Drive-in theaters go 'back to the future' to fight extinction in the digital age

Pay costly conversion to digital projector or else

CINCINNATI – A real-life version of the hit movie “Back to the Future” has been playing out in drive-in theaters around the country as many of these 20th-century icons face imminent extinction in the digital age.

Eighty years after the first drive-in opened in the U.S., the crowded parking lots where Baby Boomers spent summer weekend nights watching double and triple features (and sometimes learning about love in the back seat of a car), where even today’s younger parents remember trips in the family station wagon or minivan with mom and dad, still hold their charm for Shane and Dawn Rayford of Mason and thousands more. 

That’s why Maddie Rayford, 12, and brother Colin, 9, were lying on the roof of their Toyota Highlander with their heads propped up in their hands, waiting for the double feature to start at the Holiday Auto Theatre near Hamilton.

“The kids wanted to see ‘Planes’ and we love ‘Back to the Future,’” their father Shane said as he and his wife Dawn sat outside in folding chairs,  a boom box with dual speakers in front of them. “The kids saw it this summer and they were super excited. You don’t often get to see a movie from the ‘80s or ‘90s at a drive-in.”

Ironically, the same technology that allowed the Holiday to show "Back to the Future" is threatening to put many of the last 350 outdoor theaters in the U.S. out of business when movie studios completely phase out 35mm film prints this year or next.

Owners of these mostly low-profit operations, including many moms-and-pops, are being forced to make an expensive decision: pay $80,000 or more to install a digital projector or close.

“We would not have been able to show ‘Back to the Future’ if we hadn’t gone digital,” said Holiday co-owner Todd Chancey, who put in a digital projector in May. “It was not available on 35mm film.”

Debi Brooks, who owns the area’s only other remaining drive-in, the Starlite in Amelia, shelled out the money, too, and installed the new projector in March.

But time is running out on the rest of the outdoor theaters.

Only about 60 have converted so far, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association.

Many may not reopen next year – or if they do – they might be showing “The Last Picture Show.”

“That’s sad,” said Shane Rayford. “I’d hate to lose something so nostalgic.”

Shane and Dawn said they enjoyed the drive-in when they were growing up and wanted to pass on the experience to their kids.

“My parents had a Pinto station wagon and my brother and I liked to sit on the roof. This is the only event where we let our kids do that,” Shane said.

“We would play card games or throw a baseball before the show,” he said.

The number of drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s, and nowhere were they more popular than in Greater Cincinnati.

The website Drive-Ins.com lists 37 drive-ins that opened and closed within 50 miles of downtown Cincinnati. Seventeen of those were within 20 miles.

See the list at http://www.drive-ins.com/dbdisrch.htm?status_op=closed&zipcode=45201&distance=50&search.x=12&search.y=8

One of the biggest, the Ferguson Hills Drive-In in Westwood, had room for 1,500 cars. A Walmart and a Kroger are there now, and Cincinnati is building a new District 3 police headquarters on the site.

Other popular drive-ins once included:

> Twin (it had two back-to-back screens) on the Norwood Lateral in Bond Hill;
> Oakley, 5033 Madison Road (last drive-in in Cincinnati, replaced by Madison Circle)
> Dixie Gardens, 1665 Dixie Hwy, in Fort Wright (replaced by a business park)
> Pike 27 in Cold Spring (replaced by an apartment complex)

There also used to be drive-ins in Aurora, Batesville, Covedale, Dayton (Ky.), Dent, Dry Ridge, Fairfield, Florence, Forest Park, Hamilton, Lebanon, Loveland, Mason, Middletown, Montgomery, Mount Healthy, Sharonville and Woodlawn.

The website Forgotten Ohio lists six more in Adams, Brown, Clinton and Highland counties.

See the list at http://www.forgottenoh.com/driveinlist.html

Now Chancey and Brooks are the only ones within 50 miles of downtown to carry on the tradition.

If you haven’t been to a drive-in lately, the experience hasn’t changed much, which is part of the charm.

Before the movie, when it’s still light, the parking lot looks like a campground with families sitting outside their cars – or in the back of their SUVs and in their truck beds. At the Holiday, you can smell fresh popcorn almost anywhere you go. They still show the corny but lovable intermission teasers with soft drink cups dancing, a hot dog somersaulting into a bun, and daredevil candy bars balancing on a tightrope.

And soon, the speaker you used to hang on the driver’s side window may be coming back.

“The previous owner took them out, but I’m hoping to restore them in the first few rows,” Chancey said.

In the meantime, an FM radio transmitter beams the audio around the parking lot.

Oh, yeah: teenagers still try to sneak through the gate by hiding in the trunk, said Brooks.

“Oh yes, they still do that,” she said with an laugh.

“It’s a tradition for a lot of them, I think.”

Chancey and Brooks say they are in business for the long haul.

Chancey, a Florida native, and his partner were working for Disney when they bought the Holiday seven years ago, he said. They got interested through their fascination with another American playtime favorite - roller coasters.

“We were avid roller coasters fans and we’d come here two or three times a year with a group called American Coaster Enthusiasts, ” Chancey said. “Wherever we went to ride roller coasters, we’d go to the drive-in at night. We’d always talk about purchasing and restoring a drive-in. It was exciting to find one in the backyard of one of our favorite amusement parks.

“I had worked for Disney, Disney World and Disneyland (as a manager) and I gave up all that to buy a theater,” Chancey said.

While his partner works in California, Chancey operates the Holiday. On a recent night, he was busy driving a golf cart around the lot, delivering food to the concession stand and responding to calls from employees and customers.

He even emptied some garbage cans during intermission.

Like his customers, Chancey has fond memories of going to the drive-in when he was a kid.

“I grew up in Orlando and the closest one was the Ri Mar. I saw ‘Jaws’ there. It burned down 10 or 15 years ago. Another one was the Pine Hills, where I saw ‘Grease,’ which we play here occasionally.”

Both the Holiday and the Starlite play mostly first-run movies, but Chancey says he likes “to play the classics from time to time.”

Chancey said he and his partner paid $550,000 for the Holiday and have been making improvements to the 65-year-old drive-in ever since. He brightened the colorful entrance with more neon and installed a new marquee last month.

“We’re trying to keep that kitschy, classic, Route 66 design from the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Chancey said.

But he’s also upgrading it for new generations of customers. The old white cinderblock concession stand still greets customers inside with bursts of neon and the sound of popping corn, but now it also has Starbucks coffee and Nathan’s hot dogs.

Chancey opens a door in the concession stand and steps into the projector room. It’s mostly empty of the old film relics, except for a rewind machine. The huge, balky two-reel projector  is gone, along with the film reels that were as big as bicycle tires and weighed 30 pounds. Now there’s just a humming black box about the size of the freezer on your refrigerator.

“This is it,” he says, nodding his head at his digital projector. He grabs a metal box about the size of a VHS tape off a shelf. It fits in the palm of his hand.

“The distributor sends you this and emails you the digital key that allows you to play it for as many days as you pay for,” Chancey says.

“No more lifting heavy reels of film. No more splicing them together. You used to have to splice five or six reels together. It has reduced the workload and maintenance by about 85%.”

The big payoff is for the customers, he says. They get a stunningly brighter, clearer image.

“The clarity is amazing,” Chancey says. “It’s like watching a gigantic LCD screen.”

At the Starlite, Brooks said it cost her $110,000 to go digital. “We had to redo all the electricity on the property,” she said.  “I needed to do that anyway. I needed more electricity to operate and expand the food service.”

The Starlite has a modern, roomy concession building. Drive-ins make most of their profit from concessions, she said. The cost of the ticket goes to movie fees.

For Brooks, running theaters has been a daughter-pop business.

“My father owned five theaters (in Cincinnati, Brown County and Northern Kentucky) when I was a young child, and I’ve been associated it with all my life. It was my summer job when I was in school. I’ve always had a passion for it,” Brooks said.

“You feel the excitement and adrenaline whenever you have a new movie. I love to see people laughing or reacting because I know they’re enjoying the show.”

After going to UC, Brooks leased two theaters from her father.  She leased the Starlite 25 years ago and bought it about five years later.

“Starlite customers come from all over Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. They’ve really been supportive of us through the years,” she said.

They enjoy the experience, Brooks said, and the price is right, too.

“You get two movies for the price of one at an indoor theater,” Brooks said.

The Starlite and the Holiday charge $8.50 for adults and $5 for children. At the Starlite, seniors get in for $6.50.

Over the years, Brooks said, she has seen some of her young customers return as parents and some of the parents come back as grandparents.

“You see some of the seniors come in now in their convertibles with the top down. It’s nostalgic for them,” she said. “Some of them come in with their grandkids.”

Family movies bring in the biggest crowds, Brooks said.

“It’s fun to see the parents come in with their kids, especially the little ones in pajamas,” she said. “But we like to mix up

the entertainment. After kids go back to school, we lose a lot of the family business and pick up the ‘R’ movies.”

Those bring out more teens and dates, who usually park in the back rows. They don’t call the drive-in a “passion pit” for nothing. 

“Lots of people are turned off by the indoor theater experience. A drive-in is relaxing,” Chancey said. “You can bring your kids and you can sit outside. It’s a great night out for families. You can come and go as you please.”

Families and a few couples recently filled the Holiday on a beautiful Saturday night for a double feature of ‘Planes’ and ‘Back to the Future.’

“I’m baby-sitting. It’s a perfect place to bring them,” said Debbie Bieker, pointing to her two grandsons in their pajamas. Bieker’s two grown-up daughters came along, and the family was sitting together in the bed of her pickup waiting for the movie to start.

“I love coming to the drive-in,” said one of Bieker’s daughters, Stacy Fields. “You can come with friends or you can come with kids. My 2 1/2-year-old nephew wouldn’t sit still in a theater, but he will here and he’ll watch the movie.”

Fields recalled when the whole family – including her grandmother – came to watch an Austin Powers flick. That didn’t go as well, Bieker said.

“Grandma wasn’t too happy with what she was watching,” Bieker laughed.

Business has been so good at the Holiday that Chancey had to turn away customers on some weekend nights.

“My brother tried to bring his kids here a few weeks ago and they couldn’t get in. It was full,” Fields said.

Stephen Smith and his wife, Jen, said “the nostalgia factor” brings them to the drive-in. Stephen said he remembered seeing “Return of the Jedi” at  the former Highway 42 drive-in in Mason.

As they talked, they were watching the old black-and-white announcements flash on the screen before the first show.

“I’m glad they kept those for nostalgia sake,” Jen said.

They actually had to be remade for digital, Chancey said. He bought some but plans to buy more.

Like B-movies, concession ads are a low-grade art of their own. You can find dozens on YouTube , including the "Hello Young Lovers" ad that theaters used to try to discourage, well, you know.

See the "Hello Young Lovers" message at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxcdT-lQakg

After school reopens and the nights get cool, drive-ins either close or cut back their schedules to weekends only. But Chancey is already gearing up for his big two-week Halloween celebration, when the Holiday will be open every night.

Chancey plays scary movies like "Carrie," “The Shining” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” and turns the lot into a haunted house.

“We go all-out,” Chancey said. “We build sets for ‘Psycho’ and ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and we have a 30-foot log chainsaw from ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’  We decorate the whole lot with scarecrows and things and dress up in scary costumes and freak people out.

“They really seem to enjoy it.”

After Halloween, the Holiday is open weekends until New Year’s, when Chancey holds a family New Year’s Eve party with apple cider instead of champagne.

The Starlite closed for the season after Saturday night’s shows.

Both area drive-ins will reopen next spring. But there’s no guarantee for many others across the U.S.

“I dropped in at a drive-in in the Dayton area and one of the guys who works there said if they’re forced to convert to digital, they’ll probably go out of business,” Chancey said.

An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, but that doesn’t help them cover the immediate cost of buying the digital projector, upgrading their utilities and installing climate controls to keep the new high-tech equipment at the right temperature year round.

“I wish they all could survive, but I understand the situation,” Brooks said. “If you’re in a rural area, it’s tough because you don’t have the population. And it’s quite a big chunk of money for a small business.

“A lot of the owners are not young. They have to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to spend $110,000 when I’m not going to work many more years and I’m not making much profit?’ ”

For drive-in schedules and more info, check their websites or call:

> Holiday Auto Theater: http://www.holidayautotheatre.com/ 513-929-2999; 
> Starlite Drive-In (closed for the season): http://starlitedriveinohio.com/ 513-734-4001.

Live near Wilmington, Ohio or Versailles, Ind? Check out the drive-ins there:

> Wilmington Drive-In: (closed for the season): http://www.chakerestheatres.com/wilmdi.shtml 937-382-2307;
> Bel-Air Drive In, Versailles (closed for the season): https://www.facebook.com/BelAirDriveIn?rf=212662362112077 812-689-5525.

Honda held an online vote for the nation's favorite drive-ins and is going to pay the digital conversion costs for the top five vote-getters. It's also collecting donations to save others. Read more at the Honda Project Drive-In page at http://projectdrivein.com/
 

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