Project Drive-In roundup

I’ll admit it. I’ve been so overwhelmed by the local media coverage of Honda’s Project Drive-In that it’s been hard to write. On one hand, I don’t especially want you to vote for some Florida drive-in over one on Ohio or vice versa. Heck, I’ve even noticed that Honda has added at least a couple drive-ins (such as the Apache) that weren’t there when voting started.

There are only so many ways I can spin the local news when it says that nearby drive-in X needs to convert to digital projection, and its best / only hope is if it is one of the Project Drive-In winners. So I’m just going to gather them all a bunch of them in this list. There are probably lots of interesting, fresh details here and there about each drive-in, but I’m going to let you discover them. If you find something sufficiently cool, post a comment about it, will you please?

Your candidates, alphabetized by state:

Whew! That’s 20 theaters so far. I’ll see how many more I can round up for our next installment.

Horror convention boosts Midway Drive-In

Flashback Weekend, a horror convention in Chicago, has put together a great YouTube video to urge fans to vote for the Midway Drive-In and Diner in nearby Sterling. Robert Englund, George A. Romero, and Lance Henriksen reminisce about their drive-in experiences. Romero tells the story of how he saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time on a theater screen when he was with friends at a drive-in. “When we saw it on that screen, it was the first time that we realized that we actually made a movie.”

“Drive-ins were once the primary theatrical outlet for horror films, helping to build the careers of legendary directors,” the narrator reminds us. Glad to see some horror veterans who are eager to give back.

If you build it, someone may shut you down

IronCity_FacebookWe’ll get back to Project Drive-In stories soon, but now here’s something completely different. According to an Associated Press story in the Omaha World-Herald, a farmer near Schuyler NE built his own little drive-in for fun. Think Field of Dreams, except ozoner. Although it sounds like it might have belonged in the things that are not drive-ins category, this was Seth Mares’ third season running the Iron City Drive-In, which included a lighted marquee and a Facebook page, so it might have made the cut.

As you can tell by the past-tense verbs, Mares has shut down the Iron City, making it a moot question whether it was a real drive-in by our standards. According to a post this morning on that Facebook page, “Iron City drive-in will step back into obscurity. … (I)t and my family has gotten too much attention.”

Why shut down? I don’t know, and I don’t see any good way to contact Mares, but the AP story provides some clues. Mares caught the drive-in bug a few years ago after visiting the what was then the Starlite, now the TK Drive-In, in neighboring Neligh. Mares bought a projector from an eBay seller and started with a canvas screen. He no doubt invited his friends to join him whenever he wanted to show a movie.

From those humble beginnings, the Iron City grew. Mares used original drive-in speakers, a full outdoor sound system, and even an FM transmitter. He added a lighted sign board with movable letters, and as you can see from the Facebook photo above, he painted the side of his barn to enlarge the screen. Through it all, Mares never charged admission, never sold concessions, and never had a bathroom. (I hate when that happens.) But this one sentence from the AP story suggests the seeds of his downfall. “The original projector has been upgraded, and a wireless Internet connection allows Mares to play films using a laptop computer, smartphone or DVDs.”

If you ever read the fine print somewhere on that DVD case, you might read something about that it’s only for private use. If you watch it at home or with a few friends, no problem. Otherwise, as the Motion Picture Association of America puts it, suppose you took that DVD “and showed it to patrons at a club or bar that you happen to manage. In that case, you have infringed the copyright in the video work. Simply put, movies or TV shows obtained through a brick-and-mortar or online store are licensed for your private use; they are not licensed for exhibition to the public.”

Since the Omaha World-Herald ran this AP story today, it’s likely that another paper ran it over the past weekend. (Update: Aha! The original story appeared Aug. 14 in the Columbus Telegram.) When someone at a studio, or at the MPAA itself, read that the Iron City was going to have a Star Wars night and a later American Graffiti weekend, that might have prompted some pointed questions. Even when you don’t charge admission, you just can’t show movies that way without renting the public performance rights.

So Nebraska is back down to two active drive-ins; the other is the Sandhills in Alliance. The Iron City might have been a third, but now we’ll never know.

Kansas Star Vu hopes Honda will bring it back to life

Here’s a slightly different angle on Honda’s Project Drive-In promotion. Of the drive-in theaters on its ballot to receive a new digital projector, almost all of them are still operating. Here’s a story about the Star Vu (El Dorado KS), which pretty much closed last year but hopes to reopen if it can be one of Honda’s winners.

The report from KAKE, Wichita’s News Leader, says it all. The Star Vu folks report that fundraising has been slow, with only about $2000 contributed toward the conversion effort. The theater shows films once in a while on special benefit nights; I think they’d be smart to book more classic films to bring in more cash at the box office and concession stand, and to remind patrons what they’ll be missing if the Star Vu can’t turn the corner.

Of course, we love the opportunity to get more video of drive-ins are they are today, even when they’re sort of closed. KAKE’s article that accompanies the video report isn’t just a transcription, so you might want to go read it!

BusinessWeek features Mesa Drive-In

Exit sign from the Mesa Drive-In

Exit sign from the Mesa Drive-In. Photo by mrdrivein, from the Carload Flickr pool.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek picked up Honda’s Project Drive-In renovation story, and its article this week focused mainly on one of my favorites. The Mesa (Pueblo CO) serves hamburgers that could be the featured dish at any restaurant, and they keep a good selection of movies showing at a pretty good location on the east side of town.

The article is great, but it isn’t perfect. It implies that Chuck and Marianne James added a couple of new screens right after they bought the Mesa in 1993, but that didn’t happen until 2000, when they recycled the screens from two closed Colorado drive-ins – the Pines near Loveland and the Estes in Estes Park.

Under the James’ careful stewardship, the place has done really well. The article describes a scene from 1994 when “3,427 people showed up for a double feature of Jurassic Park and The Flintstones, hanging out car windows and climbing trees to get a good view. A traffic jam stretched two miles down Highway 50.” After the Pueblo police intervened, the Mesa restricted the number of cars to 750, for an attendance of about 1800.

As with so many other drive-ins, the Mesa is scrambling to pay for new digital projectors. Although they’ve been saving up for the purchase, the Jameses don’t yet have the $210,000 necessary to convert three screens. Chuck said he’s really hoping that winning a free projector from Honda will put a big dent in that figure, but even if he loses, he hopes to stay open next year. “We’ll take our good credit and equity to the bank and start begging for money,” he said. “Please give me a loan for a projector! I promise I’ll pay!”

For a broader background on the national plight of drive-ins and more about the Mesa, go read the article! (Update: The Apache in Globe AZ was added to the Project Drive-In list after this post.) By the way, I was a little surprised that the Mesa is the only one of only two contest entrants in the Carload coverage area of 16 or 17 drive-ins (depending on whether we can still count the burnt Sunset in Vernal UT). If you’re a Colorado drive-in fan, you might want to set yourself a daily reminder to vote for the Mesa. I want to eat those hamburgers for years to come.

Shankweiler’s gets some national attention

Shankweilers_URLOne of the great things about Honda’s Project Drive-In campaign has been the number of national media outlets that have picked up the story of the need to switch to digital projectors and how that affects the fragile economics of drive-in theaters. MSN was a recent example, running a short summary a couple of days ago. Almost hidden on that page is a link to a much longer sidebar article by Erik Sofge of MSN Autos. Sofge profiles Shankweiler’s (Orefield PA) and frames it as the perfect example of the whole history of drive-in theaters. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but Sofge is right.

I already knew that Shankweiler’s was America’s second drive-in theater, opening in April 1934. Its first screen was a sheet and two poles, showing a movie from a 16mm projector on a table, near a single large speaker for sound. It started small (that speaker only carried so far) and stayed small, with room for about 320 cars. The sound system improved, of course, with in-car speakers in the 1940s, then FM radio in 1986 “when co-owner Paul Geissinger built the first such broadcast unit for use in a drive-in.”

Meanwhile, the drive-in boom rolled across the country. Some 1950s and 60s drive-ins held 3000 cars. Then came the bust. “There were many times, even in the ’70s, when there more employees at the theater than customers,” Geissinger said. “That was the start of VCRs. And we couldn’t pay for new prints. We didn’t play ‘Star Wars’ until it had been out for a year.”

Sofge writes that the spread of indoor multiplex theaters helped the drive-ins hang on. The extra indoor theaters needed more prints, so there were more copies of second-run movies for drive-ins to book. Attendance stabilized.

Then came the need to switch to digital projection, which Geissinger installed after the end of the 2012 season. There are more great quotes about that, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. For more great anecdotes about America’s oldest surviving drive-in, plus a few photos, go read it!

Kansas City’s I-70 faces uncertain future

I-70 Drive-In Theater signThe Kansas City (MO) Business Journal ran a nice long article yesterday talking about the drive-in theater situation in the KC metropolitan area. Business is booming at all three surviving drive-ins, but two of them are facing the decision on whether to go digital or close when film runs out. Those two, Kansas City’s I-70 and the Twin in Independence MO, are both owned by Darryl Smith.

The article doesn’t mention this, but before Smith’s time, the I-70 was one of the first drive-ins to carve up its lot to add extra screens to give patrons more choices. Now they’re seeing the downside of having so many projectors; to replace the four at the I-70 plus the pair at the Twin will cost the better part of a half million dollars.

That decision would be easy if business was drying up, but instead, “July sales for the I-70 Drive-In were close to twice what they’d averaged over the last five years.” But will that be enough to cover such a huge expense? Smith is hoping that Honda’s Project Drive-In will tip the answer his way; the I-70 is one of the drive-ins competing for votes to win a new digital projector.

The KC Business Journal story included a fun side note about the Boulevard across the border in Kansas City KS. Not only was it an early converter to digital, the Boulevard claims to be the first drive-in to install a 4K projector. Since it was installed over a year ago, “attendance has shot through the roof, similar to the figures drive-in theaters reached in the 1960s. … The projector has more than paid for itself, even though the theater operates only Thursday through Sunday from April to October.” Let’s hope that Smith reads that part of the story and finds the cash to keep his drive-ins running for decades to come.

Hi-Way 50 to reopen next season

HiWay50_FacebookHere’s another sign of hope. Our last, brief mention of the Hi-Way 50 in Lewiston TN was that its owner had retired and shut down the place. Now comes word from the Marshall County Tribune that Steve and Danielle Wakham, residents of nearby Lewisburg, have purchased the Hi-Way 50 and plan to renovate it in time to open in 2014.

According to the Tribune, the Wakhams “plan to open with digital equipment from the start. Visitors to the drive-in can also expect to see new bathrooms, new paint, and a brand new menu.” The article also noted that the screen tower “is one of the few remaining screens that were typical in the early days of outdoor movie theaters.” You can see what they mean in the photo I’ve borrowed from the Hi-Way 50′s Facebook page. What do you call that style with the thick borders around the screen and support legs on either side?

And that Facebook page looks like it’s the place to go for Hi-Way 50 status updates. The first post after the sale offered a welcome dose of enthusiasm: “Hello everyone, we’re honored to be the new owners of the Drive in and keep an old tradition alive. The Douglas family has put countless hours over the last 20 years and if not for them it very well could have closed up like most of the others around. Thank you Douglas family!” Thank you Wakhams for keeping the Hi-Way 50 alive!

Great times at the Rodeo

rodeo_URLThere’s a type of newspaper article that I read all the time, often once per year per newspaper. It’s the fun summer article that says, in effect, “Hey, have you readers noticed that we still have a drive-in theater near here? I went, and it turns out that it’s lots of fun!” I suspect that they’re often written by summer interns, but you never know.

Of course, you already know about the unmatched experience that is a trip to the drive-in, but sometimes it can be fun to see how others discover it. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that you might be interested in the Central Kitsap (WA) Reporter’s story last week about the Rodeo Drive-In near Bremerton.

The best news is that the Rodeo has made the transition to digital, a $250,000 investment according to owner Jack Ondracek. “We’ve known this project was coming for 10 years,” he said. “We’ve been planning for this for a long time. We bought and paid for this with the support of our customers.”

There’s a lot of fun discussion with Ondracek and Rodeo patrons, so you really ought to go read it!

After you’re done with the article, head over to the Rodeo’s web site. It’s got some interesting regional history, lots of nice photos, and a great quote at the end of the All About Us page: “Drive-in theatres are special places, with a nostalgic atmosphere that can’t be found in an indoor theatre.”

The Tyler TX drive-in that no one talks about

There’s a drive-in east of Tyler TX that doesn’t seem to engender much civic pride. It’s one drive-in that doesn’t need to worry about converting to digital projection because it apparently dumped film a long time ago. I’ve never been there, but according to two reports, the Apache Drive-In now shows adult-rated movies, and business is pretty good. According to Google Maps, as of April 2013, the place looks pretty much the way it did when Captain Chicken and someone from filmmaker Lucid, Inc. visited, separately.

Captain Chicken, aka Terry Moore, runs (ran?) a Texas Drive-In page. His report from 2002 is the more extensive of the two, including more photos. He determined that the reason the image on the screen was so dim was that the movie was being delivered by a home theater-type projection system in a box a short distance from the large, damaged screen. That’s what he saw, and we’ll have to take his word for it. As he wrote, “The duty manager was less than cooperative. He refused to discuss the projection source. In fact, he was unwilling to discuss anything related to the theater.”

The page at Lucid, Inc. is undated, but first noticed it in 2012, so that’s likely to be the year it was written. It includes a few photos suggesting that the Apache didn’t change much for 10 years. The “bite” at the upper-right corner of the screen had widened, validating Captain Chicken’s theory that nearby trees had grown to knock down that piece. The projection box, entrance sign, and ticket booth looked pretty much the same as they had a decade earlier. And the folks there were just as uncooperative. “On the porch sits a husky, overall-clad man fiddling nervously with a large diamond stud in one ear,” the Lucid-eer wrote. “He has very little to say about who owns the still up and running XXX drive-in theater – except that she is a private person who is quite happy to remain unknown. ‘This is East Texas, honey. The big shiny buckle of the bible belt. Ain’t nobody gonna talk to you about what they do here.’ ”

I don’t know what else to say. The 1955 Theatre Catalog showed three drive-ins in Tyler, the Crest, Rose Garden, and Starlite, but it’s unclear if any were what would become the Apache. This spring, I had the opportunity to snap a picture of an allegedly similar drive-in near El Paso, but I routed my Arizona-New Mexico trip through Alamogordo NM instead. I’d rather see another family-oriented drive-in near Tyler, but if that’s what the locals want, I guess that’s their business. Still looks kinda creepy to me.