The drive-in: a new wave in cinema? In upstate New York, an entrepreneur's gamble is paying off. Is its success a preview of coming attractions?

June 21, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

EAST AVON, N.Y. -- As Trish Bartlett's Ford Explorer approaches from the interstate, Leonardo DiCaprio's head rises 60 feet out of a cornfield two miles away, the only undulation in a clear horizon. She takes the exit, parks, and her four daughters settle into sleeping bags on the Explorer's roof, watching the boy actor's every move.

Up near the huge screen, Tyler Walsh, 8, is throwing rocks at a friend and ignoring the movie, "Titanic." Farther back, Kathy Barnard, a 36-year-old Burger King manager, is glancing anxiously at her 17-year-old daughter, Danielle, in the car next to hers. Each time Mom looks over, Danielle kisses her boyfriend harder.

This scene is not of the past.

Before last summer, this patch of grass 15 miles south of Rochester was used only as a flea-market locale. Today, it's also home to a brand-new dinosaur. According to a California-based industry group, the Vintage Drive-In here is the first new drive-in built in the Northeast in at least a decade.

"This is the future," says Paul Dean, the owner, who uses a golf cart to drive around his outdoor theater. "I've had business advisers say, 'You're crazy. It takes up too much property.'

"But it's a classic case of what is old is new again. People want cheap, wholesome, outdoor, family entertainment. I'm going to make money with this."

Such confidence is not backed by recent history. Across America, developers desperate for flat terrain have torn down drive-in screens and replaced them with malls and Wal-Marts.

In 1958, there were 4,063 drive-in screens. In 1980, there were 3,504. Today, only 815 of the nation's 31,865 screens are outdoors. New Jersey, home of the first drive-in, has none left. In Maryland, the Eastern Avenue property that is home to Bengies Drive-In is up for sale, and the current owner believes the theater may close this fall.

"It's a paradox: It's a dying industry, but it never really lost popularity," says Jim Kozak, communications director for the National Association of Theater Owners in North Hollywood, Calif. "They were victims of the real-estate market, not the public.

Developers have been able to offer theater owners incredible amounts of money for their land."

Dean, 41, took a roundabout path to bucking the trend of dying drive-ins. Raised in Rochester, he grew up seeing Paul Newman movies at the Starlite Drive-in in nearby Henrietta, but never thought he would get into the business. A few years back, the Starlite became a BJ's Wholesale Club.

Sixteen years ago, just out of school, Dean opened the Elmwood Inn, a popular Rochester sports bar. Then five years ago, he bought the flea market in East Avon, and realized that the closest drive-in to Rochester was 90 minutes away. So he decided to build two screens - one 25-by-54 feet, the other 26-by-60 - on his property here.

He still operates the flea market, which "by itself pays for all the overhead," says Dean, 41. "The movie business is a way to increase the revenues."

Dean struggled at the start. Neighbors complained about the light from the screen. Many locals stayed away the first weekend when he opened with "Liar, Liar," thinking the new drive-in must be a practical joke. Neither Dean nor any of his employees knew how to run a movie projector.

"It was pretty tense the first couple weeks," says Paul Richardson, the drive-in's manager. "Either the lights would stay on and the projector would go off, or the projector would stay on and the lights would go off. And every time we had trouble, the audience let us know it. They honked their horns."

But Dean found his way.

Instead of putting sound speakers in each car, he arranged to have the movie sound played over the FM radio band - a wildly popular experiment. He learned how to save money by renting films two weeks after their initial release. He discovered that, when the cars file in, family station wagons should be pointed to the front, and that the young couples in sporty compacts should be directed to the back. And he determined that drive-in audiences prefer a themed double-feature; on most weekend nights, one screen shows action flicks, while the other is devoted to comedy or romance.

A year after opening, the Vintage has full lots on the weekend, and Dean is planning to build a third screen by next spring. Kozak, of the California theater owners' group, says the Vintage's success could be one sign of a mini-revival. The pace of closings is slowing, he says, and a few abandoned drive-ins are being revived in the South.

Still, Dean's success stands out, and with the theater's popularity have come demands. Car collectors want to organize Classic Car Nights. Dean's family and friends often push him to show their favorite movies. His youngest son, 7-year-old Cameron, is angry at his father for not showing more James Bond films.

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