WV’s Warner’s Almost As Good As New

Warner’s Drive-In, which was rescued from oblivion by a local non-profit group in 2016, announced on its Facebook page last week that it was installing a new roof. It was another small step but a strong indication that the Historic Warner’s Drive-In & Cultural Resources Center is making sure that this Franklin WV institution will continue showing movies for years to come.

That story was nicely summarized in an article in The Inter-Mountain earlier this month. The cinderblock drive-in, built in 1952, was threatened by the need to convert to a digital projector. It stayed dark in 2015, but was saved by the creation of a community group to buy the property and renovate its old buildings.

“Getting good roofs, especially over the projection room, is a priority to protect our big investment,” said group coordinator Bob Davis. “Our screen is a building, very distinctive — but, has a roof that also needs replacement. So both buildings have leaks that we have to take care of right now. Our five-year plan has had to be put on hold while we handle the necessities.”

Since it’s that time of year, we’ll soon return to news of drive-ins that failed to answer the bell to open for Spring 2019. I thought we all needed a break, and this is a great way to celebrate a historic drive-in that was saved. There’s a lot more in that Inter-Mountain article, so you should go read it!

Dec. 9: Hilltop Drive-In Theatre, Chester WV

It’s Day 343 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. There were more twisty highways this day, so it took almost an hour and a half to drive from the Starlight Drive-In, northwest of Butler PA, to the Hilltop Drive-In Theatre, southeast of Chester WV.

The Hilltop opened in July 1950, owned by Charles “Chuck” Pittinger with help from the Hanna Theatre Service. Hanna ran a lot of drive-ins back then, and Pittinger definitely has a Hilltop link. The Weirton Daily Times named him as the owner of the Hilltop Inn (in 1956), Hilltop Club (1959), Hilltop Lounge (1965), and Hilltop Inn again (1967). I’d bet that those were all names for the same place.

By the late 1970s, the Hilltop was listed as owned by “Anas Weir”. Was that a name, a company, or some of both? By 1984, it had dropped off the national lists. Brian Butko, writing in his book Greetings from the Lincoln Highway, said the Hilltop (just a ¾-mile detour away), “was closed from 1984 to 1989.”

Then the Hilltop’s history returns to solid ground. Longtime projectionist Joe Danko, who kept a ledger of every film shown there since 1951, bought the Hilltop in 1988. His daughter Katie Beaver helped resuscitate the drive-in, and she told the Daily Times in 2013, “We had to live down a reputation and prove that it was going to be a family drive-in again because they had been showing smut movies.”

They knew in 2013 that digital projection was coming, but in 2016 things got serious. In May that year, Beaver said she wouldn’t open for the season until she found a new projector. Today’s embedded video of the day comes from WTOV, the Upper Ohio Valley’s News Leader, as it reported the Hilltop’s plight from the drive-in’s empty field.

That changed a little in September 2016 when she found a distributor with a few current 35mm prints so the Hilltop could open for a few weekends, as recounted then in the Daily Times.

Over the past off-season, the Hilltop somehow found its digital projector. I can’t find any details except that the drive-in’s web site announced the change. However it happened, it was great news.

I had written about the Hilltop last year, but before my virtual visit I hadn’t grasped how close it is to the tip of the northern West Virginia panhandle. It’s barely a mile west of the Pennsylvania border and 2½ miles southeast of Ohio. The drive-in closed for the season in October, and I’m glad it’s in good shape to return next spring.

Miles Today / Total: 48 / 38897 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 200

Nearby Restaurant: When the drive-in is closed, I go looking for an old-fashioned diner. and when it’s cold and threatening to snow, I look for hot soup. Connie’s Corner took care of me very well for lunch, with homemade tomato soup and a fresh grilled cheese sandwich. In its cozy setting, it was the perfect antidote for late fall chills.

Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotel that I could verify was open is the Holiday Inn Express in the town next door, Newell WV. It was as nice as any HIE location, starting with warm cookies and hot coffee to take the edge off a blustery day. My room had the full set of modern amenities, and the standard HIE breakfast had those wonderful cinnamon rolls.

Only in Chester: The world’s largest teapot has been a fixture in Chester since it was built in 1938. According to the local library, it started its life as a 12-feet high, 44-feet wide wooden hogshead barrel for a Hire’s Root Beer advertising campaign. Its builder, William “Babe” Devon, added a spout and handle, plus a large glass ball for the knob of the lid. After a long life, it was restored by the city of Chester in 1990.

Next stop: Winter Drive-In, Wintersville OH.

Nov. 15: Sunset Drive-In Theater, Shinnston WV

It’s Day 319 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving through the hills and forest of West Virginia, it took me 2½ hours to drive from Warner’s Drive-In in Franklin to the Sunset Drive-In Theater just south of Shinnston in the unincorporated area called Meadowbrook.

When the Sunset opened in 1947, it was owned by Alex Sidan and Steve Medue, Jr., who together owned several other theaters in the region. According to a story on the West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail web site, it has been owned by the Ellis family since 1955, along with the adjacent Sunset Ellis Restaurant.

According to the book Around Shinnston by Robert P. Bice III, when John Ellis bought the Sunset, the concession stand / restaurant was an old streetcar. (There’s a great photo of that converted streetcar and another of the old sign behind the screen at WeHeartWV.com.) The Ellis family remodeled it into a real building in 1960.

The year-round restaurant and the drive-in have stayed in the family ever since. “My family leased it out for about 20 years, but my Uncle John took over after that and has run it for the past 16 years,” Antoinette Ellis-Casto told the Shinnston News last year. That lease was to Jim Henderson, who later bought the Grafton Drive-In, which closed in 2014. Unlike the Grafton, the Sunset converted to digital projection.

Although some of the in-car speakers on the grounds still work, the Sunset uses FM radio sound. Looking back at the screen, a full residence is there at its base and three stories’ worth of windows on the other side, as seen in the photos at the Eccentric Roadside blog. And that screen is so close to US Highway 19 that its marquee is on the opposite side.

The Sunset celebrated its 70th anniversary this year, and it was one of the inspirations for the embedded YouTube video of the day. RoganRadio has posted several videos about the Sunset, including some very nice drone footage, and this one is from August.

Too bad the night I was virtually there was in mid-November, when the drive-in was closed for the season.

Miles Today / Total: 126 / 36135 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 190

Nearby Restaurant: Well of course I had to have dinner at the Ellis Restaurant at the drive-in. Although I was tempted by the all-day breakfast, I took advantage of the daily special because it had been a long time since I’d eaten spaghetti. It came with the salad bar and garlic bread, and the price was great. I can see how this place stays open all year long.

Where I Virtually Stayed: There’s a Hampton Inn less than six miles from the Sunset in Bridgeport. That was easy. There were cookies and coffee waiting at check-in. My room had the full set of modern amenities. Breakfast was solid Hampton with chunks of sausage in the biscuit gravy. I was glad that this night’s lodging was such a no-brainer.

Only in Shinnston: There’s a large scrap metal statue of a coal miner named Charlie standing 21 feet tall in Shinnston. According to Eccentric Roadside, Charlie was commissioned in 1999 by Phil Southern as a tribute to his father who was killed in a coal mine in 1951.

Next stop: Dependable Drive-In, Moon PA.