KY’s Franklin announces closure

Classic cars lined up at the Franklin Drive-In Theater
2013 photo from the Franklin Drive-In Facebook page

Trivia that was accurate as of last week: Of the (about) 311 active US drive-ins, four of them are located by the city or town of Franklin in four different states. The first three are the Milky Way Drive-In in Wisconsin, Warner’s Drive-In in West Virginia, and Canary Creek Cinemas in Indiana.

Today, those are the only three. On Monday, the owners of the Franklin Drive-In in Kentucky announced that they had sold the place, and that it would no longer operate as a drive-in theater. There were several local news organizations reporting the story, but I don’t think any of them had any more to work with than the Franklin’s original Facebook post. WBKO, Bowling Green’s News Leader, posted a video anyway of mostly file footage, which is better than nothing.

Of course, I virtually visited the Franklin in 2017 during my 2017 Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. As I wrote then, the drive-in was a literal stone’s throw from Tennessee and less than 40 miles away from Nashville. The Franklin was family owned and operated since 1969, most recently by the Prices and their families. It began its life as the 31W or 31 West Drive-In, since that’s the highway that it’s on, and changed its name to the Franklin some time after the demise of the original Franklin Drive-In, which operated on Russellville Road from 1960 until some time around 1980.

The closure announcement noted that the Franklin “has been in our family for 33 years and we bought it from the original family who built it.” The owners blamed traffic (huh?), light pollution, and the rise of streaming services for their decision. I always thought that traffic was a good thing, with more motorists seeing your marquee, but light is definitely an issue in a lot of places. Since the dawn of television, it’s always been the main opponent for theaters in general; the solution is to provide an experience you can’t get at home.

But it’s always possible that the Franklin’s owners just got a nice retirement-funding purchase offer and took it. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t find someone else ready to keep the movie nights going.

Video: WV’s Sunset Ellis to reopen in 2023

After its original owners closed the adjoining restaurant, it looked like the Sunset Drive-In in Shinnston WV was going to stay dark. The outlook was bad enough that I had pulled the Sunset (or is it the Sunset Ellis?) off the Carload active drive-in list. But it goes back to one of my favorite rules: How can you tell when a drive-in has permanently closed? It’s not when it ends its season; it’s when it fails to open the following spring.

Here’s a great example of that rule in action. Rocky Morgan has stepped in to buy the historic Sunset Ellis Restaurant and its drive-in. The restaurant reopens on Feb. 16, and Morgan said he’ll reopen the Sunset Drive-In this summer. This great news came this week from WDTV, Weston WV’s News Leader, which provided a nice video that I can’t embed here.

In place of that video, I’ve added another video from last summer when the Sunset looked like it would close for good. That video came from WBOY, Clarksburg WV’s News Leader. So maybe you could watch that one first, as the “before” story, then click over to WDTV for the “after”. That way, you’ll be sure to catch the happy ending.

Mission Tiki finally closes

2010 photo by Earl Leatherberry, from the Carload Flickr pool

Terrible news this week from California. The Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair finally succumbed to rising property values; it showed its final movies on Sunday, Jan. 22. The story came from David Allen, columnist at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, who offered an affectionate look at the drive-in’s final days.

In October 2019, the drive-in’s owner sold its land to a property developer. The 27 acres turned out to be worth $34.4 million. At the time, the owner announced that the Mission Tiki would stay open for most of the 2020 season until the buyer could get started building the industrial park he had his heart set on. Then the Covid pandemic changed timetables everywhere. After a short shutdown, the drive-in became a great source of socially distanced entertainment. Meanwhile, the buyer’s efforts to get started were slowed in regards to permitting and scheduling supplies and builders.

That all came to an end this month. Concerned about patron reaction, the Mission Tiki didn’t want to admit that it was closing soon, but the signs were there. One screen after another went dark, and the snack bar started running out of things. Alert customers noticed that the drive-in’s web site wasn’t listing movies after Sunday, and whispers went out about what would be its final night. A “a modest number of people” braved 40-degree temperatures to witness the end.

The Mission Tiki opened as the single-screen Mission Drive-In on May 29, 1956, back when the city was known as Monte Vista. They replaced the original screen with four new ones in 1975. The name changed to the Mission Tiki in 2006 during major refurbishing, including FM radio sound and Technalight projection system. The parking lot was repaved, the ticket booths were remodeled to look like tiki huts, a Maui statue garden was added, and the concession stand was remodeled to match the tiki theme. In 2013, all four screens were updated to digital projection.

I’m happy that patrons had an extended window to return to the Mission Tiki. Some developers in the same situation tear down everything immediately and let the land sit idle until they’re ready. It’s a darned shame to lose a profitable drive-in to just another industrial park, but at least this time we had an extra opportunity to make some memories first.