Tyler drive-in asks for conversion help

According to KLTV, Tyler TX’s news leader, the Sky Vue Drive-In there is asking for help in converting from its vintage film projector to new digital equipment. Skyvue is offering future advertising space and long-term passes to earn the remaining $64,000 it needs for the conversion. Ominously, the Sky Vue’s web page features a clock counting down to August 31.

As you’ll see in the embedded video, the Phillips family opened the Sky Vue in 2006. “My husband’s the guy in the ticket booth, my son does the projection, Tracey does the cash register, and I’m back in the kitchen making pizza,” said Rhonda Phillips, one of the owners.

As KLTV’s Summer Dashe put it, the conversion process would mean the drive-in’s “five foot tall film player will be replaced by a server about the size of a small box.” I’d never heard it described that way, but it makes perfect sense. Servers are the size of a small box, as long as your idea of a small box matches the size of a server. And coining the term “film player” is a great advancement; I hope they also call pay phones “standup corded money phones” in Tyler.

One interesting part of the story is what KLTV didn’t mention: Tyler has a second drive-in. That drive-in stopped using film a long time ago, and it’s unlikely to ask the community for help. I’ll tell you the story of that second Tyler drive-in tomorrow.

Honda to spend a month promoting drive-ins

What does Honda have in common with drive-ins? Until recently, I’d say the closest link was The Beach Boys’ 1964 album All Summer Long, which included the songs Little Honda and Drive-In. The former was an international hit, and I often hear the latter at drive-in theaters. In fact, I’d say that Drive-In is probably the best drive-in celebration song of all time. But I digress.

Almost 50 years later, Honda is about to give us a much better reason to connect it with drive-in theaters. This Friday, Honda will launch Project Drive-In, a month-long effort to raise awareness of the wonderful, fragile state of drive-ins today. The best part is that Honda will effectively rescue five drive-ins from oblivion, paying for new digital projection equipment. And you get to pick which drive-ins get saved.

According to Jessica Fini of Honda Public Relations, visitors to Project Drive-In will be able to cast their votes for their favorite drive-in out of a list of over 50 that need help. Some of those drive-ins were chosen by Honda, and others were added after they heard about the promotion and asked to be included. Voting will run through September 9, and a couple of weeks later, Honda will present checks or equipment to the five winners.

Fini said that she hopes that raising general awareness about the drive-ins in need might even help the theaters that don’t finish in the top five. And why is Honda so interested? “A lot of people have an emotional attachment to drive-ins,” Fini said. “We started hearing about all the drive-ins that are in trouble. It’s just a natural connection for us to raise this effort further through a social media promotion.”

As the Maine Sun Chronicle reported recently, Honda has been busy filming some videos to run in conjunction with this promotion. Fini told me that they won’t be used as TV ads (darn!) but will be featured on the Project Drive-In site. So spread the word, and get ready to vote early and often to keep your favorite drive-in alive.

A look back at the Sunrise

I just wanted to add a quick note to make sure you get a chance to read Ron Marzlock’s little Queens Chronicle history of the Sunrise “open-air automobile movie theater” in Valley Stream NY, near Queens. There are a lot of fun details and a old-time photo of the first drive-in in New York State and the 15th in the United States.

The Sunrise opened in 1938 and closed in 1978, soon replaced by the Sunrise Multiplex Cinemas. The detail I hadn’t heard of before was that “some teens fell asleep with the engine running and fumes leaking into their cars, killing them.” Yow, I won’t be able to listen to Wake Up Little Susie the same way again! Anyway, I’m not even going to bother with a photo here, you should simply go read it!

Last North Dakota drive-in screen bites the dust

Old Lake Shore Drive-In marquee

2011 photo by Robby Virus, used by permission

You might want to skip this post if you’re squeamish or easily saddened. The Williston (ND) Herald reported this week that redevelopment workers tore down the screen for the Lake Park Drive-In Theater, which closed there last year. Its superintendent said that the wreckage would be recycled, but I’m guessing that means chipping the wood instead of finding a new home for the screen.

If you want a happier memory, check the Bismarck Tribune’s 2010 tribute to the Lake Park. It spends an appropriate amount of space discussing rumors of the Lake Park’s closure and how the theater had changed since its owners bought the place in 1995. Former owner Jim Snyder told the Tribune that business at the Lake Park started slowing down in the 1990s. Hmm, most places saw big attendance drops before then.

Anyway, if you want a slender ray of good news, the Lake Park’s merry-go-round and swing set “are going to be restored and given to a local family.” For a few more details, plus a photo of the screen’s final hour on earth, go read it.

Northfield announces its plans tomorrow

Northfield Drive-In TheaterThe Recorder of Greenfield MA ran an article and an editorial this week about the Northfield Drive-In, just barely across the border from Northfield MA in Hinsdale NH. This Saturday, on the Northfield’s 65th birthday, owner Mitchell Shakour plans to announce whether he’ll invest in digital projection equipment and all of the updates it wil require. For the drive-in, it could be a matter of life and death.

Shakour, who has run the theater with his wife since 1978, told The Recorder that he didn’t know what his decision would be. “Were looking at it seriously,” Shakour said. He has visited similar, eponymous drive-ins in Mendon MA and Milford NH, and he planned to visit the Hollywood Drive-in near Troy NY on Thursday. “The trip to Troy should be the final straw,” he said.

Meanwhile, kudos to The Recorder for stepping up with an editorial in favor of the Northfield’s survival. Shakour had said that we was uncomfortable accepting donations, but The Recorder suggested a Kickstarter campaign. It also suggested that patrons could visit the Northfield’s Facebook page to let the owners know how they feel about the drive-in. The editorial concluded, “Let them know that they want the Northfield Drive-In to be back for many summers to come, and would be willing to kick-start that effort.”

For much more on the history of the Northfield, and to learn which way Shakour said he’s leaning, go read it!

Blue Starlite concept about to spead

A few months ago, I had to admit that I wasn’t sure whether the Blue Starlite in Austin TX is a real drive-in. I’m still sure that “drive-in nights” in the park with temporary screens and no cars definitely aren’t drive-ins. The Blue Starlite’s screen still looks pretty temporary, but they play movies every week in season and folks really drive in to watch them, so I guess I’ll have to say that it qualifies.

Which is important, because now there’s a report that the Blue Starlite’s founder, Josh Frank, has moved to Miami and plans to start another “mini urban drive-in” there. The Miami New Times has the story of what Frank did in Austin and what he hopes to do in Miami. I hadn’t realized that he bought real drive-in speakers and restored them to use at the Blue Starlite. Cool!

This is a very intimate experience,” Frank explained to the New Times. “Having a drive-in that catered to so few people, where each car feels like it’s their night, that was a big lightbulb.”

There’s no opening date yet, but Frank said he wanted it ready by October. He’s hoping for a location in the Wynwood Art District, but hasn’t zeroed in on any one in particular. For more details if and when they arrive, check out the Blue Starlite Miami web site. For much more story about Frank’s reasons for spreading his vision to Miami, go read it!

Weirs’ projectionist keeps it running

Weirs Drive-In TheaterIt’s a little unusual for a newspaper’s article about a drive-in to feature just one person. But that’s what happened this week when the Concord (NH) Monitor gave us a look at what it’s like to be a projectionist for a night. The place was Weirs Drive-In in nearby Laconia, and the projectionist is Paul Rouillard.

The article starts with Rouillard watching a particular light on a pole behind one of the Weirs’ four screens. “When that light gets wicked bright, I can reflect the picture,” he said, adding that he has to disregard patrons’ pleadings to start early. “I gotta wait, and as soon as that light goes on, I start the first movie.”

And then we’re off, following Rouillard as he managed the four projectors and huge platters of film. That’s not all he does; the article says that “He readies the concession stand area, performs maintenance on anything that breaks and assists with directing cars to the screen of their choice.” And besides all that, he’ll also jump-start your car after the show, according to the Weirs’ FAQ page.

For the rest of the story, we’re treated to a relaxing slice of life at the historic Weirs, one of the first drive-ins to open after World War II. Nobody said anything about digital projection, so let’s hope that it’s planned for the coming off-season. Till then, to see a few photos and experience what it’s like at the Weirs’ “dungeon,” go read it!

Five South Dakota drive-ins may close soon

decrepit drive-in screen in South Dakota

The Starlite Drive-In near Aberdeen SD as it looked in 1987. photo by Earl Leatherberry, used by permission

The Daily Republic of Mitchell SD published a long, thoughtful, well-researched article about the state of drive-in theaters there, and the news is rather gloomy.

According to the article, “Of South Dakota’s seven drive-in theaters, only two confirmed they will be open next summer. Miller’s Midway Drive-In and Hermosa’s Roy’s Black Hills Drive-In are already using digital equipment”. The other five are the Starlite (which we discussed a few weeks ago) in Mitchell, the Hilltop in Gregory, the Pheasant in Mobridge, the Pheasant City in Redfield, and the Winner in Winner, all of which “either say their future is uncertain, or have already said they will close.”

I can’t do justice to the lengthy Daily Republic article, which is full of quotes from the people who own and operate these drive-ins. I’ll give you just one of them, from 70-year-old Tom Gallup, who bought the Pheasant City in 1972. “It’s more of a community service,” he said. “When you get to the end of the year, you hope you’ve paid the bills and you can supply your utilities over the winter. You hang in there and try to provide a community service because once it’s gone, it’s gone.” For the rest of it, including a photo of the old, dead Pix Drive-In in Winner, plus the perspectives of the owner of the drive-in that just opened last year, you really should go read it!

I’ll trade a Western for your drive-in photo

Western DVDsSpeaking of Westerns and speaking of DVDs made me think of a program to encourage you to get more involved with the Carload Flickr pool. In the months that the pool has been active, I’ve been the only one to submit photos for it, which leads me to believe that you have not yet considered how wonderful it would be to support your favorite drive-in news blog by chipping in. Therefore, I will try a small incentive.

The next four three people to submit a real, usable drive-in photo to the Carload Flickr pool will receive a free DVD containing at least one drive-in western. (Please do not watch your DVD during drive-in season; save it for when you local drive-in theater is closed.) Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Find an old drive-in related photo that you took or otherwise have full rights to reproduce. Or take a new picture of your local drive-in.
  2. Upload it to the Carload Flickr pool. It’s all pretty simple once you get a Flickr account. By submitting your photo, you agree that Carload may use your photo; please read the group rules for a few more details.
  3. Send me (NeonMichael) a FlickrMail by clicking the three dots on the right side of my Flickr home page and choosing Send FlickrMail. Include your email address and postal address so I can get in touch with you and mail you a DVD.
  4. As soon as I verify that your submitted photo is legit, I’ll stick your DVD in the mail. I’ll pay the postage (US only). Just like that.

I probably need to add some legaleze here, but I’m not sure what to say. This offer is open to US residents only, because it’s a pain to mail stuff to other countries. Limit one free DVD per household, but you’re welcome to contribute as many photos as you’d like. I might end this promotion at any time, especially when I run out of DVDs. If you have any questions, please leave a comment. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support of Carload.com.

Drive-in killer now helping resurgence

Video Cassette Recorder

Everybody knows when you go to the show
You can’t take the kids along.
You’ve gotta read the paper and know the code
Of G, PG and R and X.
And you gotta know what the movie’s about
Before you even go.
Tex Ritter’s gone and Disney’s dead
And the screen is filled with sex.
– written by two of The Statler Brothers

That snippet of lyrics is from Whatever Happened To Randolph Scott?, a minor country hit in 1974 by The Statler Brothers. The song plays in full no less than three times during the 1976 film Drive-In, which I recorded off Antenna TV a little while ago. Hearing that refrain crystallized a thought that’s been bouncing around in me for a while – one of the major factors driving the decline of drive-in theaters has become a strong indirect reason for their resurgence.

When drive-ins’ popularity exploded in the 1950s, a patron could bring the whole family with an expectation that the film would be appropriate for all of them. Even gritty film noir movies were no worse than suggestive; any mature themes flew over the heads of the youngest viewers. More common were musicals, family-friendly dramas, and yes, lots of westerns with simple, basic plots and values.

In the 1960s, the movie studios recognized what they could offer that television couldn’t: mature content. Except for infrequent Disney offerings, movies became more complicated and adult, eventually leading to the creation of the MPAA ratings system. During this time, and into the 1970s, drive-ins continued to have a hard time procuring recent, popular movies, so they turned more often to exploitation movies, increasingly spattered with gore and sex. Drive-ins stopped being so family-friendly, but many of them hung on.

The VCR was arguably the single biggest killer of drive-in theaters. At worst, it was the final nail in the coffin after Daylight Saving Time, cable movie channels, and Hollywood’s shift away from family-friendly movies. By the early 1980s, most families could stay inside and watch a stack of rented movies any night, and the drive-in lost its appeal as quantity entertainment.

Then a funny thing happened. Families discovered that playing a tape of an animated movie or other kid-centric entertainment made their youngsters very happy. They rented more tapes, and movie stores purchased more tapes. As studios began to recognize the huge market in animated VHS tapes, and later DVDs, they started making more animated films with an eye toward long-term profit.

That’s where we are today. Drive-ins can offer family-friendly animated movies essentially every week of the year, and families are responding by filling their lots again. Since drive-in theater economics hinge on the concession stand, getting a horde of hungry kids is a great way to improve profits. For the drive-ins that survive the digital conversion, the future looks better than ever. And the biggest reason so many drive-ins died in the 1980s is now the driving force behind the content that brings in all those families.