we can all look it over. Maybe one of us can plant the seed that will sprout into a new drive-in theater.

Enjoy Sarasota FL’s drive-in history

Old photo of Trail Drive-In Theatre screen

Photo from the Sarasota Department of Historical Resources, via the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Jeff Lahurd gave us all a present in the Sunday edition of the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune. Lahurd outlined what might be the full history of the five drive-in theaters in Sarasota and the three in nearby Bradenton.

Although the article often veers into explanations for those poor souls who have never experienced a drive-in, it contains a lot of great information. For example, the Trail Drive-In “served fried shrimp and chicken dinners, pizza and sandwiches, while the Siesta had a cafeteria styled restaurant and a snack bar ‘to keep you wonderfully refreshed.’”

Hugh Thomas, owner of the Trail and the Siesta, prided himself on keeping his theaters modern, clean, and inviting to families. He claimed that each of his projectors cost $14,000 and were “precision-made, like watches”.

According to Lahurd, the Bee Ridge was the last drive-in to open in Sarasota, in 1969. “To maintain the comfort factor, the theater offered individual (air conditioning) units, with the added benefit that it kept the mosquitoes out — mostly,” he wrote. I wonder how car-unit air conditioners worked.

One thing that Lahurd didn’t mention is that Sarasota residents can still visit the four-screen Fun Lan Drive-In about an hour’s drive away in Tampa. Anyway, I hope you’ve figured out by now that to experience all this fun nostalgia and a few nice photos, you really ought to go read it!

One-car crash damages Transit marquee

Wrecked marquee of the Transit Drive-InSee what happens when you book Gremlins! According to a very brief story in The Buffalo (NY) News, a car drove into a utility pole next to the marquee for the Transit Drive-In in nearby South Lockport, burst into flames and severely damaged the marquee. The News said that no one was injured and the cause is being investigated.

The Transit’s Facebook page has a lot more information on the event, including several before and after photos. The scene after the accident, which I borrowed for this post, looked dire. (The full-size photo looks even better; you ought to see the original on that Facebook page.)

The Transit’s posts reflect the optimistic, can-do spirit that is the hallmark of successful drive-in owners. The first post after hearing about the accident ended with, “Oh well, we’ve been wanting to update that old sign for a long time, anyway.” After arriving on the scene and taking that great photo, a second post said the marquee would probably need to be replaced. Then last night, a new post with a partially restored marquee announced “It’s just a flesh wound!” Looks pretty good!

The Transit’s most recent Facebook post at this writing includes a vintage color photo and reads, “This is one of my favorite pictures of the sun setting behind the original 1952 marquee, taken in August of 2007. The red entrance sign was also demolished, as the vehicle went over that first, before crashing into the utility pole and our marquee.” That’s a lot more coverage than The Buffalo News gave us. For a better look at some great photos, you really should check out the Transit’s Facebook page!