Drive-In Movies Still Alive and Flicking in Some Places

Author: Jennifer Kay

Source: Associated Press

More than two hours before the movie began, families lined their truck beds with blankets and set out lawn chairs for an evening of tailgating, throwing footballs, and playing with their children on the playground.

The line for popcorn, soda and chili dogs at the concession stand was almost as long as the line of several hundred cars snaking out onto the highway looking for a space at Becky's Drive-In.

By 9:30 o'clock on a recent Friday night, Cindy Deppe and her brother Darrell Beck - whose family has kept Becky's open since 1946 - were turning cars away.

Not a bad night in a business many feared was dying just a decade ago.

Gone are the old car-side speakers, although one hangs for sale for $20 above the candy rack. Like those at most drive-in theaters today, Becky's moviegoers tune into the movie on FM radio.

The blend of nostalgia with modern movie technology draws patrons from New York, New Jersey, and all over eastern Pennsylvania to the Northampton County theater, roughly 70 miles north of Philadelphia.

Those who make the trip say the drive-in is worth the distance.

"It's the only drive-in near where we live," said Adrienne Pollner, 15, whose family drove an hour from Phillipsburg, N.J. "It's a great way to get away with friends and family," she said, looking up from a card game with her twin sister, Susan, in the back of her sport-utility vehicle.

"It's a tradition to come to the drive-in," their mother, Joni Pollner, said. "When they were little, we put them in their pajamas, and, by the time the second movie came on, they were asleep. My parents did that when we were kids. They'll remember this when they're grown up."

Becky's is one of approximately 430 drive-ins operating in the United States, said Randy Loy, executive director of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

While that's nowhere near the more than 4,000 drive-ins operating in 1958, the industry's heyday, Loy said the 13 new theaters that have opened nationwide since 1990 signal a thriving business.

Since the three-screen Vintage Drive-In opened in 1997 in East Avon, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Rochester, the owner, Paul Dean, said his business has doubled every year, and each 200-car screen sells out on Saturday nights.

The Stardust Drive-In opening next April in Watertown, Tenn., will save moviegoers a 30-mile trip to the multi-screen indoor theaters in Nashville. Bumpers Drive-In, scheduled to open two screens in the fall in Eldersburg, Md., will usher drive-in theaters into a new age with digital movie projection.

Many drive-ins disappeared from major cites due to rising land values and development, but they hung on in smaller towns using flea markets, mini-golf, restaurants open year-round, and hay rides and cornfield mazes in the fall.

"We recommend to our members, if they can use their drive-in for another use as well, to do so," Loy said. "Unless they really do a great business during the season, a lot of times they need something. There are all kinds of expenses that go year-round, and those kinds of things generate money year-round."

Getting more family friendly movies on their opening weekends - including this summer's blockbusters, Spiderman, The Sum of All Fears and Scooby-Doo - has helped lure people back.

But the movie showing often has little to do with the drive-in's attraction.

Waiting in the waning light for the Mr. Deeds and Scooby-Doo double feature to start, Becky's patrons said catching two new releases for only $6 was a bargain, but they really came for the outdoor experience.

Parents watched their children lolling in the grass. A pony took riders on a slow walk from the screen to the highway and back. In the privacy of their cars, some moviegoers enjoyed things usually forbidden at the multiplex: smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones.

And once they come for one movie, they keep coming back.

"We came here before Becky's showed porn" for several years in the 1980s, said Sharon Bonser, of Palmerton, Pa. "Then we couldn't come here for a while. But now we're back. And we've been here three weekends in a row already."

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