Kentucky drive-in theaters that survived find they're popular again

Outdoor movie theaters in Central Ky. that survived the tough times find themselves a popular option again

cclaybourn@herald-leader.comAugust 1, 2011 

While 3-D technology increasingly becomes the norm in mainstream films, theaters boast the latest and loudest speakers, and moviegoing has become a predominantly indoor pastime, some people still seem to prefer the simplicity of the past: the drive-in.

It's a past that dates back almost 80 years, and it allows people to be essentially in their own private movie theaters, free to create their own experience.

That nostalgia and experience are what have kept people coming back to drive-in theaters, even when there was a time it looked as if they could die out, fans say.

"People don't go to the drive-in or a normal theater for just the movie. It's the experience," said Chris Erwin, manager of Judy Drive-In in Mount Sterling. "The drive-in experience is one that can't be duplicated no matter what's on screen. Its charm is that it's simple."

The drive-in theater concept was first tested in New Jersey in 1932. Since then, the theaters have gone through a whirlwind. After their booming popularity during the 1950s and '60s, drive-ins were almost gone by the late 1980s.

Harry Roaden, owner and manager of the 27 Drive-In in Somerset, said that in 1984, it looked as if drive-ins were going to have their biggest year ever, but then more and more started to close.

That all happened before megaplexes were built with screens that numbered in the double-digits.

So what caused the downturn in business?

Roaden said that when television news stations started broadcasting news reports during prime time, it kept people at home instead of at the drive-ins.

"TV has stolen two hours of our prime time," he said. "If they would never have done that, there would be a drive-in with maybe 10 screens. Somebody stole the drive-in theater's life. We were on top of the world, but then (the industry) went down $10,000 a year."

Another problem was that drive-in theaters didn't show movies as soon as they were released. So if someone went to a drive-in, they would see movies that had been in theaters for a while and had already been seen by many.

They also tended to show less popular movies that mainstream theaters wouldn't pick up.

But at least for Roaden's drive-in, that all seemed to change in 1991. "We just got some customers back," he said, unsure of the reason. "We probably grossed about $20,000 that year."

Then in 2000, things got even better for 27 Drive-In. That's when it began showing only "first-run movies," meaning it screened movies as soon as they were released.

"It was a new era for the drive-in theaters,'" Roaden said. "Now, if a movie does big, we do big. If it don't do as much, we don't do much either."

Since then, drive-ins have remained an attractive option on the increasingly crowded movie-watching menu.

According to the most recent statistics from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, 14 drive-ins were open in Kentucky in 2010 with 20 screens total. Nationwide, 374 sites were open with 618 screens total.

While there have been some that have closed along the way, the ones that are open stay plenty busy.

"On an average weekend night, we'll probably have anywhere from 500 to 800 people," said Joseph Miller, manager of Winchester's Sky-Vue Twin Drive-In. "For the big anticipated movies, we'll get close to 1,000 people if not sell out.

On a given summer night, cars can be seen backed up nearly a mile on Lexington Road just before dark to get into the Winchester theater. When the movie starts, it's tough for customers to find a place to park because of how packed it is.

Part of what attracts people to drive-ins is the value customers get when they go.

"It's $5 to get two movies, when a 3-D movie, while it might be a big deal, you've got to pay an arm and a leg for it," said Ethan Brogli of Winchester.

The 27 Drive-In in Somerset also charges just $5 for a double feature.

And since the idea is for people to sit in their own cars while watching the movie, it essentially puts people in their own private theaters.

"The main attraction is having your own area," C.J. Puckett of Winchester said. "It's really just about being able to do your own thing. You can talk and have a good time, not worrying about distracting other people.

"Also, they give you two movies for the price of one, which is always nice."

It's those types of things that have kept Puckett coming back to Winchester's drive-in.

Drive-ins often provide more of a meal-type menu at their concession stands, with lower prices. Miller said Winchester's drive-in charges about $2 less on average than indoor theaters do.

"In this type of economy, that makes a difference," he said.

But like any business, drive-ins don't come without caveats.

"We do jump a lot of cars because batteries die out," Miller said. "But we're always prepared for that."

He said some cars sneak in every now and then, and some people try to steal food and drinks.

And sometimes larger vehicles will park toward the front, making it difficult for customers in smaller cars behind them to see.

With limited screens, they don't have the variety that a normal theater has. And if it rains, it's on the theater to give those in attendance a rain check.

The trend during the past 12 years, according to the owners' association, suggests that drive-ins are on their way to becoming extinct down the road.

But some say there always will be a place for the unique experience they provide.

"Once people discover that, they keep coming back," Erwin said. "There's nothing quite like it.

"It's almost like a festival experience at the drive-in. As long as there is someone that loves the theater and enjoys the theater, there will still be drive-ins."

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