It’s Day 285 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It started with another drive through the wilderness, Five Ponds this time, in the two hours it took to get from the Valley Brook Drive In north of Lyons Falls NY to the 56 Auto Drive-in Theater, just southwest of Massena NY.
The drive-in is about four miles south of the St. Lawrence River. A possibly apocryphal story says that its dirt came from the St. Lawrence Seaway project there. Just a half-hour drive from Cornwall ON, it gets almost a third of its visitors from Canada.
The 56, named for New York State Route 56, was built by Peter C. Papayanakos, misspelled as “Papyanakas” in the local newspaper’s grand opening article, and opened in July 1955. Before the 1968 season, his corporation leased the drive-in to Deb Theatre Corp., a division of Panther Theatre Corp. And that’s almost all I could find about its history before the current owner bought it.
Jeff Szot of JS Cinemas has owned the 56 for about 30 years now. When did he buy it? According to North County Now, “Szot said he bought the drive-in sometime in the early or mid-1980s.” That’s a little fuzzy. The International Motion Picture Almanacs of the 1980s show “W. Leger” as the owner, so that must have been who sold the 56 to Szot.
Talking about the many factors that led to the extinction of most drive-in theaters, Szot told NNY Living about one that rarely gets mentioned. He said that the film industry started releasing only “second-run films” to the drive-ins, and that they only bounced back once they got first-run movies again. I had thought that drive-ins had struggled to get current movies from the beginning until the mid- to late-1980s. I’ll have to check that some day.
Szot told the Watertown Daily Times in May 2015 that there had been a decline in the number of his patrons at the 56. “I think it’s kind of leveled off. They’re coming out, but we’ve seen a decline over the past few years. But there’s still nothing like the shared experience. People enjoy going to the movies to get the experience,” he said.
The 56 switched to digital projection in 2014. “It was a costly upgrade,” Szot said. “It didn’t put us out of business, which is a good thing.”
The drive-in’s last show this year was on Labor Day weekend, so it was another movie-less night for me.
Miles Today / Total: 105 / 32998 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 177
Nearby Restaurant: When the drive-in is closed, I often go in search of a diner. In this case, Wendy’s Diner in Massena isn’t the hamburger chain but a good small-town diner. I had a country fried steak with a potato and veggies, plus an amazing, huge cinnamon roll. That plus all the coffee I could drink put me in a very pleasant mood.
Where I Virtually Stayed: I heard a lot of good things about the Blue Spruce Motel, and I didn’t find anything to contradict them. It’s one of those little place that looks like it might have been around a long time, but continues to be lovingly refurbished whenever necessary. My king room had all the modern amenities, and although breakfast wasn’t included, the most wonderful homemade donuts were available to purchase there. Mmm, doughnuts!
Only in Massena: Roadside America suggests that when you’re in the neighborhood, you should visit the Eisenhower Lock in the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway is an interesting story of the eventual triumph of common sense and mutual benefit over decades of bickering within and between the two countries involved. And the Eisenhower Lock is the only one in the system with its own Wikipedia page.
Next stop: Bay Drive-In Theatre, Alexandria Bay NY.