There’s only one left in Maryland. The same goes for Rhode Island. There are three left in Massachusetts and two in Connecticut. There are four in New Hampshire, which is the same number as there are within a 60-mile radius of downtown Buffalo. Drive-in movie theaters often are considered a thing of the past along with poodle skirts, Richie Cunningham and asking someone to go steady, but they survive despite dwindling numbers.
In 1999, there were about 1,000 screens in the country; that number has since dipped below 600 according to D. Edward Vogel, the administrative secretary for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and owner of Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre in Baltimore. However, he said it is unlikely the country will see another round of closures, and this seems true for this area’s theaters: the Sunset Drive-In in Middleport, Transit Drive-In in Lockport, Silver Lake Drive-In in Perry and the Loomis Drive-In in Delevan.
While the switch to digital projection systems was tough on all drive-ins, about 80 percent of those remaining, including the four here, have successfully adopted the new systems, Vogel said. There’s also the matter of people wanting to relish a time before corporations owned most theaters.
“People come to places like this because it is different,” Vogel said. “America has become a rubber stamp. It’s all the same old, same old.”
Vogel is quick to point out that there are very few independent indoor theaters and that the experience of going to a large multiplex has become fairly monotonous. Most drive-ins, on the other hand, have their own quirks and personality while playing on the “retro” theme.
For that reason and others, New Yorkers are still frequenting the drive-ins enough to keep them open. New York has the most drive-in sites (29) and screens (50) in the country, according to data from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Vogel said that to have four operating drive-ins in the area is not all that uncommon. Cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, have similar situations. He said it might seem unusual for one area in one part of a state to have four theaters since there are six states that have none at all.
“It works in a place like Western New York because there is the population to support it and those drive-ins are long-established,” Vogel said.
A consistent theme emerges as to how the drive-ins continue to survive: tradition.
On a recent Friday night, families began to flood through the gates of the Sunset Drive-In. Many locals have always watched movies during the summer here. The stable customer base is largely made up of families from the surrounding area and teenagers who now come with friends because their parents would bring them here.
Dan and Cindy Spriegl of Albion both came with their families as kids and now bring their own about every other week.
“It’s a family tradition,” Cindy Spriegl said.
They both like that the same swing set and slide, where kids play before the movies start, are still there. Dan pointed out that he spray painted his name on the back of the original screen when he was about 10, and even that remains.
The Sunset Drive-In has been owned and operated by the Stornelli family since 1950. Early on a Monday morning, Denise and Mario Stornelli are hoisting full garbage bags from the two back screens (there are three in total, including the original) to the center of their operation: the snack bar. Right before showtime on a Friday night, Denise is behind the counter at the snack bar, busy taking orders and running the front of the house. Mario is the only person in the kitchen preparing food.
“Thank God he doesn’t smoke,” Denise Stornelli said.
The Stornellis have some help around show time in the box office and at concessions, but they basically run the operation on their own. Their son owns and operates the ice cream stand near the entrance. The business originally belonged to Mario’s parents, from whom the Stornellis took over in 1994.
While the Sunset Drive-In appears to have the old signs and fixtures from the 1950s, the Silver Lake Drive-In has seen drastic changes over the decades.
Rick Stefanon’s father bought the Silver Lake in 1966, 17 years after its original opening. In what turned out to be a smart decision, he had managed three drive-ins in Buffalo and wanted to have one of his own.
Silver Lake is now much more than a drive-in. It is a family entertainment center that includes a mini golf course, an arcade, old-fashioned ice cream parlor, large restaurant and banquet hall. Stefanon, who took the business over from his late father in 1993, said none of it could have been possible without his father’s vision and the original profits made from the drive-in.
“We are out in the middle of nowhere. We have to keep people coming back,” Stefanon said.
At first, it was the drive-in that funded the expansions at Silver Lake.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the drive-in,” Stefanon said.
It’s difficult to remember a time when this could be true. Now, drive-ins depend on their concession stands to stay afloat, but Silver Lake has remained true to its roots. Old movie posters line the walls in many rooms. A Western theme prevails as an homage to the time of John Wayne. It’s a modern place technologically – even the board menus are now electronic – but Stefanon wants visitors to feel as though they are visiting moments of the past.
“It’s a place for retro-fun,” he said.
The Transit Drive-In has also been passed down through generations, it has been owned by various members of the Cohen family since 1957 when it was a one-screen theater. In 1987, a then-19-year-old Rick Cohen started managing the drive-in and proceeded to add more screens (there are now four), miniature golf and special events including the popular Tuesday night retro movie night with films including “Gremlins” and “Jurassic Park” on Tuesday and a recent broadcast of a Jimmy Buffet concert.
Donald Loomis, owner of the Loomis Drive-In, recalls when going to the drive-in was almost a nightly activity. Now almost 70, he owns and runs the drive-in with his wife and the help of their five adult children. He smiles when talking about how kids still try to sneak their smaller friends into the theater like people did when he was young, an activity he avoided.
“I’m a Catholic. I didn’t want to have to admit it in confessional,” he said, laughing.
Loomis is a self-proclaimed businessman and entrepreneur. He talks easily about the many businesses he has owned in Western New York, including a custard stand in Orchard Park that Jim Kelly used to visit. Some people travel significant distances to patronize his place – notably, a group from St. Catharines, Ont., that visits a few times a year – but he mostly serves the local populations.
Loomis said he bought the drive-in for his kids who wanted him to continue to own a business in his retirement from his 34 years as a technician for Pepsi. He had hoped to get enough grants and loans to expand like Stefanon at Silver Lake. These never came through, and he had to take drastic measures just to purchase one digital machine. One of his two screens still operates on 35 mm film.
The drive-in already was the first business Loomis had to finance with a mortgage. The $80,000 cost of switching one screen to digital has hurt. He made the move in April, selling his truck for $21,000 in order to afford the new technology.
“It was either that or shut it down,” Loomis said.
He said he has $321,000 invested in the drive-in, and though he pretty much breaks even, he keeps it going for his kids.
“Every penny made here goes right back into the place,” he said.
Despite this, Loomis is optimistic about the future of his business. Now that he’s installed the new projector, he expects the theater will remain open.
Like Loomis, the Stornellis also have a hopeful outlook. They realize that people coming from urban areas must travel past the Transit Drive-In to get to their location, but Denise Stornelli said attendance figures have been stable. While many of these customers are longtime patrons, there are those for whom this is a new tradition.
Shawn Callicutt, 34, started frequenting Sunset five years ago. He comes with his young family about twice a month from Medina.
“It’s cheaper than going to the theater,” he said. When the weather is nice, Callicutt said he would rather be outdoors. “We try and get here early and get a bite to eat and relax.”
And there are still the young couples who come for date night.
Two of these moviegoers are Joe Kleitz and Shayla Evans, both in their early 20s. They said the Sunset Drive-In is a popular Friday-night destination for them. Kleitz lives in Middleport, and Evans resides in Barker. This is the closest theater of any type to them, so it only makes sense that they come a few times a month. For the two of them and many of their friends, this is just the norm in the summer. It’s not something of the past. Rather, it’s their present. Kleitz spoke in a matter-of-fact fashion about his experience at the drive-in, simply stating, “I like watching movies in the comfort of my own car.”