New films bring back old memories at Sundance KidWritten by Michael Stainbrook | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On a clear mid-June night, Aaron Cole decided to take his daughter to the movies. He arrived at the theater in plenty of time, bought his ticket (4-year-old Ariel got in for free) and parked in the stone-laden lot. Then Cole assembled a cinematic suite for his daughter — several blankets and a plethora of pillows provided plenty of comfort as Ariel nestled in and prepared to watch Marmaduke and the latest Shrek flick from the hood of her father’s sedan.
Cole said it was his first time visiting the theater in four years. Ariel piped in, saying she had been to the movies before, but not at a place like this. Her father chuckled and said he had taken her once before when she was much too young to remember.
Such is a typical night at the Sundance Kid Drive-In in Oregon. Individuals, couples, families and friends still enjoy an evening under the starlit sky while watching a movie or two in the open air.
“It’s really cool to get together with friends,” said Toledo resident Tiona Hawkins, who tries to spend a night at the drive-in at least once a month.
“It’s a place where you can talk and not have to worry about people getting in your way.”
The freedoms offered in a drive-in setting, such as smoking a cigarette and talking with the kids, are just a couple of the things that have secured a niche for outdoor theaters in the wide world of cinema.
“There’s a good number of people that like going to a drive-in movie theater, period,” said Jim Walter, owner of Great Eastern Theatre Company, which owns the Sundance.
“A lot of times we’re showing two first-run movies on one screen for less than the price of one at an indoor theater.”
Admission for two movies is $8 for adults, $3 for children 6 to 12 years old and free for children five years old or younger.
The Sundance opened in 1952 as Parkside Drive-In. At one point, the area had more than half a dozen drive-ins, but now the Sundance stands as the only such theater near the Glass City. Ohio still has 31 operating drive-ins with a total of 48 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association website.
“It’s a piece of Americana that people like and hope stays around for a while, and we do too,” Walter said.
“Some just come to try it out. Some come all the time. It’s a neat throwback for our country.”
Great Eastern Theatres took over the drive-in in 1989 and has since invested over half a million dollars in restoration efforts. The company increased the parking capacity, installed a new sewer system, renovated the towers for each of the two 92-by-68 foot screens, and built new ticket booths at the entrance.
The screens were scraped and given a fresh coat of paint last year. The 20-acre stone parking lot also requires regular upkeep.
“I guarantee you could put a couple hundred tons of stone in and you’ll never know where it goes. It just seems to disappear,” said Keven Christy, vice president and general manager of Great Eastern Theatres. Christy is in charge of day-to-day operations at the Sundance.
“Every year we put hundreds of tons of stone down to keep it filled up. It’s the nature of the beast.”
The theater has made adjustments to new technology while trying to preserve its heritage. Moviegoers can now listen to their movie through their car radios. The Sundance has AM and FM antennas for audio, which is even available in stereo surround sound in cars with the proper technology.
The movies are played from a film reel projector comparable to what is used in indoor theaters.
Within a few years, the Sundance will make the switch to digital projection along with other theaters across the country. But for now, 3D imaging is still out of the picture.
“We try to keep it sound but keep it looking the same,” Walter said. “The equipment you change because you need to update the equipment, but the look … is the same because you try to maintain it.”
The theater also maintains an extensive menu. Customers frequent the indoor concession stand, which serves typical movie fare as well as hamburgers, french fries and pizza. Carnival-style confections are for sale at the Butch Cassidy Canteena, a bright red trailer behind the indoor stand.
Most of the food is made as needed so it stays fresh, but some of it requires preparation. An employee or two sometimes comes in early to prepare other items such as kettle corn and cotton candy, or to slice onions for the newest feature at the theater: homemade onion rings.
“They’re about an inch and a half thick,” Christy said. “The suckers are huge. They’re so big you only get four or five of them in an order, and that’s more than what most people can eat.”
The Sundance has a kitchen artillery deeper than that of most other theaters. The drive-in’s menu requires a grill and an oven, and between the main concession stand and the Canteena, it uses six deep fryers.
“Deep fried foods: Clog those arteries. Have a good time,” Christy said with a laugh.
The drive-in often will reach its 900-car capacity on a weekend night with popular movies and good weather. On nights with less desirable films or conditions, attendance is much lower. The Sundance is fully staffed with about 15 employees, but as few as five might work on a slower evening.
“It’s like going to Vegas every day. You just don’t know what you’re going to get,” Christy said.
The first movie on each screen has to start after dusk in order for the screens to display an easily viewable image. That means the movies start latest near the end of June, when the days are longest.
The second movie on each screen finishes about 2 a.m. this time of year, and employees wrap up their work about 2:30 a.m.
Great Eastern Theatres has pointed the focus of the drive-in toward family friendliness. A grassy play area in front of each screen allows children to play before and during the movies. During the summer — observed at the drive-in from Memorial Day to Labor Day —the theater normally does not show R-rated films, and the more kid-friendly features are always shown first. Many of the youngsters will fall asleep before the second, more mature movie begins.
And then there’s the ever-looming question of teenage promiscuity at outdoor theaters. Martin said teens generate a good portion of the drive-in’s business, but families have been coming in greater numbers. Shifting social norms also have made PDA at drive-ins unnecessary.
“Kids don’t have to go into a drive-in theater to engage in the things they like to do now,” Martin said. “They still come, bunches of them, but the bulk of our business is family oriented.
“They don’t come with things in mind that kids 50 years ago had in mind. They can do it in their living room.”
The clean atmosphere also pleases employees.
“It’s a good atmosphere,” said Tyler Bunker, a rising junior at Northview. His concession stand job is the first employment he’s ever had.
“Everyone’s really nice here, so I like it here.”
Christy likes it too. He’s been in the theater business for more than 35 years and has no plans on quitting any time soon.
“There’s nothing better in the middle of the summer than being able to walk around the lot, kick a few stones and raise a little dust and talk to everybody,” he said.
“Anybody that operates or owns a drive-in does it because they love it. Once it’s in your blood, you can’t get it out.”
Five DRIVE-IN INSIDER tips
1. Buy the hard plastic bucket of popcorn for $9 and get lifetime refills for $5.
2. Minivans have to park in the “yellow pole” rows on weekends, but are allowed to park anywhere during weekdays, which means bigger cars can get as close as possible.
3. There is a grassy green area in front of Screen 1 and Screen 2 so kids can toss a ball and run out some energy before the movie starts.
4. The soundtrack signal comes in through AM and FM channels, but the FM sound is much clearer and offers great stereo separation.
5. Take along some paper towels and Windex; you will be amazed what a difference a clean and clear windshield makes.
– Michael S. Miller