Tonawanda News

April 18, 2008

LIFESTYLE: Jivin' at the drive-in

By Paul Lane<br><a href="mailto:lanep@gnnewspaper.com">E-mail Paul</a>

As the drive-in theater readies for its 75th anniversary this summer, a group of local enthusiasts is banding together to make sure the seasonal icon is around for decades more.

The Western New York Drive-In Movie Society came together in October as a way to share stories and preserve what local theaters remain. The group came too late to save the Buffalo Drive-In, which closed after last season, but its members look to promote the nine theaters left in Western New York — including two in Niagara County.

“It’s a place where people know they can go if they want to have a good time,” said George Root of Lockport, one of the society’s founding members.

The idea to form a society came after hearing about a similar group that had started up a few years prior in southern California. That group helped significantly boost drive-in attendance its first year, a feat Root hopes to duplicate here.

To help in that, the society will host a series of tailgate parties throughout the summer, during which many of the roughly 40 society members will gather with fellow drive-in enthusiasts for the evening, Root said. The first party is slated for May 23 at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport.

“We hope to get people to come out who don’t normally come,” said Root, who singled out people who don’t have a companion for the evening. “For people who have no one to go with, our group will give them that.”

The hope is that first-timers will get hooked and become repeat customers, Root said.

“There is an aura at the drive-in. There is an experience at the drive-in that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “Once you go once, you’re going to want to go again.”

Anniversary celebration

This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the drive-in theater, which was created by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J. Hollingshead opened his theater June 6, 1933, a day that is now referred to as Hollingshead Day and will be noted with a special celebration locally, Root said.

The drive-in concept quickly caught on, with theaters opening on both coasts by the end of the decade. The number of U.S. theaters further swelled after World War II, jumping from 155 in 1946 to 1,817 in 1950 and a peak of 4,063 in 1958.

Helping in this growth were “open houses” hosted by theater owners, many of whom were opening businesses that were foreign to their clientele, according to driveintheater.com. Once these people were introduced to the drive-in, many theaters quickly found themselves having to turn away customers. During this boom period, many drive-in owners constructed rides for children and enhanced their concession offerings to make for a true family night out.

“Drive-ins are an American icon and a place for families to spend time together without breaking their budget,” said Transit Drive-owner Rick Cohen, whose family has owned the theater since 1957. “It’s an experience which appeals to all generations, from children to senior citizens.”

A decline was seen in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to more adult-themed movies, and the number of drive-ins dropped to 2,538 by 1979. That number plummeted 923 by 1989, thanks in part to cable and VCRs allowing for more comfortable viewing experiences at home.

Western New York saw at least two-thirds of its drive-ins close during these years, including the Boulevard Drive-In in Wheatfield; the Delaware, I-290, Skyway Niagara and Sheridan drive-ins in the Tonawandas; the Lockport Drive-In in Gasport; and the Falls Auto View and Starlight drive-ins in Niagara Falls. Statewide, 32 drive-ins remained in operation as of 2007, according to drive-ins.com.

Rather than give up, though, some local theater owners fought back. Cohen installed improved FM stereo sound and increased the reproduction quality of the films showing while starting up special events such as pony rides to bring families back.

In Middleport, Sunset Drive-In owner Mario Stornelli reintroduced the theater as a first-run venue in the 1990s and put an emphasis on the accompanying restaurant, which opens before movies start showing and closes well after the projectors stop rolling.

“Multi-tasking is big for us,” said Stornelli, whose family built the Sunset in 1950.

Local weather also presents a challenge, Cohen said in an e-mail, as hiding from the elements is impossible. That presents challenges both in terms of opening the screens for the year and in grounds maintenance.

“We are constantly painting, filling pot holes and working to keep the drive-in clean and looking sharp,” he said.

The number of U.S. drive-ins has leveled off this decade, with 405 in operation as of last summer. The key, Cohen said, is to put in the work and be creative in your business practices. That’s helped bring in many four-figure crowds since he took the theater over in 1987, he said on the theater’s Web site.

“I was told by my family and others that the drive-in was a dinosaur, a thing of the past, and that we’d never see the nights with over 1,000 admissions again,” he said.

Looking to the future

Root recalled a story about a German exchange student who was in Western New York last summer and made her first-ever visit to the drive-in here.

“She was at the drive-in texting her friends about the drive-in,” he said. “She said it was the best thing she’d ever seen.”

That’s the type of feeling Root and his group want to bring to other newbies. A drive-in lover since age 5, Root feels that the experience is a part of life itself.

“The drive-in is a huge part of Americana,” he said. “We’d just like to have the society have a positive impact on drive-ins and the general summer experience.”

The society is still accepting members and is open to suggestions, Root said. One long-term vision he has is to create a museum of sorts where local drive-in artifacts could be housed for theater-lovers to see.

While the group formed last season, this coming season will be the first year for the group to have any substantial impact. Root hopes enough interest is generated to carry on the drive-in’s legacy. New drive-ins may not be built in the area, he said, but he’s committed to at least preserving those that remain.

As far as local theater owners are concerned, that won’t be an issue.

“It’s nice for the family. They get together and enjoy two movies for the price of one,” Stornelli said. “I just think it’s a nice night out.”

“The Transit Drive-In is not closing, it is not for sale for any price and it intends to be around for many more years to come,” Cohen said.

Contact editor Paul Laneat 693-1000, ext. 116.



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To find out more about the Western New York Drive-In Movie Society and local venues, visit freewebs.com/wnydims