PARIS — There is a moment every year when the magic happens for the first time. The light dances across the white screen and the colors appear above the dark outlines of cars. The sweet smell of funnel cakes hit in the air and a little bit of Hollywood comes, again, to a field outside of town.
Every year since 1955, the Bourbon Drive-In has started showing films in the spring and had shows through the fall. When Trisha Earlywine, who owns the drive-in with her husband, Lanny, talks about folks coming to the movies she says "they come to visit." It's not unusual for her to welcome people back by name over the loudspeakers or to ask a Saturday night crowd to remember in their prayers a regular visitor who is ailing.
She thinks part of the appeal of the drive-in is that it's not an all-the-time thing.
"It's kind of like a fair or the carnival coming to town," she said. "People look forward to it but you don't want to wear out your welcome."
"You're here and then you're gone," she said.
But now, facing shrinking audiences and the need for a digital projector that can cost more than $70,000, Trisha Earlywine is working to figure out a way to stay open although she hasn't got the details down quite yet.
"It will be OK. That's my tagline," she said while rubbing her hands in her lap, sitting in the cool concession stand, scrubbed and closed for the winter. "It will be OK. You can put it on my grave: It will be OK."
The dawn of the drive-in
The story of the Bourbon Drive-In parallels the story of drive-ins in America, said Kip Shearer, who has collected industry data at Drive-Ins.com. In the 1950s, there were 4,000 drive-ins in America, Shearer said. Today, there are 350.
Kentucky once had 150 drive-ins, with The Starway in Frankfort, the Judy in Dry Ridge and the Bluegrass in Georgetown among the ones closed. There are 13 left, nearly all mom-and-pop operations like the Bourbon Drive-In.
The peak of drive-in construction was between 1950 and 1955 when the Bourbon Drive-In opened. A group of local leaders decided to get in on the latest entertainment craze and asked Trisha's father-in-law, Everette Earlywine, if he'd like to run the place. A farmer, Everette Earlywine didn't have much experience with technology or, for that matter, a particular love of movies.
But, Trisha Earlywine said, "They knew he was an honest man and a hard worker. He had a work ethic. He was a small-built guy. He weighed 135 and that was on a fat day. But he died in his work shoes and work clothes."
Everette and his wife, Helen Earlywine, eventually moved into a brick ranch house up the hill from the concession stand and the drive-in was literally the family business. Trisha Earlywine started working behind the counter at 17 when she started dating Lanny Earlywine.
Everette and Helen Earlywine bought the drive-in on the day Trisha's daughter, Renee, was born, June 7, 1964. By 6, she was making $1 a night helping out running the Plinko arcade machine. Trisha and Lanny Earlywine became the official owners on May 12, 1994. She recites the dates like a treasured anniversary.
Everette Earlywine used to joke that if anybody had to get sick they better manage to do it during the week, when the drive-in was closed. So Lanny and Trisha Earlywine have rarely missed a weekend. One time they decided to go to Lanny Earlywine's high school reunion but found themselves leaving early to get back to the drive-in.
The place to be
It's not that it is necessarily pleasant work. There is no air conditioning in the concession stand and in the summer the temperature can get to over 100 degrees with all the treats cooking. When there is a double feature, it's not unusual for workers to head home at 2 a.m.
For a long time, the Bourbon was the place to be. For some folks, it provided a mini vacation when they couldn't afford anything else.
"We try to keep our prices low," Trisha Earlywine said. "If they can't afford to go to Disneyland, this is something they can bring their families to and not break the bank."
It's a tradition for some.
"You've got three or four generations of people, they started out with their babies, then they are teens and next those babies are bringing their babies to the movie," she said. On Sunday nights in the 1980s, kids from high schools all around — Bourbon County, Paris, Nicholas County, Harrison County — would stake their tribal spot each week, with film watching secondary to the serious business of boy-girl watching, she said.
At its peak, she said, the parking lot was filled for every show.
Things started to change in the '90s. Trisha Earlywine figures maybe more kids had cars of their own and they didn't need a place to congregate. And there were more entertainment options.
Sometimes people will come in now when there are only a handful of cars in the lot and wonder where the crowds have gone.
"I have people who come back and they will say 'where is everybody at'....well, honey that changed a long time ago," she said with a rare wistful note in her voice.
Future of the drive-in
The DVD and home theater have provided people with more ways to get their movies, but Shearer of Drive-Ins.com said one of the most important threats to drive-in theaters was the value of the land they were built on. Originally, drive-ins were built on the outskirts of town, but as towns grew the land became more valuable for other kinds of commercial development, he said.
The current threat is a decision by movie makers to stop making movies on film. Instead everything is switching to digital and that means drive-ins need to invest in new digital projectors which can cost between $70,000 to $80,000.
Honda set up Project Drive-In this summer offering to buy projectors for some drive-ins in the United States. More than 2.6 million votes were cast at ProjectDriveIn.com and Honda was able to buy projectors for nine theaters.
"The majority of the people I've talked to, they are really struggling with the idea of coming up with the money,'' said Alicia Jones, a Honda spokeswoman who described drive-ins as "a piece of Americana."
"It's (the cost of the projector) more than their operating budget for several years," she said, adding that "most of them are really passion projects."
The top vote-getter, the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine, is run by a 23-year-old man whose sister is the ticket taker. The siblings run the drive-in as a second job. Their Facebook effort drew 26,000 likes.
Trisha Earlywine did what she could to drum up support for the Bourbon Drive-In. Her Facebook page drew a couple of hundred likes. She has had people offer to have fundraisers to help pay for the new projector, but letting people do that makes her uncomfortable.
"I have had so many people who want to help, a lady at a restaurant in Cynthiana had just had a fire. I thought, 'Honey, you need the money yourself.'"
She's tried to see if she could secure local support in the form of grants or low-interest loans but that hasn't worked out. A man from a projector company has come out and she thinks she can get something for less than $70,000.
The last few years it's been a stretch to even get movies in, films are so hard to come by. She has had to cobble things together week by week, announcing shows on the fly and negotiating by phone because, as she said, "I am the last person in the entertainment industry without email."
It will be OK, somehow.
"We will be up in March," she said.
But when she gets the digital projector, it will be a sad day in its own way. When they changed the original reel-to-reel projector for the then-new technology, she cried.
Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.