Terre Haute Drive-In On Path To Rebuild

Old North Drive-In screen, surrounded by trees

Screen capture of a WTHI news video

A proposed renovation and reopening of the North Drive-In in Terre Haute IN passed another permitting hurdle this week. As reported in the local Tribune-Star, Brent Barnhart, president of the company that owns the Starlite Drive-In Theatre in Bloomington and a few indoor theaters, was granted a variance to use grass and gravel in the viewing area instead of a hard surface.

The article said that it has been 32 years since Terre Haute’s north side has had an operational drive-in theater, although the North was still listed in the 1988 Motion Picture Almanac. The original screen — “about 80 feet wide and 35 feet tall, sitting about another 15 feet off the ground” — still looks pretty good according to a 20-second video posted at WTHI, Terre Haute’s News Leader.

”This is definitely a good step. We are still waiting on financing, but will find out in about a week or two. Once that is finalized, we will start moving forward,” Barnhart said. He also added that he would restore the original marquee, currently the sign for Kessco Water. It’s just one more thing to look to this year.

Aug. 4: Bel-Air Drive-In Theatre, Versailles IN

It’s Day 216 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I went from Dayton OH back over to Indiana one last time to catch a drive-in that’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays, the Bel-Air Drive-In Theatre, just west of Versailles IN. The drive took less than two hours.

Russell Kelley opened the Bel Air in 1952 and he and his family ran it for over 30 years. Russell passed away in 1987; records suggest that his drive-in had gone dormant a year or two earlier.

The Bel Air reopened in the summer of 1995, according to a later article in Cincinnati Magazine. That article attributed the drive-in’s new success to booking first-run movies. “Places like the Starlite (Amelia OH) and Bel-Air remain viable not because they’re alternatives to indoor theaters but because in their communities they are the theaters,” the magazine wrote. “The Bel-Air is the only first-run drive-in in southeastern Indiana, and some customers come an hour’s drive.”

In 2014, the Versailles Republican published a lengthy article about the Bel Air as it showed off its new digital projector. It noted that Janet Kelley Chorpenning, Russell’s daughter, had run the drive-in for “many years” before she passed away in July 2013. Now her son Allen Chorpenning had taken over. “While his mother looked at it as a hobby, he sees it as an investment, and wants to put any proceeds into updating the property and equipment,” the Republican wrote, noting the many improvements in addition to the new projector. “I think the popularity of the drive-in is coming back,” Chorpenning said.

Just last week, the Indianapolis Star included the Bel Air in a round-up of active Indiana drive-ins. It wrote, “make sure to try something — French fries, nachos or hot dogs — slathered in Coney sauce. The recipe for the seasoned meat sauce comes from Chorpenning’s wife’s family.”

The Coney sauce was a bright spot as, for the fourth time, I watched The Emoji Movie. BuzzFeed wrote, “The Emoji Movie isn’t merely bad because there’s hardly a plot or because the animation looks like a ripoff of Inside Out. … It’s bad because it’s trying so hard to cater to adults first and kids second, while accomplishing neither.” So it’s not just me.

Miles Today / Total:  99 / 26530 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: The Emoji Movie / 131

Nearby Restaurant: Ernie’s Pizza looks like a little hole in the wall, like an extended house, and it’s a locals favorite. Sure, there were sandwiches available, but what you order at a pizza place is pizza, especially when it tastes like the pizza here.

Where I Virtually Stayed: If you want to stay in Versailles, you’ll be staying at the Moon-Lite Motel. Not only does it have a gorgeous retro neon sign, this dear little mom and pop place has all the modern amenities. (And it was right next to Ernie’s Pizza.) The bed was comfy, and the great price left me plenty of cash to search out breakfast in the morning.

Only in Versailles: Versailles is the home to Paulhenge, a circle of concrete slabs with holes strategically cut to indicate solstices and equinoxes. Local artist Paul Morris designed the structure, hence the name.

Next stop: South Drive-in Theater, Columbus OH.

July 30: Holiday Drive-In Theatre, Mitchell IN

It’s Day 211 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It took just a half hour to drive from the Starlite Drive-In Theatre south of Bloomington IN to the Holiday Drive-In Theatre south of Mitchell IN.

Actually, the Holiday is about halfway between Mitchell and Orleans IN. It opened in 1962, owned by George Webb and Theodore Stigall. In 1983, Robert Limeberry bought the Holiday and kept it running until he passed away. The current owner, Steve Wilson, bought the Holiday from Limeberry’s estate in the winter of 2005.

Wilson went one important step further, purchasing the Holiday’s land in January 2008. We’ve seen plenty of examples where drive-ins were forced to close because the landowner decided to sell. That didn’t happen in this dot on the highway surrounded by farm land. “We’re kind of lucky from the standpoint it sits in a corn field,” Wilson told the Electric Consumer in September 2008. “If it sat anywhere else, somebody would have had it torn down.”

The Holiday dodged another problem common to drive-ins this decade. Wilson launched a GoFundMe campaign in 2015 to raise the money for a digital projector. “We have started this Go fund Me page, to bring awareness to the high possibility of losing this theater,” it said. The campaign raised only a little more than $10,000, but before the start of the 2016 season, Wilson found an older digital projector from a defunct Hazard KY indoor theater, thanks in part to Jim Boyd, owner of the Van-Del Drive-In in Middle Point OH.

According to the Bedford Times-Mail (subscription required), the result was a huge success.  “Last year, we had probably the biggest April we’ve ever had,” Wilson said. And this year he opened earlier than usual, in mid-March, to take advantage of the buzz around the live-action Beauty and the Beast.

Speaking of buzz, I’ve embedded another drone video, again from last year. On this one, instead of hearing the whirring blades, the videographer added old-time movie scratch effects because, uh, 1962 movie theater setting, uh … okay, I don’t get it. But the views make the video definitely worth watching.

This was the fourth time I’ve seen the latest Transformers installment, but the loud action makes it a pretty good drive-in movie. I couldn’t recall another drive-in that rents lawn chairs, but that might have been because of all the cinnamon sugar mini-donuts I ate there.

Miles Today / Total:  27 / 26150 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Transformers: The Last Knight / 126

Nearby Restaurant: The Millstone Dining Room in the Spring Mill Inn in Spring Mill State Park has a well-deserved reputation for some really great fried chicken. Add that it’s served in a buffet setting, and you’ve got two ingredients for a great experience, at least the way I rank these things. The dessert bar featured cornmeal pie and persimmon pudding. You can’t find food like this just anywhere.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The only real place to stay in Mitchell is the Spring Mill Inn inside Spring Mill State Park just east of town. My room was a lot different than what I’d find at a chain hotel, with a wooden rocker, a DVD player, a real quilt on the bed, and that’s about it. Good thing there was wifi, because cell reception was pretty spotty this far out in such a peaceful setting.

Only in Mitchell: The Mitchell Opera House opened in 1906 as the County Hall. In 1908, Menlo E. Moore took over its operation, renaming it the Opera House. For over 20 years, it hosted live shows, silent movies, and political rallies. The building had several other uses (storage, teen center, city hall) from 1930 to 1981, when it was reopened for occasional shows. After a full renovation, it reopened permanently in July 2015.

Next stop: Holiday Auto Theatre, Hamilton OH.