Dec. 23: Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre, Middletown NY

It’s Day 357 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving through the rain, I was glad the temperature was on the liquid side of freezing. It took me two hours to cross the border, going from the Laurel Drive-in in Hazleton PA to the Fair Oaks Drive-In Theatre north of Middletown NY.

The story of the Fair Oaks is vague and unusual from its very beginning. Both a 2001 article in the Times Herald-Record of Middletown and an October 2017 post on the drive-in’s official Facebook page say that opening was in 1967. The trouble is that Historic Aerials happens to have a photo of that location from 1968, and there’s no drive-in. Other online sources agree with the New York Drive-Ins web site, which has “Gala Opening” newspaper ads of the “All New – All Weather” Fair Oaks for May 15, 1970.

The Fair Oaks opened as a single screen, and the only owner info I’ve found for its early years was the Taylor family. The only personal glimpse I could find was in August 1976, when owner E.J. Taylor became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and planned to seek a tax exemption “as soon as I can do it.” By all accounts, the drive-in closed after the 1981 season.

In that 2001 Times Herald-Record article that got the opening date wrong, it was accurate in stating that Ron Mege “took on the ruins of Fair Oaks” in 1990. “Mege started with nothing but bare walls. He built the projection equipment, rewired the place, even built one of the screens himself.” That second screen went up after 1994, based on aerial photos.

(In an ironic counterpoint to Taylor’s 1976 suggestion of holding ULC services at the drive-in, landowner Pravin Patel donated 10 acres of the drive-in field for the Bharatiya Mandir Hindu temple, which was built in 1998.)

Mege and the Fair Oaks rolled along until 2013, when things got weird. In September 2013, the Times Herald-Record wrote that local man John Grimaldi planned to take over the drive-in and invest in an upgrade to digital projection. Then-current film projectionist Tanner Mege was to be hired as the manager. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Fair Oaks sat dark for all of 2014, which Ron Mege later blamed “on a divorce that tied up his assets.”

Then Regina Franz and husband Adam Gerhard entered the picture. They took over the lease in March 2015 and reopened the Fair Oaks in May that year. Newspaper accounts suggest that the digital projector they were using had been partly paid for by a Kickstarter campaign at the Randall Drive-In in Bethel VT. In May 2016, according to another Times Herald-Record article, Gerhard posted on Facebook that “actions have been taken against us” and that the couple had been “forced to seek legal recourse.” They said the Fair Oaks would remain closed.

Ron Mege and girlfriend Kelly Boland took over and began refurbishing the Fair Oaks with a new digital projector within days of Gerhard’s post. The drive-in reopened in July 2016, and they added a digital projector for the second screen in June 2017. Meanwhile, according to the West Lebanon NH Valley News, Franz and Gerhard were sued by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office in October 2016 for allegedly “making deceptive representations in connection with a fundraiser.” Through their lawyer, they denied any wrongdoing, and I don’t know the status of that lawsuit.

It looks like the Fair Oaks has settled down with good seasons of improvements, fun shows, and grilled onions. It closed for the season in late September, then began replacing its marquee sign, apparently the original. I look forward to a successful, uneventful 2018.

Miles Today / Total: 127 / 39615 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200

Nearby Restaurant: I found another nice regional restaurant chain. Cosimo’s Brick Oven has four locations, and I wonder whether they’re all as good as the one in Middletown. I started with the garlic bread fresh out of that oven, then had a formaggi five-cheese pizza. With a glass of malbec to wash it down, I left with a warm, full belly on a cool, cloudy evening.

Where I Virtually Stayed: I had been denying myself for days, but in Middletown I relented and chose my old favorite chain, the Hampton Inn. There were cookies and coffee waiting at check-in. My large, comfortable room had all the modern amenities. Breakfast was the usual strong Hampton standard. I might get sick of them later, but right now I wish there was a Hampton Inn next to every drive-in.

Only in Middletown: Just south of Middletown in Goshen in the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame. It’s built on an actual historic stables and track, and its interactive exhibits show what it’s like to buy a horse at auction, train it and race it. The museum is free, and you can take a virtual tour of the place on YouTube.

Next stop: Hyde Park Drive In Theatre, Hyde Park NY.

Nov. 2: Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre, Coxsackie NY

It’s Day 306 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. This was one more day of short drives – just 20 minutes from the Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema, in Greenville NY of course, to the Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre in Coxsackie NY.

NewYorkDriveIns.com has plenty of newspaper clippings of the Hi-Way’s origins. It opened with a single screen on May 4, 1951, owned by brothers Morris and Rafael Klein. (The 1952 Theatre Catalog listed the drive-in’s executive as Mrs. Frieda Klein. Sounds like somebody’s wife was taking charge!)

Roger Babcock began working at the Hi-Way in 1971 and met his future wife when she started working there. When the Kleins decided to sell in 1976, the Babcocks took over, and they’ve been running it ever since. (Although some sources suggest the Babcocks didn’t take full ownership until the mid-1990s.) They added a second screen in 1999, a third screen in 2004, and a fourth in 2011. Along the way, they converted from in-car speakers to radio sound.

There was a flurry of drama in 2014 when the Babcocks faced the prospect of finding the money to convert all four screens to digital projection. In January that year, Roger told the Kingston Daily Freeman, “We have no plans on shutting the drive-in down, none whatsoever.” After donation boxes and an IndieGoGo campaign yielded a pittance, he found an unusual source of financing. “Social Security at my age is going to help pay for this,” he said. “With Social Security, the monthly payments are reasonable enough for us to convert two to three screens.” They eventually converted all four.

I wrote about Roger and the Hi-Way back in October 2013, when he was still deciding whether to get a loan to buy some projectors. Too bad the lengthy, incisive article I referenced then is gone now. That just happens sometimes.

The drive-in closed for the 2017 season after Columbus Day weekend. They posted on their Facebook page, “see ya in March, Snow banks permitting”.

The video of the day is a delightful documentary short by Tansy Michaud and Adam Carboni called Enjoy Your Intermission. (There’s a great interview with the filmmakers here.) It profiles the Hi-Way and the people who ran it when they were still using their beloved 35mm film.

Miles Today / Total: 14 / 34443 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 185

Nearby Restaurant: The Pegasus Restaurant in Coxsackie has been around almost as long as the Babcocks. It’s not one of the cheap eats joints I often prefer, but now and then I need to show I can behave at a nice place. I was rewarded by a plate of broiled scallops in a spicy red sauce with a side of shrimp. By the end of the evening, I could see how this place has stayed around for so long.

Where I Virtually Stayed: I’m not sure why they called the hotel up the road the Best Western New Baltimore Inn. It’s one of a cluster of hotels by the closest NY State Thruway exit to the drive-in, but even that highway doesn’t go anywhere near Baltimore. At any rate, the price was pretty nice, my room had all the modern amenities, and breakfast included scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s all good.

Only in Coxsackie: This town has a class of viruses named after it. According to Wikipedia, the coxsackieviruses were discovered in 1948–49 by Dr. Gilbert Dalldorf, a scientist working at the New York State Department of Health. Searching for a polio cure, he found that fluid collected from a non-polio virus preparation could block polio’s damage. Eventually he discovered viruses that often mimicked mild polio, and he named them after the town where he had obtained “the first fecal specimens.”

Next stop: Delsea Drive-In, Vineland NJ.

Nov. 1: Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema, Greenville NY

It’s Day 305 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. On this rainy Wednesday, I was glad to have a short drive, just a half hour from the Jericho Drive-in in Glenmont NY to the Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema, in Greenville NY of course.

The Greenville used to have its history posted on an About Us page on its web site. Fortunately, the Internet Archive made a copy in 2014 so I can share some of its highlights with you.

In April 1959, Peter Carelas began construction on the Greenville Drive-in. New York Drive-Ins says its opening night was two months later on June 18. The drive-in was originally designed to hold 400 cars, although the International Motion Picture Almanac later listed its capacity as 550. The screen was 85 feet wide.

The Greenville’s history appears to have been uneventful until it was put up for sale in 1988. That’s when local business owner Mark Wilcox and 10 others, eventually forming “The Greenville Eleven, Inc.” jointly purchased the drive-in to save it from land development. Wilcox operated and managed the Greenville through the 2006 season. During that time, he switched from in-car speakers to FM sound. Even now, he’s still listed as the CEO of the corporation.

“2007 was a year of sadness,” as the Greenville closed. In 2009, Don Brown and Patricia Creigh reopened it for the season, but plagued by rainy weather, the drive-in was only open a few weekends. The Greenville was again closed for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

In 2012, Jim Gatehouse and family took over, spruced up the facility and reopened, but they couldn’t get past the digital projection hurdle and closed the Greenville again for the 2014 season.

Enter the current owners, Leigh Van Swall and Dwight Grimm. They ran a modest but successful Kickstarter campaign, highlighted by the embedded video above, in early 2015. (It noted, “We are one of the few all-grass drive-ins in existence so the fifteen acres requires extensive mowing and gravel access roads to keep patrons from becoming mired.”) Grimm later told Catskill Eats, “We’re trying not to be so much a straight-up movie theater, but more of an event venue with movie-showing capabilities.”

The Greenville opened a beer garden in 2016, and held a typewriter festival later that year. They finished their 2017 season in mid-October and promised to be back in May 2018. Sounds like fun!

Miles Today / Total: 22 / 34429 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 185

Nearby Restaurant: Was Lane’s Cafe, up Highway 32 from the drive-in, the diner where the Greenville Eleven organized over breakfast? The menu showed plenty of breakfast choices, but I arrived at lunch. I had the hot open-faced turkey sandwich with gravy and cranberry sauce. Mashed potatoes make a better choice than the fries they provided, but for a good turkey sandwich, I’m willing to overlook that.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The Greenville Arms 1889 Inn is possibly the best place to stay in Greenville. It’s the kind of vintage bed and breakfast you’d find on a postcard. My comfortable little room included a mini-fridge. Breakfast included grits, a difficult dish to find in chain hotel buffets. And as a bonus, the proprietors make gourmet chocolates. That’s a great reason to stay here!

Only in Greenville: According to Roadside America, just south of Greenville in the town of East Durham, on the property of Blackthorne Resort, there is a 17-foot-tall steampunk robot. It was built by Thomas Willeford for the 2014 Steampunk World’s Fair, and is displayed in an open-air shed-like building.

Next stop: Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre, Coxsackie NY.