By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
The Sunset Drive-In Theater is planning to host a special outdoor event on August 12th in celebration of its past. And there are SEVENTY years of history to commemorate!
What a past it is … from old black and white movies to today’s much larger screen and vivid color blockbusters. This property holds many memories for lots of folks in the area. Whether it was sharing some “alone time” on a date or “fun time” on a family excursion, through the years the Sunset Drive-In holds reminiscences for many in the local vicinity.
According to Antoinette Ellis-Casto, her family was very humbled by comments they received last year when a GoFundMe account gathered donations to help make improvements to the outdoor theater.
“So many patrons expressed their desire to keep the drive-in going. Many said ‘Don’t let it die!’ We appreciated not just their donations but also their heartfelt comments. Now we have the occasion to show them just how much we appreciate them, and that is what this evening event on August 12th is all about,” she said. “We want to say ‘thank you’ to all of those who have supported us through the years.”
Everyone is invited to attend this event. Come early – well before the movie feature begins – and take part in the celebration. From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., there will be outdoor games inside the gates along with an unbelievable magician coming from Pennsylvania to perform. Folks are also encouraged to enter a car decorating contest. The only requirement is that the vehicle be decorated around a movie theme … and yes, a prize will be given to the ‘favorite’! Their thinking caps are still working on perhaps some other activities to be incorporated as well. And if you have any suggestions or ideas, message them on their Facebook page.
Antoinette has been soliciting local businesses for door prizes for the upcoming event … and with much success! She has gift certificates and coupons from area restaurants, hair salons, massage therapists, florists, home improvement stores … even tickets to Kennywood! And she is still working on donation collections.
“Now all we have to do is pray for good weather!” she added. “That is always an issue in this business. We are only open four months out of the year, and just like this past weekend, we battled heavy rain and, sadly, couldn’t open.”
Considering the number of people who continue to enjoy coming to the drive-in and who support it, they are expecting to have a large turnout.
“Since we can only have 300 cars in there, we suggest that perhaps some families and friends might want to car pool on this particular evening!” she stated.
While preparing for this 70th anniversary celebration, the Ellis family has had the opportunity to go through some old memorabilia. They even found a journal that was kept by the wife of one of the original owners. In it was a weekly list of all the movies that were shown at the Sunset Drive-In dating back to 1947! Another nostalgic tidbit was found … a ledger of employees – who worked the ticket booth, who worked the projection room, etc. – and even the names of four parking attendants! At one time “back in the old days”, the drive-in property accommodated 600 cars, and going to the outdoor theater on weekends was so popular that parking attendants were needed to direct traffic and tell you where to park!
The Sunset Drive-In has been in existence since 1947. The Ellis family took over the drive-in in 1955 as its third owner. The family has owned and operated it since that time.
According to statistics, there were over 4,000 drive-ins operating in 1956 in the U.S. That number had significantly fallen by the year 2,000 with fewer than 450 in operation. That number has likely reduced even more now; only three are left in West Virginia today.
Antoinette noted that she was surprised to learn that there were some people who don’t even know the Sunset Drive-In is still in business. Yet there are others who are devoted fans and love coming often. That confirms that while a few folks look at the drive-in theater as a “flash from the past”, there are still many who still thoroughly enjoy it. Further confirming this, when Antoinette put messages on their Facebook page that they would be celebrating the drive-in’s 70th anniversary, there were over 10,000 views!
Their Facebook fans comment a lot about the Sunset Drive-In Theater being affordable, clean, great for a family evening out, and a friendly, family environment. They also like the snacks offered at the concession stand, which is open through the entire first movie and during intermission, offering hoagies, pizzas, pepperoni rolls, nachos & cheese, soft drinks, candy, and a small variety of ice cream sandwiches and treats, to name a few.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements in the last year. We fixed the screen without a loan thanks to GoFundMe donations; that was a huge help. We also had to have a new ticket booth, purchase a hard drive, and put up new fencing. These were expenses out of pocket, and there are still some renovations that need to be addressed. When Cinemascope told us we needed to broaden the screen, that was done, and supports were put behind it; however, they are beginning to crumble somewhat, so that is something else that will need attention before long. But, we intend to continue to operate because the interest IS still there,” Antoinette said.
In addition to summer family experiences, the drive-in is often a celebratory excursion for summer sports teams at the end of their season – or a Boy Scout evening out. Recently, one family brought their Dad for dinner and a movie as a Father’s Day treat.
The family has put a lot of thought and work into this upcoming celebration. “The evening will be all about our patrons. It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’! And if weather is a factor and we can’t do what we’ve planned, we will find another way to give out the prizes that so many generous donors have contributed. We’re really praying, though, that the weather will look favorably on us on August 12th,” she concluded.
Because they don’t actually have the movies in their possession until one week in advance, they can’t say for sure what the features will be that evening. Watch for that announcement next week. And be sure to mark August 12th on your calendar!