By Evan Wood
Since the height of their popularity, drive-ins have endured rising land prices, daylight savings time, and most recently, the end of 35mm projection— all of which have contributed to their decline. While there are fewer drive-ins today, the ones that survive do so by employing creative business strategies. Many of them host special events, such as flea markets, on their lots during daytime hours, and almost all screen double features, making the ever-costly movie ticket twice as valuable.
Missouri’s drive-ins are adjusting to the times. Three theaters have closed in the past year. Meanwhile, B&B Theatres has taken over management of two other theaters, perhaps saving them from permanent closure. While trends suggest drive-ins are in a continual decline, new patrons turn out every season to experience the all-but-lost art of watching a movie outdoors.
The thrill of taking in a summer blockbuster beneath an open sky is a time-honored tradition, and it’s lost none of its wonder through the years.
Lucky for us, Missouri still maintains ten of the nation’s remaining drive-ins, which number just over three hundred. If you prefer an open lot to an indoor theater, we know which direction to point your car this summer.
When the owner of the I-70 and The Twin—coupled under the Globe Cinemas company—couldn’t afford to switch to digital projection, he was looking to sell the theaters. B&B, eager to reach out to a new market and equipped with the means to buy digital projectors, stepped in to take over.
“We closed the deal on March first,” says Brock Bagby, Director of Programming and Business Development at B&B. He’s referring to March 1, 2014, and though the change in ownership is very fresh, both The Twin and the I-70 began screening films for the season in April. B&B is a Missouri business through and through. It represents a partnership between two Missouri families, Bagby and Bills, which both operated cinema businesses as early as 1924.
With seven screens among its three theaters, B&B is the nation’s third largest drive-in operator as of this year. But the company’s history with drive-ins goes back a long way. According to Brock, the company once owned and operated nearly fifteen drive-ins—more than currently operate in Missouri. In addition, Brock’s great-grandfather was the original owner of Moberly’s drive-in. The Moberly Five and Drive’s outdoor theater opened in the fifties, and though it hasn’t operated continuously, B&B has been running it successfully since 1997.
Brock notes that last year was one of the strongest years in a long time at the Moberly drive-in. B&B has a reputation for both success and innovation.
“We were one of the first drive-ins in the nation to put in digital,” Brock says, referring to the theater’s new projection system.
The secret to success at Moberly is in the theater’s name. The five in “Five and Drive” refers to the theater’s five traditional theaters, housed adjacent to the drive-in lot. With a combination of outdoor and indoor theaters, the Five and Drive is open year-round, sells concessions for all its theaters in one spot, and is able to house its sensitive projector in a climate- controlled building. According to Brock, the Five and Drive is one of only three indoor-outdoor theaters in North America.
Traditional drive-ins like the I-70 and The Twin have housing built specifically for projectors and concessions, and when it gets too cold for outdoor screenings, they close for the season. That factor has been a major element in the economics of drive-ins, as the large expanses of property they’re situated on become more valuable and especially as drive-ins, like all theaters, have had to transition to digital projection in order to continue screening new films.
Brock says that B&B didn’t spend any time deliberating whether to make the switch at Moberly, citing the theater’s built-in resources and his grandfather’s ties to it. As for acquiring two new drive-ins, Brock says the previous owner approached B&B first with the offer, and they wasted no time making a deal.
He points out that drive-ins typically offer a uniquely good deal to patrons: two newly released films for the price of one ticket—often priced cheaper than a typical cineplex admission. On top of that, all three B&B drive-ins offer free admission for children under eleven, as do many other drive-ins throughout the state.
The Moberly drive-in screens films seven days a week, as do The Twin and the I-70. All three theaters offer double features, usually of newly released films.
Cinema in the Sticks
Many theaters are given names for the number of screens they operate, but the 21 Drive-In is named for the highway it sits along. The 21 has a Van Buren address but is actually ten miles northeast. Diane Price, who owns the theater with her husband, Cecil, says it attracts moviegoers from all over. The theater opened in 1950 after it was built by a man named Claude Davis.
Diane says that his attitude was “build it, and they will come.” And, indeed, they came.
After closing in the seventies, Diane’s brother- in-law took over ownership. But sixteen years ago, he wanted out and offered to sell the theater to Diane and Cecil. Cecil operates the gate and the projector, while Diane runs concessions with the help of family members and local kids.
“We have good crowds,” Diane says. And that may come as a surprise to some, given the theater’s remote location. Look it up on a map, and you’ll see that the theater is situated off a winding road, in between several towns with names you may not recognize. But Diane says the theater draws from as far away as West Plains (eighty-two miles southwest).
The theater is independently operated and has one lot with one screen. It screens films on Friday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day weekend until the warm summer days start to wane, with special Sunday screenings on holiday weekends.
Despite this Spartan business model, the 21 made the costly transition to digital with help from a bank loan. Diane expressed excitement about screening films with the projector’s markedly higher quality picture.
Although the projection system is now state-of-the-art, the 21 nods to its history.
“It’s definitely a blast from the past,” she says.
It’s not hard to understand what she’s talking about. The 21 is one of the few drive-ins in the state that still offer car window speakers, which were the standard audio at original drive-ins.
Most have made the switch to the less costly and easier to maintain FM radio transmitters. The 21 offers this system, too, but Diane says all of their car window speakers work, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to pass up experiencing the drive-in in classic style.
In their sixteen year stint as owners, Diane and Cecil have overseen the renovation of the concession stand, added bathrooms, and even built a playground.
The theater also gets regular visits from a specialty car club, whose vintage autos take the nostalgia factor even higher. The theater elevates their offerings with an expanded concession stand menu, featuring usual theaterfare, as well as less common items like egg rolls, pulled pork, and pizza.
The 21 is a gem, no doubt, and of all the theaters under the stars in Missouri, it’s hard to imagine one with less light pollution. If you plan a big weekend in southern Missouri or if you just get lost on a back road, see a movie at the 21 if you have a chance.
To The Lost
Movie theaters across the nation had until this year to switch their projection systems to digital. Since movies aren’t distributed on 35mm rolls anymore, failure to switch means no new movies. With price tags in the seventy to eighty thousand dollar range, it’s no surprise that the transition has spelled doom for more than a few drive-ins.
Many theaters launched fundraising efforts, and auto manufacturer Honda even stepped in to save nine theaters with its “Project Drive- In” campaign. While the majority of Missouri’s remaining drive-ins were able to make the switch, three are showing no signs of life.
The Pinehill Drive-In Theater near Piedmont pinned its hopes to Honda’s Project Drive-In, through which voters could support their favorite theaters. Unfortunately, the Pinehill did not receive the necessary votes to receive a projector from Honda. The theater couldn’t be reached for comment.
Meanwhile the Owen Drive-In in Seymour announced on Facebook that it would not open for the 2014 season. The update cited health issues as the reason for closure and thanked fans for their years of support. Harold Owen, the theater’s longtime owner, passed away last spring. In the Webster County Citizen, his daughter, Betty Graf—who helped operate the theater—indicated that the theater would stay open through the end of 2013 but did not mention long-term plans. The phone number for the Owen Drive-In has been disconnected.
The Cooke Brothers Drive-In in St. Joseph also seems to have folded. Its Facebook page lists the theater as permanently closed and the phone number for the theater is disconnected.
While the Pinehill didn’t manage to secure enough votes, another Missouri theater—The Starlite Drive-In in Cadet—was among the nine theaters to which Honda was able to donate digital projectors.
“We would be closed without it,” says Doug Mercille, the Starlite’s owner. The drive-in has been in his family since 1968. Before Doug took over in 2009, the theater was operated by his father, Terry. The Starlite ranked seventh in Honda’s Project Drive-In campaign, out of 149 theaters nationwide. Thanks to its fans, the theater’s legacy lives on. If it were up to us, there’d be a drive-in in every corner of the state, but in the meantime, we’re happy that The Starlite still counts itself among Missouri’s drive-in theaters.
For those who want to catch a screening en plein air, we gathered everything we know about the state’s ten remaining theaters.