Oct. 14: Black River Drive In, Watertown NY

Black River Drive-In lit sign at twilight

Photo from the Black River Drive-In Facebook page

It’s Day 287 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I was happy for another short drive, barely a half hour as I went south from the the Bay Drive-In Theatre in Alexandria Bay NY to the Black River Drive In just northeast of Watertown NY.

The drive-in’s web site has an excellent history page. Much of the information here comes from that site, though I’ve also found several pieces to supplement it.

The Black River was built in 1950 by Sylvan Leff, who operated it into the early 1970s. Then Leff leased the drive-in to Panther Theatres, which subsequently became Country Wide Theatres. After “a couple of years,” the theater was sold to Atko Canton Corporation, owned by Charles Girrard and Anthony Kolinski. Atko Canton was incorporated in 1972, so that’s the earliest it could have purchased the Black River.

Atko Canton operated the drive-in into the mid 1980s. The International Motion Picture Almanac, sometimes slow to notice changes, still listed Atko Canton as the owner in its 1988 directory. For one season, it leased the Black River to Jeff Szot. After that season closed, a fire badly damaged the concession building. Szot went on to buy and operate the 56 Auto Drive-In in “the early or mid-1980s,” and the Black River stayed closed.

In the mid 1990s John Nagelschmidt, who owned and operated the Midway Drive-In Theatre in Minetto NY, bought the Black River from Kolinski and Girrard. Current health codes required water and sewer service, which didn’t arrive until 2005. That’s when Nagelschmidt and Loren Knapp, long-time projectionist at the Midway formed Black River Drive-In, Inc. and rebuilt the drive-in “practically from the ground up.” It reopened on August 18, 2006.

As documented by the Watertown Daily Times, Knapp installed a digital projection system in 2012. He declined to join the studios’ Virtual Print Fee reimbursement program, explaining, “Whoever is taking care of the print fee gets to have a direct line into your projector to see what’s going on. If we want to run a special show, non-theatrical content, I’d have to pay them. I also equated it with Big Brother watching you.”

There’s a great photo album on the drive-in’s Facebook page showing step by step how they refurbished its long-neglected sign. The photo I embedded above shows the final product.

On this night, for the second consecutive Saturday, I got to watch the excellent Blade Runner sequel. It was cool and threatened rain as I munched on a “Sausage Pattie” and onion rings. As long as coffee was available, I was fine.

Miles Today / Total: 26 / 33094 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Blade Runner 2049 / 179

Nearby Restaurant: I hadn’t expected to find such a nice brewpub in the Salmon Run Mall, where Skewed Brewing sits right next to those indoor movie theaters. I enjoyed the duck wings with Thai chili and lime sauce along with a pint of their pineapple hefeweizen. Great stuff!

Where I Virtually Stayed: It’s nice to try out the individual approaches that really nice mom and pop motels take to their properties, and sometimes it’s nice to get back to a familiar chain hotel. There’s a Hampton Inn in Watertown, and that meant that I knew just what to expect at every turn. There were cookies to welcome me at check-in. My room had the full set of modern amenities. Breakfast in the morning was the high standard Hampton. Yes, I really do like this chain.

Only in Watertown: Every winter on Vernon Scoville’s farm just east of town, volunteers build a 30-foot snowman. Some years, it’s even taller. The Watertown Daily News wrote, “Visitors may leave canned food donations or money in his bottom button, made from an old tire. This is the second year the Scovilles have accepted food donations. Last year, they were able to bring in more than 500 pounds of nonperishable food items which were donated to the Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County’s food pantry in Watertown and the Lowville Food Pantry.”

Next stop: Midway Drive-In Theatre, Minetto NY.