Brownsville Drive-In entering digital age

April 25, 2014
Brownsville Drive-In’s success in a national contest will help keep the business in operation. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Brownsville Drive-In may not have been top banana in a nationwide online fundraising contest, but the digital age is waiting in the wings at the 65-year-old entertainment complex as celluloid prepares to bow out.

A 10th-place finish in the Honda Project Drive-In contest garnering $14,000 for the Grindstone, Fayette County, drive-in, plus another $5,000 donation from vAuto, an AutoTrader company, will enable the business to purchase a digital projector and accompanying technology and remain open for the foreseeable future.

“We were the only one in Pennsylvania to make the top 10,” said Charlie Perkins, manager of Brownsville Drive-In, who also operates the Route 40 Classic Diner.

“The contest with Honda started with doing five projectors, and they did four more,” Perkins explained. “Then we were 10th.”

Perkins, 44, who worked at the drive-in for 25 years, estimated the cost of a digital projector, which must operate inside a year-round, dust-free, climate-controlled booth, at nearly $100,000. The equipment will arrive in about a month, so when “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” opens May 2, it actually will be projected from 35 mm celluloid on Screen No. 3, where the lot has a capacity of 275 to 300 vehicles.

A second feature should be announced next week.

Owner of the drive-in is John “Preach” Sebeck, who purchased it in 1972 after working there in the 1960s as a teenager.

Drive-in theaters were once ubiquitous in the United States, but only about 300 remain today. The expense of converting from film to a digital cinema package, which is cheaper for studios to produce, is expected to further winnow the field.

According to a news release, Honda, a Japanese carmaker with production facilities in the United States, created Project Drive-In as a national effort to save as many drive-ins as possible to give “communities simple ways to get involved and help preserve this historic part of American cinema and car culture.” The 10 drive-in theaters receiving support from Honda’s Project Drive-In were determined by more than 2 million votes at a website and pledges to attend one movie at a local drive-in.

“I am so grateful to my friends,” Perkins posted on the Brownsville Drive-In Facebook page. “The voting, the funding and the support from our communities, winning this $19,000 from Honda (and vAuto) and the other funding totaling close to $30,000 is a big help.

“We still will have a payment due each month, but this money is allowing us to convert Screen 1 to digital and prepare the projection booth for requirements needed.

“Hopefully we can get some 8 mm film throughout the summer and get another digital projector next season. Thank you all so much for the support. We look forward to serving you for many years to come.”

Perkins said Brownsville Drive-In hopes to purchase a second digital projector and eventually work toward a third one.

According to an Observer-Reporter story published last fall, the only other such business in the two-county area, Skyview Drive-In in Carmichaels, managed to raise enough money to purchase a used digital projector. The multi-screen Washington Mall Cinemas closed last year, in large part because of the cost of switching to digital technology.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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