There are detailed histories concerning the drive-ins out there on the Internet, but the refresher course goes something like this. Richard Hollingshead came up with the concept in the early 1930s, with early experiments that entailed bedsheet screens and 16mm movie projectors atop car hoods, but the drive-ins didn’t mushroom until after World War II, when gas rationing ceased and America’s love affair for all things automotive literally took off. The drive-in explosion continued throughout the 1950s, thanks to young families able to bring their kids for a cheap night out, and randy teens who had other reasons (ahem) for attending. Growing pains took hold in the 1960s, with attendance slowly eroding in the 1970s (a lack of family-oriented product didn’t help, with exploitation flicks filling the gap), and closings galore in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly for land redevelopment, along with eyeball competition from cable TV and Betamaxes. From more than 4,000 drive-ins in the late 1950s, the number shrank to around 400, where it remains today.
Yet oddly, the regions where one would still expect drive-ins to thrive, in the sunnier climes of the Southeast and Southwest, the screen counts are meager, mostly a result of real estate transactions that made way for strip malls, Wal-Marts and doctor offices. Nope, the real drive-in resurgence is in the Northeast, where the ozoners are making their stand.
Check out the stats at the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association’s website and you’ll find three in Florida and four in California’s movieland, and surprising strongholds in Indiana (12), Ohio (23) and Pennsylvania (23). New York state holds 17 properties, not counting non-UDITOA members like the Transit Drive-In four-screen operation in Lockport (we’re not counting numbers of screens per property, either; a check of the www.drive-ins.com site reveals a statewide count of 28), most located away from big cities and tucked within rural communities with funny names like Aurelius, LeRay and Minetto. Plain and simple, you gotta drive to get there.
And that window of opportunity doesn’t last long. From when school lets out until Labor Day, there are only 10 weekends for an ozoner operator to score a profitable season, and a rainy Friday or Saturday can be a box-office killer. Daylight savings time, with features starting past 9 p.m., doesn’t help, either. Oh yeah, the quality of a movie is a big factor, too, and drive-in owners, like the hardtop theaters, get socked with hefty film rental fees, especially if they’re unspooling first-run product. That’s why a drive-in’s bottom line is often driven by snack sales at their concession stand.
Like a typical summertime in Central New York, the drive-in experience is even more fleeting and precious. So do it for your kids, who will likely be bowled over as first-timers when they see that outdoor screen. Or do it for yourselves, if only to recapture some nostalgic whiff of innocence that might have entailed hanging out with pals, necking or beeping your horn as a form of applause. Just do it.
Wait Until Dark
First-run attractions are the lure at the West Rome Drive In (336-9440, www.westromedrivein.com), about a 50-mile trip from Syracuse; it’s located on Route 69 or Upper West Dominick Street, on a plot of land between the shopping center that once held Home Depot and the still-thriving Wal-Mart on the road’s right side. (The state expanded road frontage several years ago and the original marquee had to go, now replaced by a simpler sign.) Built in 1951 on 13 acres as an independent single-screen 500-car operation, it was purchased by Zurich Cinema honcho Conrad Zurich in 1979, and eventually morphed into a twin ozoner in 1985, when Zurich got rid of the in-car speakers in favor of radio sound (around that time he surely purchased jumper cables for those dead car batteries) and adopted a five-platter movie projector system to handle both sides.
Zurich took his cue from the indoor multiplexes to double his bookings, thus offering a “better selection of movies.” Since the box-office potential for a given movie usually drops on the second weekend, flicks from the first weekend get shifted to the back screen for the second round. The closest row to the rear screen is actually the original last row for the front screen, although the twinning might have dealt a huge blow to Mohawk Valley makeout artists. The front screen measures 40 feet high by 80 feet wide, while the back screen boasts a Zurich guesstimate of 25 by 50 feet, with projection throws (from the booth to the screen) an equidistant 160 feet.
A Dolby stereophonic sound system further upgraded the listening experience in 2004, with separate FM frequencies found on 90.5 (front screen) and 103.3 (rear screen). Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3 for children ages 5 to 11, and free for kids under 4.
Most of the original drive-in posts have been yanked out, thus allowing for more cars to squeeze onto the grassy ramps as well as some interesting images. In some of the center rows that flank the concession stand, cars facing the front screen sit next to vehicles pointing toward the back. And it seems there will always be an SUV that parks near the projector’s beam of light, with the driver plunking a kid atop the vehicle’s roof, thus creating a silhouette eerily similar to the cutups found on a Mystery Science Theater 3000 rerun.
On a busy weekend night, the drive-in staff is literally hopping. Manager Steve Seifert is at the ticket booth one minute to assist the cashier, then looks at his watch and bounds across the lot to start up both sides of the lot’s screens. Zurich’s inspired 1985 brainstorm to add a second projector in the left wall’s corner of the not-exactly-roomy original booth space makes for some impromptu Balanchine-esque choreography. As the evening’s double features spin on separate discs of a five-platter operation, Seifert daintily steps across the perforated threads of film as they zigzag between the platters’ take-up reels and the projectors, much like a dashing hero sidestepping a crossfire of laser beams in a spy movie. Emboldened by this example of maximizing space, Zurich would eventually twin his Elmira Drive-In (which boasts a giant 50-by-100-foot original screen) in a similar manner.
Both movies on each screen are spliced together onto a single platter for a continuous show, with an intermission clock, usually about 10 minutes long (watch for the old-school clip extolling the joys of smoking in one’s car), sandwiched between the features. If the first film is “flat,” meaning a 1.85:1 boxy ratio, and the second is “scope” (short for CinemaScope), a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio requiring a different lens, Jason Gleasman—recruited from Zurich’s Westgate Plaza eightplex down the road for occasional drive-in service—is on the case with the proper projector lens, as he also dodges the still-running threads of celluloid to make the switchover. (Zurich believes the West Rome and Westgate, the latter in business since 1997, can coexist within spitting distance because “the drive-in appeals to a different audience.”)
There’s a wide grassy area in front of the screen where pre-show Frisbees sail into the air and young’uns with blankets search for the right spot to plunk down. A few of the front rows are partially paved, too, since that portion of the drive-in held a Sunday-morning flea market for several seasons. The market is currently not in operation, partly because Zurich found it difficult to collar his staff to work the dawn patrol on Sunday after they’ve worked a late Saturday-night shift, but at least the tarvia seems to hold down the mosquito count.
Zurich continues the family legacy of movie promotion: His dad was a Syracuse-based film salesman for the Buffalo branch of Warner Brothers. During the 1940s and 1950s the elder Zurich covered a huge territory, during an era when neighborhood movie houses would change their double-feature schedules two to three times every week, and he would visit those “nabes” (in Variety lingo) to meet people and make deals to run Warner product. Clearly, the Raisinette doesn’t fall very far from the open box. During an October 1970 double bill of The Undefeated and Beneath the Planet of the Apes at his second-run Hollywood Theatre in Mattydale, Conrad Zurich could be seen at the Sunday matinee selling tickets, ripping them and proclaiming, “Big show next weekend, kids: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Skullduggery.” It was a mantra he repeated with every single ticket he sold!
Zurich wants to push the quality of his snacks at the concession stand and he’s particularly pleased about the latest addition to the West Rome kitchen: a pizza machine capable of cooking up a pie in a minute and change (prep time is not factored into this process). Zurich spied this gizmo during his annual trip to the ShoWest movie exhibitors convention in Las Vegas last spring, and it was love at first bite. “It’s the same technology found in fast-food restaurants,” Zurich says of the Nimbus 2000 of pizza cookers, “resulting in a better, quicker, tastier pizza.” Twelve-inch cheese and pepperoni pies are available for $9, while a slice sets you back $2.
Chunks of fried dough ($3.50) are also popular with West Romers, while a best-buy combo featuring a large order of french fries plus five mozzarella sticks and a side of marinara sauce fetches $6.50. Gleasman points out with pride, “You’d probably pay that much just for the mozzarella sticks at Nicky Doodles,” a nearby fast-food eatery.
The concession stand runs the gamut of expected goodies, with various sizes of popcorn ($3.75, $4.75, $5.75), candies like M&Ms, Raisinettes and Snocaps ($2, $3, $3.50) and Pepsi products to guzzle ($2.50, $3, $3.50), with popcorn (“We use real butter,” proclaims the menu) and soda combos available, and inevitably, Pic mosquito coils. Beyond the stand’s garage-door main entrance, which at times has the appearance of an Edward Hopper painting, the CharBroil grill rests outside on the patio; it has already cooked plenty of hamburgers ($3.25) and hot dogs ($2.75) that are wrapped and nesting inside a steamer contraption at the stand’s assembly line. Yet the grill can be fired up in a heartbeat for a special-order burger or wiener if you’re in the mood for some well-done meat. And the concession stand stays open deep into the second feature, with drive-in manager Seifert quick to whip up something. After all, he’s got to stick around until those platters run out of film.
Zurich still intends to close the West Rome’s season on Labor Day, and only time will tell what this promotional guru has in store to celebrate next year’s 60th birthday. With two screens he has already burned through the big summertime hits, while the dog-day releases that Hollywood always shovels out to exhibitors in August and September simply aren’t strong enough candidates to lure weekend-only attendance as the leaves start to drop. The upcoming New York State Fair also provides daunting late-summer competition, with Friday-night football just around the corner and his college-age employees heading back to the books.
That means West Rome ticket booth attendant Sarah Anderson—a recent graduate of the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, and a past-performer during several summer productions at the nearby Capitol Theatre—will probably end up elsewhere in the Zurich Cinema empire. She’ll likely work at the Westgate, although she happily chirps, “I’m a drive-in girl!” with an obvious song in her heart.
Night Must Fall
Brand-new movies are also the drawing card at the Finger Lakes Drive-In (252-3969, www.fingerlakesdrivein.com), about 30-plus miles away from Syracuse. Chances are good that you’ll be doing double nickels down Routes 5 and 20 (Clark Street Road, to the locals), unaware as you’ve just gone past Bass Pro Shops at Finger Lakes Mall and are already two miles deep into the countryside that the drive-in is so close at hand. In fact, you’ll likely barrel right past it on the left, then have to sheepishly turn around. Yet the Auburn community knows where it is, and they’ve been coming to this moviegoing institution in the town of Aurelius for 63 years.
The drive-in has changed hands exactly three times since its 1947 premiere. Auburn fixture Paul Field, who this year turns 97, had a career in theaters that entailed everything from ushering to ownership. Field built the Finger Lakes and later created the East Drive-In on Route 5, which ran from 1950 to 1985 until most of it was razed for an auto dealership. (Even in 1990, the East’s screen was visible behind the car lot!) Field sold the Finger Lakes in 1986 to bijou veteran Frank Feocco, who made cosmetic changes such as raising the old ticket booth’s awning to 9 feet high to accommodate trucks and vans. (“Now even cars with canoes on top can come in,” Field marveled back in 1990, “and believe me, they come.”) Feocco also favored family flicks; “I want to keep the kids coming,” he affirmed in 1990. “That’s the business of tomorrow.”
Now it’s Kevin Mullin’s turn at ownership, having purchased the property from the late Feocco’s family around 1995. Likewise a screen veteran, having built multiplexes in Auburn and Oneida, Mullin instituted a series of gradual changes over the years, such as repainting the shocking pink concession stand a more relaxing baby blue, adding more space to both the snack bar and restrooms, and rebuilding the projection booth so it could be properly aligned with the movie screen.
When the screen was expanded to 35-by-70-feet to accommodate widescreen product in the 1950s, the original projectors’ placement inadvertently created a visual keystone effect for many years. The on-screen image is pretty crisp and it provides the only light source when the intermission is over. In fact, since you’re in the middle of cow country, it gets downright pitch black out there, although mini-flashlights are available at the concession stand so you don’t have to stumble back to your car.
Joe Borasky, the Finger Lakes’ new projectionist, didn’t know much about the film threading process, so he’s received on-the-job training this year, along with plenty of knowledge he has gleaned from Internet trolling. Since the drive-in specializes in triple bills, the three-platter system has the first feature on a single platter, and the remaining two flicks spliced together on another disc, and only Joe knows when to switch the CinemaScope lenses and aperture plates for the correct ratios. Most folks aren’t around when the last feature starts, especially when it’s 1:30 a.m. on a weeknight, but if a hardy few manage to linger, Borasky has to stick around, too.
Busy times at the Finger Lakes depend on the popularity of the current bookings, although Mullin, who on most weekends can be seen staffing one of his three ticket booths, is still amazed by the attendance for the 2003 blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, when he had to turn away hundreds of people lined up on Clark Street Road to get in. Playing in front of the drive-in screen doesn’t happen much here, perhaps because of the mushy texture of the ground, but kids do manage to scamper about in an open space on the theater’s left side. That space is actually the extended back yard of Mullin’s summer home, a property that he purchased to help expand the drive-in’s car count to more than 300.
Families cart in pillows and blankets for the long night ahead, while some customers wrestle with yards of mosquito netting, although insect repellants are for sale at the concession stand. For that perfect old-school touch, in-car speakers are at most posts, with the 90.7 FM radio frequency available as an aural alternative.
The refreshment stand offers candies ($2 to $3), popcorn in three sizes ($2.50, $3.50, $4.50), grilled goodies such as hot dogs ($2.50), hamburgers ($3) and cheeseburgers ($3.25), tasty crinkle-cut french fries ($2.50), pizzas ($8.50), nachos ($3.50) and soft pretzels ($3). Admission to the drive-in is $7.50 for ages 12 and up, $3 for ages 5 to 11, and free for kids under 4.
Aside from serving the Auburn area’s demand for nocturnal entertainment, Mullin also serves as a state senator for Vermont’s three-seat 22nd District representing Rutland County, and he has been shuttling back and forth between both jobs since 2003. The Republican politician is up for re-election this year and he’s running against six other candidates, with a primary slated for Sept. 14. Empire State politics, especially when it comes to annual budgets, amuses the Vermont senator. “We agree, we disagree, and we always pass a budget on time,” Mullin says, with a twinkle in his eye.
The Great Outdoors
So named because it’s midway between Fulton and Oswego, the Midway Drive-In (342-9585; www.midwaydrivein.com), also about 30-plus miles away from Syracuse, is pretty much off the beaten path, unless you’re a resident of the former factory town of Minetto and use Route 48 as your main thoroughfare. Yet the Midway has been lighting up its chunk of countryside since 1948, and it has handily outlived Minetto’s other thriving industry, the Columbia Mills textile factory, which created shade cloths for use in camouflage and parachutes during World War II and became a leading manufacturer of Venetian blinds until 1977. The Midway can now qualify for AARP status, mostly because it has steadily held court, as owner John Nagelschmidt attests, “where the pressures to sell the land are less intense.”
Oswego County resident Nagelschmidt pretty much grew up right alongside the Midway; after all, he’ll mark his 50th year associated with the place in 2011. He can remember going to the outdoor theater as a youngster clad in pajamas, and during his teen years he began working part time at the concession stand (presumably without his PJs) in 1961.
Following high school Nagelschmidt contemplated military service but received a merit scholarship instead and enrolled at SUNY Oswego to earn a teaching degree. Nagelschmidt student-taught Fulton eighth-graders in early 1966, a time that coincided with two seismic events: the infamous late January blizzard that blanketed the region with more than 100 inches and his first meeting with Loren Knapp, then an eighth-grade student who 40 years later would partner with Nagelschmidt for a new endeavor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Diploma in hand, Nagelschmidt would go on to drill the mysteries of earth science into the noggins of ninth-graders at Fulton’s G. Ray Bodley High School from 1966 to 1996, and with his summers off he toiled long nights as a manager at the Midway, which he eventually purchased in 1987 from owners Charles Girard and Anthony Kolinski. Since the drive-in has traditionally been open weekends in the spring and fall, Nagelschmidt acknowledges that “Monday mornings were tough” at Bodley, especially after closing out a Sunday-night triple bill.
Nagelschmidt slates a mix of first-runs and recent releases for his triple features, which tend to run Fridays through Mondays (in deference to weekend workers and night-shifters), with doubles on Tuesdays through Thursdays. He’s his own film booker, too, a chore that’s sometimes easy with new product, since studios allow drive-ins to run second features from their own roster more or less free of charge, although they still have to pay sizable rentals for the main attraction. It’s an arrangement that has been going on for decades, which explains why Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3 at the Midway was paired with Mouse House stablemate Prince of Persia. The Midway is bringing back Toy Story 3 by popular demand this weekend, and it will be matched with Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Oceans.
Between those first-run engagements, Nagelschmidt searches for the right triple-bill programs of recent flicks, a task that has lately become complicated by the rush to get them out of theaters and onto DVDs. But he keeps it mostly family-friendly throughout the summer, with more R-rated offerings during autumn weekends. Nagelschmidt even plays the song “Hooray for Hollywood” before the start of each feature.
Nagelschmidt is savvy enough to offer an attendance awards program to regulars, with prizes that include free pizzas, sodas, baseball caps and T-shirts (the $14 apparel is also available at the snack bar), yet he has also pulled off several promotional coups over the years. For his November 2004 booking of Disney-Pixar’s The Incredibles, he ballyhooed an early 5:20 p.m. showing, perhaps the only drive-in in the nation to actually boast an afternoon matinee. Also in 2004 Nagelschmidt began his annual weekend of open-caption movies in conjunction with the nationwide Deaf Awareness Week held in September. And on June 8, 2008, the Midway celebrated the 75th birthday of drive-in creator Hollingshead’s debut outdoor theater in New Jersey, the 60th birthday of the Minetto ozoner (including a commemorative $10 coin that’s still available at the ticket booth) and the nuptials of drive-in fanatics David Eaton and Summer David with a wedding and reception on the theater’s grounds. The couple welcomed a baby girl the following year.
The Midway’s showcase screen measures 40-by-80 feet; drive around the back of it and you’ll note the telephone poles that sturdily prop up the screen to ensure that a windstorm won’t likely carry it off to Lake Ontario. (Nagelschmidt also points out the screen’s expansion during the 1950s when CinemaScope movies forced a change in width size, with nearly 20 feet added to augment the original’s square-like configuration.) The 220-foot projector throw produces a crisp, bright image that is doubtlessly enhanced by the fact that there are no competing light shows from businesses, just a few homes across the road.
The booth is still old-school effective, with two projector lamphouses that unspool big reels of several smaller movie reels spliced together. A telltale ringing bell that is earmarked toward the end of one reel gives the projectionist—usually Nagelschmidt on weekends, with longtime employee Denise Knapp (Loren’s spouse) spelling him on weeknights—a kind of two-minute warning to get ready to fire up the second lamphouse for a changeover. Nagelschmidt isn’t a fan of the projection platter systems, fearing that a “brain wrap,” when a movie gets tangled up on a platter and often gets thrown onto the floor, could shut down the entire operation for a night.
The lot is 12 rows deep, with some of the back ramps getting a little soggy whenever torrential rains move through. Still, it can hold up to 600 cars during extra-busy nights, with more room on the large grassy expanse that separates the drive-in from Route 48. Kids of all ages, armed with soccer balls and Frisbees, scramble about the greenspace in front of the screen, and it’s a constant struggle for Nagelschmidt to keep that grass mowed. Next-day cleanups aren’t too bad, however; critters from the nearby woods as well as birds manage to eat the popcorn leftovers. There’s also a feral cat that can sometimes be seen near the screen at night, although the tabby’s usually smart enough to take a powder whenever a Midway patron takes a moonlight stroll, leash in hand, with the family Fido. The ticket stand attendant often hands out doggie treats to customers, who pay $6 for adult ducats, $2 for kids ages 7 to 11, and free for ages 6 and under.
The usual suspects turn up at the refreshment stand, with five popcorn choices ranging from a 24-ounce small (93 cents) to the super 170-ounce behemoth ($5); french fries either solo (93 cents to $2.25) or with hot cheese or gravy toppings ($2.75); four soda sizes of Pepsi products (93 cents to $2.75); hot drinks including coffee ($1 to $1.75), cappuccino for those triple-headers or hot chocolate ($1.25 to $2) or tea ($1); nachos ($3); soft pretzels ($2); assortments of candies and gums (23 cents to $3.75); and ice cream snacks ($1.25).
Familiar foods like Hofmann brand franks and coneys ($2.25 or $3.75 for a double), hamburgers ($2.75 or $4.50 for a double) and cheeseburgers ($3 or $4.75 for a double) also make menu appearances, as does a Denise’s Texas hot (hmmm, sounds like an inside job), featuring a frank with hot sauce onions and mustard for $3. But you can also get grilled cheese sandwiches ($2.25, plus $1 if you want ham, too), sausage sandwiches with grilled onions and peppers ($3) and even kielbasa ($4.25). There’s a jar of pickled eggs (75 cents or three for $2) on display, and a series of pizzas stretching from a 9-inch cheese ($6) to a 12-inch “works” pie with a choice of five toppings ($12.50), plus garlic and Hawaiian specials. Nagelschmidt says that you haven’t really lived until you’ve tried a garlic pizza covered with sauerkraut. “Don’t get it with peppers,” he advises, “because the peppers overwhelm the sauerkraut.”
Nagelschmidt hasn’t reattached the in-car speakers to the posts for several seasons, as he pushes instead the 87.9 low-power FM frequency for car radio sound. Some newbies, however, don’t know how to use the ignition’s accessory feature, resulting in dead batteries aplenty during a typical summer; Nagelschmidt has jump-started up to 15 cars on some evenings. You can borrow one of 30 portable radios for the night, but you have to leave a driver’s license at the projection booth for the tradeoff—and if you’re a Bodley alum, don’t be surprised if schoolteacher Nagelschmidt reads your license and still remembers your name. And whatever you do, don’t even think about making finger silhouettes in front of the projector’s beam when Nagelschmidt is watching. The booming warning that comes out of the darkness, the voice that spooked the bejesus out of scores of study hall students for 30 years, still works its scary magic.
Stars and Stripes Forever
The West Rome, Finger Lakes and Midway drive-ins have all managed to dodge the grim reaper, so it’s nice to note that sometimes a drive-in can even come back from the dead. The Black River Drive-In (773-8604; www.blackriverdrivein.com), about an 80-mile trip from Syracuse, is located on Route 3 in the town of LeRay, just a few miles away from Fort Drum. The theater stayed in business from 1950 to 1987, leaving behind a screen, a field of speaker posts and at least one local legend involving a car that was deliberately driven into the shuttered refreshment stand and sparked a damaging fire. Naturally, John Nagelschmidt wanted to own the property.
So the Midway entrepreneur bought the Black River from owners Girard and Kolinski in 1994, then had to wait a dozen more years until health codes concerning water and septic issues were addressed by the town of LeRay. Once these hurdles were passed, Nagelschmidt and his business partner Loren Knapp—that long-ago eighth-grader who started working at the Midway in the mid-1970s, eventually became its projectionist, and who still affectionately refers to the bearish Nagelschmidt as “the big boss”—started the daily process of rehabbing a lost ozoner in spring 2006.
By day they toiled to strip down the old movie screen, dig out huge boulders from the property’s gravel to lay the foundation for the new projection booth and refreshment stand, and knock down and rebuild the ticket stands. (Photos of their renovations are available on the Black River’s website.) By night the weary souls would be back to run movies at the Midway. While constructing the new 37-by-74-foot screen before the rest of the property might have seemed bass ackward to some observers, Nagelschmidt believed that “putting up the screen first was the best advertising, a sign to tell the world that something was gonna happen there.” The Black River reopened on Aug. 18, 2006, yet neither Nagelschmidt nor Knapp knew that it was the exact same date as the original 1950 opening. One couldn’t ask for a better omen than that.
Now boasting a theater circuit of two, Nagelschmidt can hope to obtain better booking deals with the studios. He might have slightly more clout this season, since Regal closed its Salmon Run Mall theaters at the end of July to begin construction on a new multiplex that won’t premiere until next spring. And with the ground pretty much rock hard (mosquitoes aren’t a huge problem here), the Black River’s season, which usually runs through mid-October, could get extended if the people keep coming and the weather doesn’t turn lousy.
Knapp runs the Black River show, with longtime North Country projectionist Bill Hulbert handling the double-lamphouse changeovers. (A big window has been added to the new booth, for the inevitable switch from 35mm reels to a single digital projector.) The 15-row lot can hold up to 500 cars, which packed the place earlier this season for a showing of Shrek Forever After. The swanky concession stand still sparkles with newness, while the roomy restrooms are so clean, well-lit and inviting that you might be tempted to bring along the Sunday newspaper.
Many of the Midway’s traits have carried over to Black River, including the same 87.9 FM frequency, the “Hooray for Hollywood” movie introduction, the attendance awards program, the nightly pizza giveaway (Nagelschmidt admits that Knapp came up with that successful idea), the admission tariffs and most of the menu’s items and prices. There’s no garlic-sauerkraut pizza special, yet not surprisingly, given her connections, the taste sensation known as Denise’s Texas hot has also migrated here.
Given its proximity to Fort Drum, the Black River hosts many of its troops, and they’re a cinch to spot with their cropped hair, ramrod postures and steely demeanor. Knapp says cleaning the property after a show is easy because his enlisted customers “know how to police their area.” Soldiers’ spouses and their young children are also regulars, especially during the bookings of family films. It’s little wonder that the concession stand is painted in patriotic hues of red, white and blue, while one intermission trailer features panoramic visuals to accompfiany a spirited rendering of “America the Beautiful.”
Another intermission trailer will be of nostalgic interest for Central New York’s drive-in die-hards. It’s the 10-minute countdown clock that was also used at the old DeWitt Drive-In, the one that featured last-minute come-ons such as this:
“Four minutes to go to showtime! It’s time to stretch and fetch! See what’s cookin’ at our refreshment counter. You’ll find your favorite foods and beverages plus many new goodies to tempt your appetite and add to your evening’s pleasure. Everything’s the finest quality, so treat yourself now!”
Knapp timed the 10-minute countdown and reports, “It only runs eight minutes!”
Best. Drive-In. Ever.
Midway Drive-In owner John Nagelschmidt said it was the prettiest outdoor theater he’d ever seen, and labeled it “the supreme drive-in of the state.” West Rome Drive-In entrepreneur Conrad Zurich stated, “Prepare to be blown away.” With that much admiration from those in the Central New York ozoner biz, one had to wonder whether the Silver Lake Twin Drive-In ((585) 237-3372; www.charcoalcorral.com)—located amid cow pastures and cornfields in Wyoming County’s teensy town of Perry, about 12 miles away from the SUNY Geneseo campus—would live up to the advance hype. Brother, does it ever!
In fact, you might not even notice the drive-in operation at first. Out front is the Charcoal Corral complex, featuring a mass of dining options that include a grilled food restaurant, a pizzeria, an ice cream parlor and a swanky dining spot known as the Fiesta Grill, which has been used for wedding rehearsal dinners and parties. It’s hard to believe that in 1966 the space originally held only a single-screen drive-in, but owner Jake Stefanon, a seasoned ex-veteran of the Blatt Brothers theater chain, had a vision that morphed the property to impossibly new levels.
Son Rick Stefanon, a wiry, high-energy fella who sort of looks like Al Pacino’s character from the 1995 cop drama Heat, tosses around the statistics in a rapid-fire fashion but you quickly get the idea that things move fast around here. First came a hot dog stand that soon became the Charcoal Corral grill, then an adjacent dining room was created for the growing customer base, followed by the miniature golf sideline, which was ripped down a dozen years later for a newer fairway. Then came the ice cream shop, which quickly outgrew its space and eventually got relocated as well in order to make room for a pizza palace. Also on the grounds: a video arcade and an outdoor stage and dance floor that hosts country line hoedowns on Mondays and free concerts on Tuesdays. And cruise nights on Thursdays are popular get-togethers; the Super Cruise slated for Thursday, Aug. 19, is expected to lure 300 to 500 classy chassis, with between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors on the grounds.
Stefanon lovingly recalls how his dad Jake, who passed away in August 2009, got the idea to go against the grain: When the outdoor screens were closing by the hundreds in the 1980s, it conversely made good business sense to own and promote a drive-in as an entertainment destination, especially with the add-on food and catering businesses and family-friendly options that mushroomed over the years. With plenty of traffic coming in from Rochester, Corning and Geneseo, as well as Ithaca and Buffalo, Jake’s business philosophy has certainly paid off. Rick keeps the operation going from St. Patrick’s Day to Columbus Day, then spends his off-season repainting, remodeling and thinking of more ways to expand and enhance.
Stefanon is all over the place, too, glad-handing patrons and overseeing his summertime staff of nearly 100. He’s always got a walkie-talkie, which at one point crackles, “Rick, where are you?” “I’ll be right there,” he replies, then clambers onto his golf cart. He speeds off to the outdoor stage for a T-shirt giveaway, in which a co-worker prepares for the “shoot the bear” contest, then loads a stuffed animal into a bazooka-like contraption and fires it high over the heads of the gathered onlookers.
With all the razzle-dazzle out front, you may forget there’s a double-screen drive-in out back. The first screen, which measures a sizable 56-by-95 feet, has room for 435 cars, with the second squeezing in about 200. Both have the option of FM radio sound (100.1 or 106.3) or in-car speakers, some emblazoned with the old Blatt Brothers logo. There are also several outdoor speakers planted in front of both screens’ greenspaces, where a blast from the past—playground equipment!—entices kids of all ages. On a weekend night, Stefanon says, those well-manicured lawns are covered by a sea of blankets and sleeping bags, especially when a family-friendly flick is unspooling.
Patrons often park their cars early in the evening for a favored drive-in spot and go over to the Corral for dinner, or they can bring the food back to their vehicles. For more snack-oriented options, the main screen features a super-clean concession stand (Rick’s daughter works here), with customers on the second screen free to amble between both sides for snacks or Corral chow.
To the left of the back screen is fenced-in farmland, where nearby cows can be seen chewing their cuds in thoughtful contemplation. Maybe the mooing mob is pondering the puzzles presented by the Leonardo DiCaprio mind-bender Inception, or else wondering what new ideas Rick Stefanon has up his sleeve.