Drive-In survival: A tale of two Starlites

Here’s a depressing story about the Starlite Drive-In (Mitchell SD) which we’ve discussed previously. According to the Argus Leader and the theater’s web site, the Starlite will close “forever” after the last show this Saturday, September 21. You know, it takes optimism and an overwhelming dedication to survival to invest in digital projection equipment for a seasonal business with modest profits. I don’t think this Starlite’s owner wanted to take on that huge debt just to keep it alive. That’s his business, and he’s not alone, but it’s still darned sad to us drive-in fans.

It was so sad that I just had to find something else for balance. Let’s shift our gaze to a different Starlite Drive-In, almost due east from Mitchell to Grand Bend, Lambton Shores, where that little Ontario peninsula reaches down from the rest of Canada. The Starlite Drive-In there is excited about reopening next May with new digital equipment. The Sarnia Observer tells us that owner Allan Barnes will stay open through October using the old film projectors. “I’m pretty much the last hold out on film, which probably annoyed the customers a couple of nights ago when the film broke,” he said.

Barnes told the Observer that he didn’t think customers would notice the difference next year, but I disagree. From my experience, digital projection has noticeably brighter colors and sharper details, especially in the corners. I’ll bet that Barnes will discover this for himself next spring. But according to the Observer, “He even plans on keeping his old projection equipment so he can keep showing the drive-in’s collection of film shorts and cartoons that he jokes, ‘we abuse, or entertain, our customers with every night.'” That’s a great reason for keeping the old equipment around even while doing what needs to be done to keep a decades-old institution alive.

99W takes the fifth Honda projector

The 99W Drive-In (Newberg OR) is the fifth but not final winner of Honda’s Project Drive-In. As I predicted, Honda has reopened voting and will award four more digital projectors. According to the Project Drive-In site, voting will continue until Saturday, and the next four winners will be announced September 23.

Meanwhile, Portland’s news leader KATU picked up the 99W’s success story. It quoted co-owner Camille Francis’s reaction. “We are so happy,” she said. “We are putting it up on our marquee, people are cheering – it’s just really awesome.”

The 99W, which opened in 1953, is the only West Coast drive-in to win so far. “When the first winner was announced, they had 30,000 Facebook fans and we only have 7,000,” Francis said. “And we were watching every day and watching the winners. And we thought only East Coast drive-ins would win.”

There are a few nice photos and more details in the KATU story, so you really should go read it. And you can watch the pre-award video, embedded above, from KGW, Portland’s other news leader. And when you’re done with all that, go vote again. Let’s keep more drive-ins alive.

McHenry Outdoor Theatre is a winner

photo courtesy American Honda Motor Co.

photo courtesy American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

The McHenry Outdoor Theatre (McHenry IL) is the fourth winner of a digital projector from Honda’s Project Drive-In. And today’s winner, owner Scott Dehn, has a pleasant problem – what to do with the money he’d already saved up through fundraisers.

On the McHenry’s Facebook page, Dehn wrote, “for those of you who have donated money, I am happy to tell you that not only will it help cover the installation and retrofitting of our projection booth, but the money will also help to make much needed repairs to the location. We will be painting the screen, fixing speakers and even make the route 120 sign look nice. We will be doing so much here over the next few months. You will not recognize your rejuvenated theater come next spring. I want this to continue to build upon this theater we all have loudly stated we love so much.”

Sounds like Honda was just a little cruel in the way it delivered its generous news to Dehn. First, his long Facebook post from two days ago showed that he still didn’t know about it. “First, all hope is not lost if we do not win a free projector,” he wrote. “Project Drive-In was just a fantastic opportunity to get the neccesary and expensive digital equipment for FREE. If we are not among the winners, I have a multitude of avenues to explore. I will NOT let the theater close. We WILL survive. The question is only in what capacity.” Today, according to a story in the Northwest Herald, Dehn “was in the middle of an on-camera interview with a crew he’d been told was from a film-related website.” The last interview question was “How does it feel to win a digital projector?” and only then did the crew reveal that it was from Honda.

There’s only one empty place left on the Project Drive-In page. Check tomorrow to find out who it’ll be.

Graham is third winner from Project Drive-In

The Graham Drive-In (Graham TX) was announced today as the third winner in Honda’s Project Drive-In. By finishing among the top five candidates as voted on by Project Drive-In visitors, the Graham will receive a digital projector to help keep the drive-in experience alive.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram picked up the story, saying that the Graham’s spirited social media presence (such as its Facebook page) helped drive enough voters to the online polls. On that page, the winners posted, “THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! WE COULD NOT HAVE IT DONE WITHOUT EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU!” Personally, I think the “Zombie-free” YouTube video got a lot of people’s attention.

Other news outlets that picked up the story included the Graham Leader, Wichita Falls’s news leader KFDX, and for some reason, the Rock Hill SC Herald. The Leader pointed out that other Texas drive-ins still in the running included “The Brazos, in Granbury, and Sky-Vue Drive-In, in Lamesa.” Over the next couple of days, we’ll see who else wins.

Cherry Bowl wins Project Drive-In’s second projector

Cherry Bowl Drive-In marquee showing Thank You

photo courtesy of PRNewsFoto / American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

The Cherry Bowl Drive-In (Honor MI) is today’s winner of Honda’s Project Drive-In. “Thank you to everyone who voted, and voted, and voted!” said the Cherry Bowl’s web site today. “Without you this would never have been possible.”

WPBN, Traverse City’s news leader, picked up the story, noting that “A Benzie County landmark will stay open thanks to hundreds of its fans.” In an earlier WPBN story, Cherry Bowl owner Laura Clark said, ”This 35mm film, 120-year-old technology is going to be going away by the end of the year. Without this film, these projectors – everything in this room – is obsolete.”

Honda had filmed some of its Project Drive-In online commercials at the Cherry Bowl, one of only a few places that Honda visited before the contest. That exposure, plus a story in the Detroit News, might have driven enough voters to support the Cherry Bowl as it continues forward entertaining its fans for years to come.

Saco is Project Drive-In’s first winner

Saco Drive-In screen at twilight, showing a movie

photo by ignote

As Honda put it in today’s press release, Saco Drive-In (Saco ME) has become the first of five drive-in theaters no longer in jeopardy of closing its doors thanks to Honda’s Project Drive-In. With the end of 35-mm film distribution this year, and the costly switch to digital projection nearing, Honda created Project Drive-In as a national effort to save as many of America’s remaining drive-ins as possible. Honda, which said it received over two million votes, is announcing the winners one day at a time.

The Saco Facebook page is a hub of celebration today. Its manager posted, “I have finally stopped crying! I could not believe it! To think 3 months ago we were sitting around a table talking about how we were going to do this and being so discouraged that there was just literally no way to save it, and then comes this project and your support and your dedication is the reason why we won! Without all of you I can promise this never would have happened. Your energy is what kept me going night after night for the last 30 days with maybe 2hrs of sleep a night you helped push me through it to make sure everyone knew about this project!”

The Portland Press-Herald also picked up the story and added a bit of history. “This year marks the 74th season for the Saco Drive-In, which was originally called the Motor-In Theatre when it was opened in 1939 by Italian immigrant Eugene V. Boragine. It is the second-oldest drive-in theater in the country.” That’s second-oldest still in operation; at least a dozen others opened before the Saco. But I digress.

The Saco is throwing a special celebration party tonight at 6. And Honda adds that “following the September 21 Los Angeles premiere of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, all drive-ins receiving digital projectors, care of Honda’s Project Drive-In, will have the opportunity to screen the highly-anticipated film before its wide release date.” It’s like winning a new car and getting a really great air freshener too. We’ll keep track of the other four winners in the days to come.

Watch the Kenwood Drive-In screen come down


The good news is that the screen from the Kenwood Drive-In (Louisville KY) is in good shape and will be recycled at the Georgetown Drive-In, just across the river in Georgetown IN. The bad news is that it had to come down, because the Kenwood, dormant since 2009, is now thoroughly closed.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville recorded the screen’s final day with an article and the video embedded above. According to the Courier-Journal, the screen’s rusted bolts slowed workers’ efforts to remove it. “After hours cutting at the base of the screen with a torch, the final bolt was cut and without much warning, the screen crashed to the ground.”

WAVE, Louisville’s news leader, also chimed in with a bit of video and a short story. Both sources say the screen was cut into pieces for shipment to the Georgetown, where it will stay in storage as a reserve screen. I hate to see a drive-in die, but it’s always good when its pieces live on somewhere else.

Meadow Bridge Drive-In keeps its locals together

Meadow Bridge Drive-In marquee

Photo by neshachan. Used by permission.

With all the talk about drive-ins in trouble, we need a positive, uplifting article about a drive-in. The Register-Herald of Beckley WV has come to our rescue with a fine, lengthy story about the Meadow Bridge Drive-In (Meadow Bridge WV). On a summer night, the Meadow Bridge is the only local source of dining and entertainment, and the community gathers there for a good time. “It’s like a picnic at night. And it’s a tradition,” says owner Howard McClanahan.

The Meadow Bridge was built in 1953 by a local guy. Eventually, Thomas Theaters ran it, and years later “(w)ord on the street was that the theater was going to turn X-rated because its screen faced away from the road.” That’s when McClanahan, then a projectionist, bought the place.

There are no worries about the digital conversion here. McClanahan already bought his digital projector, which cost more than he spent to buy the Meadow Bridge in the first place, and he’s happy with the results.

There is so much more to this article, including lots of photos with lengthy captions, happy anecdotes of pizza and other community attractions, and a long, lingering warm feeling in general. You just know that you should go read it!

Twin-City Drive-In plans to “close or sell”

Twin City drive-in photo from 1952As we near the end of the voting for Honda’s Project Drive-In, it’s sobering to remember what could happen to the drive-ins that don’t finish among the winners. The Johnson City (TN) Press reported that the Twin City Drive-In of nearby Bristol may close for good unless its owner can find someone willing to buy the place and install a digital projector.

The Bristol News also ran a story on the Twin City, which sits near Bristol Motor Speedway. The News wrote that the Twin City’s marquee “recently showed a ‘For Sale’ sign posted during race week to see if there was any interest in the theater, priced at $4.5 million.” (No one bought it at that price.) According to that article, the drive-in’s yearly property tax bill had risen from $4,000 to $20,000 because of business attracted by the race track.

The Press article quoted Twin City owner Danny Warden as saying, “We’re going to show through this year, and unless something changes, that might be it. You never know, though, we’ve had a couple of people who say they might be interested in buying it. If someone buys it and switches to digital, then it will stay open.”

That price tag looks a little steep to me, but I sure hope someone finds a way to buy this reportedly profitable drive-in and bring it into the digital age.

Project Drive-In roundup 3: Dark of the screen


I warned you that it might come to this. With less than a week left in Honda’s Project Drive-In voting period, I’ve found media reports about a few more of the candidates.

Here’s something confusing: Some of those media reports only partially duplicate other reports. That is, if a new story lists drive-ins A, B, and C, but a story from one of my first two round-ups already mentioned A and C, then I’ve added B as a new candidate in this third round-up. If you click through to the story, it’ll mention all three, but we know that B is the only one that’s new to this list. Okay?

With that in mind, let’s go through a few more:

And that should hold us on Project Drive-In news until they start talking about winners. Wouldn’t it be nice if Honda chose more than five?