Drive-in movie fans still have to log some miles to get there, with one possibly closing by summer’s end
The old joke goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, there was every intention that this update on the roster of area drive-in theaters, covered in detail in the Aug. 18, 2010, issue of the Syracuse New Times under the headline “Drivin’ to the Drive-In,” would be a sidebar to accompany this summer’s stillin-the-works sequel article devoted to more statewide outside bijous. That was the game plan—until news in mid-June regarding the sale and possible closure of the West Rome Drive-In bumped this story to the level of mega-crucial importance, at least for those still interested in this uniquely American form of moviegoing.
The other drive-ins that were covered in last year’s piece, however, are still hanging around, to the delight of their loyal customers.
A host of upgrades are new this summer at the Finger Lakes Drive-In (252-3969, www. fingerlakesdrivein.com), about 30-plus miles away from Syracuse, and located for the last 64 summers on Routes 5 and 20 (Clark Street Road, to the locals), about two miles past the Bass Pro Shops drawing card at Fingerlakes Mall in the farming community of Aurelius. Projectionist and assistant manager Joe Borasky, last seen last winter carving ice blocks during the downtown Syracuse Winterfest, can now unspool the usual triplefeature lineup on a new five-platter projector system. Meanwhile, concession manager Stacie Fitzgerald serves up tasty additions to the menu, including sausage sandwiches ($5), mozzarella sticks (six for $5), jalapeno peppers (four for $4) and several sizes of slushies ($2.75 to $3.50). Male patrons can note the new tiled floor that covers the men’s lavatory.
Some Finger Lakes components haven’t changed, however. You can still listen to the movies old-school style, with in-car speakers at most posts, while a 90.7 FM radio frequency is also available. Admission to the drive-in is still $7.50 for ages 12 and up, $3 for ages 5 to 11, and free for kids under 4. And the drive-in’s owner, Kevin Mullin, continues his elected duties as a state senator for Vermont’s three-seat 22nd District representing Rutland County. The Republican politician, who was a top vote-getter during his recent re-election campaign, has been shuttling back and forth between both jobs since 2003.
Mullin is throwing a 64th birthday bash in honor of the drive-in’s official opening day, way back on July 15, 1947, and the new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, opening Friday, July 15, offers the perfect opportunity. The gates open at 6 p.m., with pony rides, music by the band Last July, cake, balloons, party favors and comedy relief from emcee Borasky, with Potter at 9 p.m. to be followed by the R-rated comedies Horrible Bosses and The Hangover Part II. On Saturday, July 16, the drive-in hopes to lure Syracuse Nationals fans and their mean machines for the annual Classic Car Night, with drivers of a pre-1986 auto receiving a free medium popcorn and soda. And baseball caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the Finger Lakes Drive-In logo are available for $15 apiece.
Over at the Midway Drive-In (342-9585; www.midwaydrivein.com), so named because it’s sandwiched midway between Fulton and Oswego on Route 48 in the town of Minetto, and also about 30-plus miles away from Syracuse, the ozoner has two birthdays to celebrate this year. The Midway has been in business for 63 years, and owner John Nagelschmidt has served in some capacity at the theater for 50 years.
Nagelschmidt started as a part-timer in the concession stand during the summer of 1961, staying aboard while attending SUNY Oswego and notching a 30-year career as a science teacher at Fulton’s G. Ray Bodley High School from 1966 to 1996. You can still see him grazing in the stand (some of Nagelschmidt’s more eclectic menu items include polish sausage and pickled eggs), at least when he’s not busy roping off filled car rows, or telling people to turn off their headlights, or instructing parents to get their kids off the SUV roofs, or filling paper towel dispensers in the men’s room, or barking at nitwits who wave their hands in front of the projector’s light beam, or toting around cables to jump-start drained batteries. In other words, a typical Saturday night at the Midway.
Nagelschmidt has added new projector bulbs this season, making the image as bright as those newfangled digital projectors at the multiplexes. He’s also contemplating a white paint job of the currently green, 4-foot-high border that runs atop the 40-by-80-foot-wide screen; then Nagelschmidt can raise the projector image upward so those tall SUVs that park in the front row won’t be a neck-craning problem for the drivers in the other rows.
The 87.9 low-power FM frequency is still used for car radio sound, while most of the concession items from last summer are back for an encore; the grilled cheese sandwich, alas, is no more, but you can buy a supersize-me 170-ounce popcorn barrel for $7.50, plus a free refill. And adult ticket prices have been boosted to $7 after several years of holding firm, which is more than you can say for Blue Cross Excellus rates, although it’s still $2 for kids ages 7 to 11, and free for ages 6 and under. Nagelschmidt’s golden anniversary has also been heralded by other publications: Oswego Alumni Magazine profiled the ozoner entrepreneur in the spring 2011 issue, and Nagelschmidt will gladly autograph copies during intermission.
Nagelschmidt is also connected with the Black River Drive-In (773-8604; www.blackriverdrivein.com), about an 80-mile trip from Syracuse, and located on Route 3 in the town of LeRay, just a few miles away from Fort Drum. The theater was abandoned after a long run from 1950 to 1987, then slowly returned from the grave following a years-long process initiated by Nagelschmidt and his business partner Loren Knapp (who also has a long association with the Midway, with his wife Denise still running the Minetto lamphouses), with the drive-in reopening on Aug. 18, 2006—the exact same date as the original 1950 opening. The still-new kid on the block doesn’t have to make many changes, but the new marquee that welcomes patrons is a nice touch.
The furthest drive-in covered in last year’s lineup was the Silver Lake Twin Drive-In ((585) 237-3372; www.charcoalcorral.com). Sure, it’s about a two-hour cruise from Syracuse and situated amid cow pastures and cornfields in Wyoming County’s teensy town of Perry, about 12 miles away from the SUNY Geneseo campus, but it’s a dream for drive-in lovers.
Owner Rick Stefanon’s play palace, which has steadily morphed from a single-screen business back in 1966 operated by his dad Jake Stefanon, is still quite the entertainment destination, with plenty of dining options (a grilled food restaurant, a pizzeria, an ice cream parlor and the swanky Fiesta Grill) plus a miniature golf range, a video game parlor and an outside stage and dance floor offering more diversions—so many, in fact, that you just might forget there is a two-screen drive-in operation in the back.
Stefanon says that things haven’t changed too much since last summer, although he is thinking that the switchover from 35mm films to digital projectors is indeed inevitable. Ticket prices are $7 for adults, $3 for ages 4 to 10, and free for the under-4 demographic. And the Super Cruise nights, slated for July 21 and Aug. 18, is expected to lure 300 to 500 classy chassis, with between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors on the grounds.
Which brings us to the fate of the West Rome Drive-In (336-9440, www.west romedrivein.com), which still isn’t known at press time. Built in 1951 on 13 acres as an independent single-screen 500-car operation, it was purchased in 1979 by Zurich Cinema entrepreneur Conrad Zurich, who added another screen in the back in 1985. 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.
Reports in mid-June indicated that Zurich was negotiating to sell the lot to the Davidson Automotive Group, a dealership that is currently located just beyond Rome’s Little Italy district on 7113 E. Dominick St. The proposed move to that stretch of Route 69 makes business sense because it hosts other car lots, kind of like the “Automobile Row” of Syracuse’s West Genesee Street, although there is an ironic shared history of sorts concerning drive-ins and Davidson: The site of the former Star-Lit Drive-In on Route 11 in Watertown now holds a Davidson dealership, according to the New York Drive-Ins website.
Then came public outrage over the proposed sale and the likely razing of the drive-in following Labor Day that prompted Facebook pages to save the theater, soon followed by the Davidson folks suggesting that perhaps the drive-in and a new dealership could peacefully coexist on the same property. Nobody’s saying much, however, with Zurich commenting that “talks are under consideration,” although the old-school cinema kingpin was definitely chatty about the recent digital projector installations for his 66-screen circuit, including his beloved sub-run Hollywood Theatre in Mattydale. Still, anything is possible, such as the scenario that Zurich could sublease the drive-in from Davidson and still handle booking and staffing responsibilities.
Yet with all the summer blockbusters unspooling at the venue, this could be the best box-office year ever for the West Rome. Most of the workers from last year are still handling the customers, with Sarah Anderson (now a music teacher for the Rome School District) selling tickets, managers Steve Seifert and Jason Gleasman committing various acts of multitasking and concession staffers such as Aubrey Carletta making sure the popcorn’s popping. A new menu item this year combines french fries, cheese and ranch dressing for some uber-tasty cardiac consumption.
a possible closure looming, however, the best advice to keep drive-ins
open is to keep going to drive-ins, because nobody with enough business
savvy will shutter a thriving institution. The West Rome Drive-In is
celebrating its 60th birthday this year, and perhaps the best gift of
all is that it could hang around for its 61st birthday and beyond.