Fayette County

Digital projector and first-run films keep crowds coming to Bourbon Drive In

At The Bourbon Drive In

"Secret Life of Pets" and "Ghostbusters" played on a typical night at The Bourbon Drive In in Paris.
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"Secret Life of Pets" and "Ghostbusters" played on a typical night at The Bourbon Drive In in Paris.

The storm is all around, with dark gray clouds thick and heavy. Some people might check radar tracking on their smartphones to determine the path of the obvious storm.

Trisha Earlywine, however, scans the open fields around The Bourbon Drive In as she has thousands of times before.

The clouds to the left of the outdoor theater’s single screen are coming from Georgetown, and the ones to the right are over Maysville, she said.

“Usually the weather comes through that way,” she said drawing her finger through the air in front of her.

“Can you feel it? That cold air?” That means, she said, storms on a hot night. “I can feel it.”

Earlywine, who runs The Bourbon Drive In, likes old-fashioned things. She swears she has “never even plugged a computer into a wall.” She does not text, and she keeps her books as she always has: with a pencil and paper. And until last year, the drive-in used a film projector as it had since it opened in 1956.

She is coming off a few hard years, when it seemed as if the family-run business might not make it. In 2013 she told the Herald-Leader that “Everything will be OK” was her motto, but she was stressed and scrambling. She entered a contest to try win a projection system, and when that didn’t work, she was frantic to find a way to raise $70,000.

Not only does she love movies, voicing opinions on actors and characters from Meryl Streep to the Minions, but during the season, the drive-in is her life. With a double feature running to 1 a.m., night spills over into morning. She’s always in need of supplies, and something always needs to be fixed. Her daughter and husband both help, but they have health problems. A small, dedicated staff has been with her for decades, but she is the engine that makes the enterprise go.

Ultimately, Earlywine solved her problem of getting a digital projector the old-fashioned way: She borrowed the money.

“We just had to do it,” she said. “We had no other choice.”

Other drive-in owners have made different decisions. In 1980, there were 2,400 drive-ins in the United States, according to the United Drive-In Movie Theatre Owners Association. By 2000, there were 443. Now there are 324, and 299 of those are digital.

There are 13 left in Kentucky, according to the association. The Sky Vue Drive In in Winchester was one of the most recent to go dark, in 2014.

We just had to do it. We had no other choice.

Trisha Earlywine, Bourbon Drive-In

Earlywine said she couldn’t imagine not running the drive-in with her family. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said. So this is her second summer with a digital projector.

Digital makes a difference, because an ever-shrinking number of movies are even put on film, Earlywine said. The film copies available are hard to come by. When you could get them, the movies would have already been in, and sometimes out of, regular theaters.

This summer, Earlywine has been able to show movies as soon as they are in theaters. On Friday it was “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Ghostbusters.”

One Friday brought out some longtime fans. “I’ve been coming here as long as I have lived in Paris,” said A.J. Best, 28. Turns out, that is his whole life. Best came with his family when he was a kid and with his friends when he was a teen, and on Friday he was with his wife, Chrissy, and daughter Makenzie, 9. He likes not being crowded in a theater and being able to visit with friends before and after a movie. On Friday, he had three spots staked out early for his group.

At the drive-in, the pre-show is as almost as much of a draw as the movie itself.

Scott Luallen had some bubbles and a bubble wand, making him the most popular dad in the field in front of the screen. Two dozen kids, who had been throwing Frisbees and playing ball, scurried around him, squealing, as the first shimmering orb drifted into the air.

Luallen also grew up with a drive-in. In 1985, his former band, Nine Pound Hammer, wrote “Stuck in the Drive,” a cowpunk song inspired by many weekend evenings when outdoor movies were the only thing to do in Owensboro, his hometown.

Clear on the other side of the front row, the back of a black pickup is filled with five women ages 18 to 21, all from Lexington. They stand out in the Bourbon Drive In crowd with their prominent piercings and tattoos, and Bryn Eickhhorn’s hair is dyed in blues, pinks and purples. They are friends from Lafayette High School. And, Eickhhorn said, “This is the only way to see a movie.” Rarely does the group go to a regular movie theater.

Friday was a good night, with about 200 cars; capacity is about 350. Although there have been several sellouts this season, “that doesn’t happen every weekend,” Earlywine said. “There are times when you get one car.”

She remembers once, a long time ago, when a single patron sat next to a car with an umbrella as it snowed.

If you need proof that Earlywine, 66, is optimistic about the future, aside from the fact that she looks 10 years younger than in 2013, just look behind the concession stand. There is parked a cherry-red Hummer.

Earlywine gets a little flustered when asked about it. She hadn’t had a new car since the she bought her old Buick in 1989. The Hummer was used, a 2006. She got a good price, she said. It’s paid for, and she needs it to haul concession supplies from Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. But after a few minutes, she said with a smile, it’s true that “sometimes you just need to buy a cherry-red Hummer.”

So there might be hope for drive-ins after all, not just because of digital screens, but because as they become more rare, they become a touchstone for the nostalgic. They’re also an attraction for folks who have never been to a drive-in before.

At its peak in 1958, Kentucky had 117 drive-in theaters, almost one for every county.

Jeff Acton heard about it from his dad, who liked to talk about how he went to drive-ins back in the day. Acton drove 50 miles from Pendleton County to come to the show. Earlywine said it’s not unusual for people to drive two hours to the drive-in.

“I just kept hearing about a drive-in, but this is the first time I’ve ever been,” said Acton, who was one of the first to pull in after the box office opened at 7 p.m. He and Brittany Bowman, from Falmouth, were eating burgers in the back of Acton’s truck as the sun set. Asked whether they were friends or on a date, Acton, 21, nodded toward Bowman, 20, and said, “You have to ask her.” After a short awkward silence, she said, “You can say it’s a date.”

“Put that in the newspaper,” Acton said with a grin.

By the way, it did rain in Paris on Friday. The sprinkles came, but the people stayed, and by the time the main attraction began about 9:30 p.m., the sky was nearly clear.

By the numbers

  • There were 2,400 U.S. drive-ins in 1980
  • 443 remained in 2000
  • Just 324 are active
  • 299 of the active drive ins are digital

Source: United Drive-In Movie Theatre Owners Association

The Bourbon Drive-In

  • Box office opens at 7 p.m., Fri.-Sun.
  • Tickets $7 for adults, $2 for age 6-9; free for ages 5 and younger
  • Cash only
  • No outside food
  • Information: 859-987-2935