Come summer, Darci Wemple waits for the purple dusk of twilight time.
Evening gloom means lights and color at the Ozoner 29 and El Rancho Drive-in theaters, the businesses Wemple runs with her husband Bill. Pick-up trucks, cars and sports utility vehicles have been rolling in for weekend shows since mid-April. Warmer temperatures are coming, and so are more kids, once schools close for the year.
Drive-ins remain cool summer diversions for people who prefer movies under the stars. Wemple, whose Ozoner 29 is located on Route 29 in Broadalbin in Fulton County and whose El Rancho is on Route 5 in Palatine Bridge in Montgomery County, loves the family atmosphere. It’s one of her major selling points.
“I always use the word ‘wholesome,'” she said. “The expectation is met. They think this is going to be a nice, fun family social experience and we meet that. It’s always what you expect it to be.”
The grounds start to fill an hour or so before dusk, as movie fans grab their favorite parking spots. In some places, larger vehicles are not allowed in the first several rows.
People come with lawn chairs, blankets and bug spray. Creative kids lounge on mattresses placed in the beds of pick up trucks or stretch out on the roofs of SUVs. Part of the fun is countdown to movie time.
Wemple said people like being outside on summer nights, but she also believes drive-in prices will not drive people into financial ruin. At the Ozoner 29 and El Rancho, admission is $8 for adults and $4 for kids age 11 and under.
“We give two movies for the price of one, that appeals to everyone,” she said. “Families can afford it better, teens who are dating can afford it, even older people who like the nostalgia of it appreciate the deal.”
Wemple believes drive-ins — and their owners — are a resilient bunch. There have been challenges since the first modern drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. There have been boom times, too — by the late 1950s and early ’60s, there were 4,000 outdoor theaters across the U.S.
The popularity of television during the ’50s and ’60s didn’t help outdoor screens. And Wemple said many theaters screened “B” movies from the horror genres during the 1970s. During that period, X-rated movies became staples at some places.
“In the 1980s, it was the video stores and home entertainment, in the ’90s it was the computer generation,” Wemple said. “Now, we’ve had to not only face the Netflix and Redbox venues, we’ve had to go digital or go out of business.”
The Ozoner and El Rancho made the conversions. The Wemples made the significant financial upgrades themselves, and did not ask their customers for any contributions. That’s one reason the Wemples ask visitors to buy hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn and the usual assortment of candy bars from their snack bars, and not bring food in with them.
“We simple ask them to support all sides of our business,” Wemple said.
In 2014, there were 393 drive-ins currently in operation around the country, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association in Middle River, Maryland. Those theaters had 656 total screens.
In the association survey, New York had the most sites and screens, with 29 and 50, respectively. Ohio and Pennsylvania both had 28 theaters, with 47 screens in Ohio and 48 screens in Pennsylvania.
D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary for the association and owner of the Bengis Drive-in in Baltimore, Maryland, said there is plenty of product available for drive-in owners.
“The real attraction to drive-ins is, it’s the last of diversity in America,” Vogel said. “You don’t have Mom and Pop grocery stores, you have Wal-Marts and Targets and most shopping centers look alike with all the same stuff in them. We’re the little guys, the drive-in theaters.”
While older people might go for the nostalgia angle, Vogel said, drive-ins are also attracting school-age kids. Even with their high-tech cell phones and tablets, Vogel said, “They really love these places.”
Same thing goes at the Malta Drive-in. Ed Caro, who owns the Ballston Spa drive-in with his brother Tom, said he’s always making improvements — like putting new LED lights in the theater’s roadside marquee.
” I wouldn’t be doing that unless I thought things were going good,” Caro said.
Prime time is the Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends. The family scene will be around the entire summer, Caro said, with movies like “Angry Birds,” “Finding Dory,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” and “Ice Age: Collision Course” all coming.
“It’s a communal experience,” Caro said. “You’re sitting outside with other people, the weather’s nice, it’s a different experience.”
Frank Fisher has spent most of his life at the Hollywood Drive-in in Averill Park, a theater his father James opened in 1952.
Frank Fisher said the theater still gets crowds, as long as rainy weather stays away. He said his challenges have been the digital conversion — “I’ve been digital for five years now, first one in New York State” — and running a single screen theater.
Fisher has to hope the films he chooses have legs, and will keep people coming for a week or two. Theaters with double screens can make more frequent changes when they change films.
Like Wemple, Fisher said people just like watching movies outdoors.
“It’s the experience of a drive-in,” he said. “They can come out, bring the kids, play, run around, listen to their cell phones, smoke cigarettes. It’s a whole different experience.”
There’s a sign outside the Hollywood that asks customers not to bring in their own food. But Fisher said it is not enforced — even though concession cash is the theater’s main support.
“My feeling is pretty simple,” he said. “A lot of families can’t afford it.”
Extra money is raised by extra viewings.
“We had one guy who was here Friday who came back Saturday,” Fisher said. “He said the movie was that good.”
Some local drive-ins, listed alphabetically:
• 6070 Route 5, Palatine Bridge
• Admission: Adults, $8; children 3-11, $4
• And action! — Built in 1951, the El Rancho has been in business continuously since it opened in 1952. The theater’s 60-by-90 screen is the first and only screen the drive-in has ever had.
• 983 Route 9, Queensbury
• Admission: Adults $9; children $5
• And action! — Began showing movies in 1958
• 10700 Route 32, Greenville
• Admission: $5 for ages 5 and up.
• And action! — Shows popular classic films. The opening night on May 6 featured oysters, shrimp cocktail, champagne and a screening of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” A licensed biergarten is new this year.
Hathaway’s Drive-in Theatre
• 4762 New York 67, North Hoosick
• Admission: Adults, $9; children 3-11, $5; children under 3 are free
• And action! — Built in 1948, Hathaway’s is one of the two oldest drive-ins in New York State.
• 10699 Route 9W, Coxsackie
• Admission: Adults, $9; children 3-11, $5; kids under 3 free
• And action! — The Hi-Way offers 4 movie screens.
Hollywood Drive-in Theatre
• 9270 Route 66, Averill Park
• Admission: Adults, $10; children 5-10, $5
• And action! — The Hollywood was built in 1952 by the late James Fisher. He and his family kept the theater open year-round, weekends only from September through May. For cold weather, free car heaters were available. James’ son Frank is still on the job.
Jericho Drive-in Theatre
• 21 Jericho Road, Glenmont
• Admission: Adults, $9; children 11 and under, $5
• And action! — Open since 1967, the Jericho attracts some movie fans with a full-service ice cream parlor.
Malta Drive-in Theatre
• 2785 Route 9, Malta
• Admission: Adults 12 and over, $9; children under 12, $5
• And action! — The Malta was built in 1949 and has been in continuous operation for more than 50 years.
• 837 Route 29, Broadalbin
• Admission: Adults, $8; children 3-11, $4
• And action! — The word “ozoner” was invented by Variety Magazine during the 1950s to describe an outdoor theater. This “Ozoner” opened on Route 29 in 2003, and the route number became part of the name.
Read more about food, kids, day trips and entertainment in the Summer Big Edition.
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