Here’s another drive-in story that never fails to bring a smile to my face: After the Southington Drive-In in Plantsville CT closed over a decade ago, local civic groups got together to revive it as a benefit for non-profit groups. This week, the drive-in committee announced its movie lineup for 2019, and the Meriden Record-Journal not only ran a nice story about it, they included a video.
Drive-in committee member and apparent spokesperson Dawn Miceli spoke with the Record-Journal about the success of the Southington project. Each week a different organization hosts the drive-in and received the proceeds it generates. Since the Southington was reopened, it has raised over $200,000 for those groups.
Last year the committee erected a new 22-foot tall entrance sign, a replica of the original 1955 sign. I can’t embed it here because it’s http (as opposed to Google-approved https), so be sure to go watch the video to see that sign as well as some fast photos of previous marquees. Enjoy!
It’s Day 359 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. On a sunny, cold day, it took about an hour and a half to drive from the Hyde Park Drive In Theatre in Hyde Park NY to the Southington Drive-In, Plantsville CT. Like the Hyde Park, the Southington is an example of local non-profits supporting the drive-in, but the details are very different.
A March 1950 Billboard magazine article suggested a long gestation period for the Southington. It wrote that property owners were appealing the build approval given to James A. Holmes. They must have found plenty of avenues for delaying the project, because the drive-in didn’t open until May 18, 1955, owned by Peter Perakos and Perakos Theater Associates. (Many sources mention 1954, which might have been when Perakos bought the land.)
By all accounts, the Southington was huge, with capacity estimates between 900 and 1100 cars for its single screen. John Perakos, one of Peter’s sons, added a second screen in July 1979.
In December 1992, the Hartford Courant wrote that the Perakos family had informally offered to sell the drive-in for $2.75 million to the town of Southington, but the town wasn’t interested. More about that later.
An August 2002 article in The New York Times wrote, “For Mr. (Sperie) Perakos, (the drive-in) is a family business, opened in 1954 by his father, and now owned by himself and his brothers, John and Peter Perakos Jr.” The article also quoted the family talking about their dedication and how they were hooked on the business, and mentioned that “despite stormy weather, car after car pulled into the Southington Drive-In.”
Just a few weeks later, the Perakos family closed the drive-in permanently. An article in the Republican-American, captured at the CinemaTour forum, wrote that as of July 2003, a For Sale sign was on the property, and “Sperie and Peter Perakos referred questions about the property to their nephew, Peter, a Hartford-based attorney.” That attorney said in August 2003 that “the theater closed this year because the Perakos family members who run the theater, now in their 80s, were unable to get help.” But there was still a lot of talk about the family wanting to sell the land to somebody, and in April 2004, Southington voters overwhelmingly approved the $1.61 million purchase of the 40-acre parcel.
The New Haven Register had a nice article about the next phase of the Southington’s life. It began in the winter of 2009-10 at a Southington Town Council meeting when resident Mike Riccio asked what it would take to get that drive-in up and running again. He was told that the town couldn’t run a drive-in theater. But council member Dawn Miceli had “a light bulb go off in my head.” What if local civic groups, a different one each week, could run the drive-in? Miceli and Riccio began the Southington Drive-In Committee, and in June 2010, the Southington lit up for the first time since 2002.
The weekly Saturday night showings feature movies voted on by residents and have become a nice income source for the volunteer civic groups. Instead of a snack bar, local food vendors set up tables and booths. Patrons are also allowed to bring in food and beverages. To see a typical year of movies, you can check the 2017 schedule here.
The YouTube video of the day is a rare treat – a view of the drive-in as it looked decades ago. In this case, we see its heyday in 1990. This year, the Southington closed after its annual Halloween Festival in late October. I’m glad it’s in such safe hands.
Miles Today / Total: 85 / 39748 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200
Nearby Restaurant: It’s not easy to find a decent meal on Christmas Day. Instead of resorting to convenience store beef jerky, I was very happy to find the Gobi Mongolian Grill. If you’ve never tried a Mongolian grill, you really should experience it. I watched the cooks prepare my selections with a variety of sauces, then I brought my full plate back to the table to add brown rice. I washed it down with a Budweiser and was glad to have such a nice dinner on such a quiet day.
Where I Virtually Stayed: One of the closest hotels to the Southington is the Comfort Suites, which was again was a great deal for the price. There were cookies and coffee waiting for me at check-in. My comfortable room had the full set of modern amenities. Breakfast had some meat and eggs to go with the Comfort waffle machine and the continental standards. I was glad to have stayed here.
Only in Southington: Just south of Southington in Cheshire, you’ll find the Barker Character Comic and Cartoon Museum, tens of thousands of items of cartoon character memorabilia from the personal collection of Herb and Gloria Barker, who bought many of the items for less than a dollar apiece at garage sales in the 1970s.
This is a place, literally a stone’s throw from the Farmington River across the highway, with quite a history. It opened in 1947 under a different name. I’m pretty sure it was the Rogers Corner, because that’s what Billboard magazine called it when it wrote about it in 1949. That’s when “Vincent J. Youmatz, part-owner, founder, and former president of the theater” sued the corporation that owned it. But the name of that corporation was the Peoples Forest Drive-In Theater Corporation, and some people, including the current owner, believe that it opened as the People’s Drive-In.
Don Heilbron bought the drive-in from the original owners in the 1970s. Around that time, according to The New York Times, “it survived by showing what the multiplexes couldn’t: X-rated movies.” At that point, everyone agrees that it was called the Rogers Corner.
In 1987, Brady and Sally Miller bought the Rogers Corner, switched to family movies, and changed the drive-in’s name to Pleasant Valley to help it publicly break from its X-rated past. “It took Brady three years before people started realizing it was a family venue again,” wrote Donna McGrane, who bought it from the Millers in 1996. (She was gracious enough to share the drive-in’s history with me.)
From the time McGrane took over, the Pleasant Valley’s history is pretty well documented. In that Times article from 2008, she said, “My mother used to run the ticket booth and my dad would work part time running the projector, so weekends they’d put us in pajamas and pack us into the station wagon, and that’s how we spent our summers. When the theater came up for sale 11 years ago I couldn’t let it go.”
More recently, the drive-in went through an amazing story of finding the money for the digital conversion before the 2014 season. Eloquently written by Entertainment Weekly, it tells how an 11th hour reprieve, in the form of a benefit auction organized by Torrington Preservation Trust member Travis Lipinski, surprisingly raised the cash for a down payment on the new projector.
The Pleasant Valley is open for another weekend this season, but not on this night, a Thursday. At least I know that it should be around for years to come.
The embedded video of the day is a little personal. Four years ago, I wrote about the Pleasant Valley and used this clip from WVIT, Connecticut’s News Leader. Then a week later, the video stopped working in my blog post. It’s working again (at least as I type this), so I’m giving it another try.
Miles Today / Total: 90 / 32533 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 174
Nearby Restaurant: The closest restaurant to Pleasant Valley appeared to be the Log House, so that’s where I went. Inside and out, the place was just as wooden as the name promises. They say this is a homestyle restaurant, though I don’t know how many serve such an excellent lobster bisque. I continued on to the roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, then finished with a slice of chocolate cake. Wonderful comfort food!
Where I Virtually Stayed: There aren’t any hotels near Pleasant Valley, so I drove a few miles to Avon and the Residence Inn there. My studio suite had a fully stocked kitchen and a fireplace. I could have lived here for weeks, which is the idea. The full breakfast buffet in the morning was one of the best free hotel breakfasts I’ve had this year. I was ready for another day.
Only in Barkhamsted: Every year, the Barkhamsted Historical Society reopens Squire’s Tavern for one night of food, drinks, games, and music “just like it was in the 1800’s.” This year, the date is October 21. If you want to see what the place is like when it’s quiet, you can take a virtual tour here.