Local drive-in theaters scramble to survive

August 16, 2013
The Moses family of Washington enjoy snacks while watching a Disney movie at the Brownsville Drive-In in this 2003 file photo. - Observer-Reporter Order a Print

With America’s dwindling number of drive-in theaters under threat of shuttering their screens unless they modernize their projectors, the only one in Greene County has managed to stay afloat and another in Brownsville has mobilized to do the same.

Charles Walker, owner of Skyview Drive-In in Carmichaels, said he and his wife, Elizabeth, pooled their retirement savings and received money from two generous donors to replace its 35mm movie projector with a used digital one before studios quit providing movies on reels of film by the end of the year.

“We decided we would do everything we could to ensure it didn’t go down on our watch,” said Walker, who has owned the 67-year-old open-air theater for six years.

Meanwhile, the 64-year-old, three-screen Brownsville Drive-In is in the midst of fundraising to ensure it survives, said its spokesman, Bill Molnar.

At one time, before competition from television and indoor multiscreens, there were nearly 5,000 open-air movie theaters in the United States. Their numbers have dwindled to just 368 today, and many of them have joined a national fundraising effort to come up with the nearly $100,000 cost per screen to switch to a digital projector.

“The Brownsville Drive-In means a lot to our local community,” Molnar said. “It is one of the very few things left in Fayette County for entertainment.”

Skyview, which has two screens at 573 Route 88, is believed to be the only movie theater of any kind left in Greene County, Walker said. He said the cost to upgrade also includes construction of a dust-free, climate-controlled room to house a digital projector.

Both are involved in the contest, Project Drive-In, created by Honda for people to vote for their favorite drive-ins, with the top five winners receiving free digital projectors. The initiative accepts contributions, too, and urges Americans to visit a drive-in before the summer is out.

“Cars and drive-in theaters go hand in hand and it’s our mission to save this slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for many of us,” said Alicia Jones, manager of Honda & Acura social marketing.

“We’re hoping to keep it open,” said Molnar, adding drive-ins, like the one in Brownsville, make most of their money from concession sales.

“At $8 a ticket, we’re luck to make 80 cents,” he said. “Plus the salaries, grass cutting and garbage collection; it gets rough.”

For more information about Project Drive-In, visist http://projectdrivein.com.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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