WV’s Sunset struggles to reopen

Continuing problems at the Sunset Drive-In in Shinnston WV have left owner John Ellis wondering whether he’ll be able to show movies again this season. That’s according to a series of reports by WBOY, Clarksburg’s News Leader.

It all started in February this year. After a solid 2021 season, the Sunset was hit by vandals, who trashed the projection room, stole computers, and cut wires. Ellis worked to repair his digital projector and was able to reopen for a weekend earlier this month. Then the projector stopped working, and now he’s looking for parts and a repair technician if he can find them.

In between, the venerable, adjacent Sunset Ellis Restaurant, owned by Anthony Ellis, closed its doors Sunday. The owner cited problems finding the ingredients he needed for his specialties, and in finding workers for the kitchen. Members of Ellis family have owned the complex since 1955, and opening the restaurant five years later.

For now, I’m marking the Sunset as closed, dropping it from the Carload active drive-in theater list. Here’s hoping I get to put it back soon.

MO’s Pine Hill reopens

Photo from the Pine Hill Drive-In Facebook page

I’m worried that I gave listeners the wrong impression Sunday morning. I was talking about drive-ins on Road Dog Trucking Radio, SiriusXM Channel 146. The show was Dave Nemo Weekends, hosted by Jimmy Mac. (Thanks, Jimmy!) Towards the end of the segment, he asked me about the future of drive-ins. Last week, I spent some time pruning the Carload drive-in list, and seeing a dozen healthy drive-ins shut down since the start of the pandemic left me a little bummed out. I gave an example or two of drive-ins that were reopening, but the fresh memory of those closures might have made me sound less optimistic than usual.

Now that I’m back to rummaging around for good news, I found an item that’s particularly close to home for me. The Pine Hill Drive-In in Piedmont MO had been in operation since 1953, but it closed in 2015 and was put up for sale soon after. I saw this historic, intact theater and hoped that someone would take over and get it ready for movies again. That finally happened when new owners bought the place in the fall of 2021 and reopened it just a few weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend.

Alva “A.B.” and Maude Jefferis built the Pine Hill in 1953 and lived in a house they also built behind the back fence of the drive in. Maude made the newspapers in 1973 when she photographed a number of odd blinking lights “high above the drive-in movie screen that stands beyond a pond in Mrs. Jefferis’s front yard.” The Pine Hill passed through another couple of owners after that, and I’m happy that it stayed active well into the new millennium. Now that it has fresh owners, I hope the drive-in can stay alive for another 70 years.

Manistique MI drive-in sets 2022 dates

Drone photo of the first rows of a drive-in theater
From the Highway 2 Community Drive-In Theatre web site

I’m a little embarrassed to have overlooked this one for so long. Back in 2017, I was excited to notice the reopening of the old US 2 Drive-In in Manistique in Michigan’s upper peninsula, at least for a few shows. I even paid it a virtual “visit” that year as part of my Drive-In-A-Day Odyssey.

After two years of tentative plans and occasional movies, the drive-in showed signs in the summer of 2019 that the experiment was over. (That’s why I hesitated to add it to the Carload drive-in theater list.) In fact, that’s about when the Upper Peninsula Film Union acquired the place and changed its name to the Highway 2 Community Drive-In Theater. The great news is that the Highway 2 is continuing to show movies, with four more dates set for 2022.

“Community” is much more than just a word in the drive-in’s name. Different sponsors pay the licensing fee for each night’s movies. Different charities run the concession stand and keep the proceeds. Patrons are admitted free, and this fine old ozoner gets a fresh set of faces every month or so.

The original US 2 was built in 1953 by J. L. LeDuc, who owned the indoor theaters in town, and planned to close one of them in the summer when the US-2 was open. Within a few years, the Delft Theater chain took over operations, and the theater was listed as the Highway 2. In 1972, David Vaughan bought the drive-in and renamed it the Cinema Two, not because he added a second screen, but because his new indoor theater in town was called Cinema One. It was the last active drive-in in the upper peninsula when it closed in 2001, and now that’s what it is again. Here’s to another 50+ years of community involvement and fun.