By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
If you were around in the 1950’s, you have witnessed many changes during the past six decades, and one of those changes that is very noticeable of late is the continuing closure of the ever-popular drive-in theaters throughout the country. Why? The answer is NOT their decline in popularity!
Supposedly, the drive-in movie theater got its start in 1933, invented by Richard Hollingshead who was issued the first drive-in theater patent in the U.S. After testing the concept in his own yard, he opened his first commercial drive-in theater in Camden, NJ in June of 1933. Drive-ins here slow to catch on, but after World War II, they began to spring up everywhere and were attractive to families because admissions were much less expensive than going to an indoor theater. According to reports, there were over 4,000 drive-ins nationwide during the 1950’s! Today, however, there are fewer than 400 – – and only three left in the state of West Virginia.
One of those drive-ins that is still battling this decline is the Sunset Drive-In located near Shinnston. It has been a “family affair” since 1955 when the Ellis family took over its operation adjacent to the Sunset-Ellis Restaurant.
“My family leased it out for about 20 years, but my Uncle John took over after that and has run it for the past 16 years,” said Antoinette Ellis Casto, who is involved in the family business.
The restaurant, the drive-in and the flea market – all of these are part of the Ellis family businesses, and Antoinette stressed that it is a real “team effort” involving several generations of the family who each take on their own individual responsibilities.
Many things have contributed to the decline in operating drive-ins. Land became too valuable for a summer-only business; then came the adoption of daylight saving time that took an hour from outdoor evening screening time; then the advent of VCRs and home video rentals also played a part. But, according to Antoinette, more recently it has been the mandate from the movie industry that drive-ins were required to put in digital projection equipment to transition from the previous 35 mm film.
“EVERYTHING today is digital,” Antoinette stated. “Although we have to admit that the quality of the picture is better, the digital units come at a cost of $85,000 -$100,000 … so that is why we have witnessed so many drive-in closures recently. We were very fortunate to have located a used unit that was more reasonably priced, which meant we could continue to bring folks in the local area the movies they enjoy in an outdoor setting. However, this also means that the large screen must be painted with a special paint so that it will offer the best resolution on the screen.”
Most people probably don’t realize just what a “gem” the area has in the Sunset Drive-In! Here is a ‘for instance’! After movies have played on the weekend, by a certain time on Monday morning, figures must be sent in that list the number of tickets sold for each movie shown. The industry takes 50 to 75% of that! Therefore, it is not questionable that there are times the drive-in owners make more money on concessions sold than they do on the movies that are shown!
“There is still such an interest in drive-ins, though. And we hate to take away this form of family entertainment that is still so loved by so many,” Antoinette added.
Just like a home that you may own, every few years there are maintenance projects and updates that are required to be done … and so it is with a business as well. For example, Antoinette explained that they need to address several issues: the fencing is in disrepair; a new roof is needed on the projector booth; and a new ticket booth is needed. These improvements need to be taken care of soon, and they too, come at a cost. That is why she took it upon herself to set up a GoFundMe account named the SunsetDrive-In Restoration Rescue in early June.
“Unfortunately, that has just come to a standstill,” she continued. “Just a couple of weeks after setting up the account, the flooding occurred in southern West Virginia, and we just didn’t feel right about pushing our effort because of the suffering that others were enduring … so we stopped promoting it. People were sending donations elsewhere in our state to help those who were having to completely rebuild their lives and that just seemed much more important at the time.”
However, she noted that perhaps the best thing people could do to support the drive-in would be to keep coming to view the weekend movies.
“We have always prided ourselves that we keep the ticket prices reasonable, and we are so very appreciative that so many people still come and enjoy our drive-in features. People even come from out of town. Sometimes sports teams come to celebrate the end of their season with a night at the drive-in – and often it is a birthday event! AND, our patrons continue to support our concession stand. Right now, we are just really pleased with and grateful for that kind of support! And it certainly reaffirms that the interest remains steadfast in drive-in movie theaters.”
The Sunset Drive-In can host about 300 vehicles. Many people bring portable chairs on a pleasant evening and sit outside their cars; some bring blankets and sit on the ground. Others, who come in trucks, often back them in to a parking spot and stretch out comfortably in the bed of the truck. Some come early and bring a football to pass the time until the movies begin! And some travel from car to car just visiting! The atmosphere resembles a tail-gating party!
Movies shown at drive-ins today are not the “B” movies of yesteryear. The Sunset Drive-In gets newly released movies that have just come out for viewing!
Oddly enough, some of the speakers still work that you hook onto your car windows. People, however, can also bring a battery-operated radio to tune in to the sound on 98.3 in lieu of using their car radio.
The Sunset Drive-In is open from April through and including Labor Day weekend. On Friday and Saturday evenings (and on Sundays during peak season), you will typically find double features, including a movie suitable for children. The concession stand is open every weekend, offering pizzas, sandwiches, popcorn, nacho chips, soft drinks, ice cream treats, cotton candy, candy bars, etc.
Every effort is being made to keep this iconic drive-in theater in operation! It brings area families an opportunity for an evening out and the chance to escape all the gadgets and technology!
“We’ve heard from so many people that they don’t want to see this disappear like so many other drive-ins have been forced to do,” Antoinette added. “It is an affordable evening out and ‘family time’ that excludes electronics! It’s a great thing to keep alive.”
The Ellis family recognizes that many families struggle and can’t necessarily give monetary donations, but they have received numerous responses on their GoFundMe page with folks showing a willingness to help with the physical work that will be required to maintain the theater when the season ends.
“We appreciate this more than words can express,” Antoinette concluded. “It certainly reaffirms how much people still appreciate having a drive-in theater here locally!”