Saving An American Icon

America’s movie theaters must make costly upgrades by the end of the year in order to continue operating.

Come the end of 2013, 35mm film will no longer be produced, and digital film will become the new industry standard. Every theater that has not yet made the upgrade will be forced to do so in order to stay in business, and the investment could cost more than $70,000.

Park 60 Drive-In, a family-owned-and-operated theater that opened to a line of more than 300 vehicles in 2001, currently runs two 35mm projectors, both of which will have to be retired. Belinda Eckman, who owns and operates the drive in with her husband Dale, their three children, Tom, Caleb and Jenna and their mother, Sylvia Erwin, built the drive-in from the ground up in an area where drive-in theaters had a history of going out of business. Yet, the Eckman family has found success, and spent the past decade becoming an integral part of the community.

“When we opened in 2001 the focus was technology and the next big thing,” Eckman said. “But, we were building a dinosaur so to speak – something that has come and gone. I think it goes to show that people like the simplicity of a drive-in. It’s easy, there’s no thinking, you come in and you have a good time.”

According to Eckman, in order to ensure that their theater doesn’t go dark, she opted to participate in Honda’s Project Drive-In, which aims to save at least five drive-ins that may be unable to purchase the costly digital projector upgrades.

“We use Simplex projectors which are probably from the 1960s. They are gear-run machines, and as long as they have oil they will last forever with minimal maintenance,” Eckman said. “We know how to fix our machines now if something breaks, but the digital projectors are a whole new world. I think it’s a great technology, and I’m not against digital, but the expense is huge versus what we currently have. There are pros on cons, and the biggest con is the expense.”

Because the Park 60 Drive-In runs two projectors, Eckman hopes that they can win the digital upgrade from Honda so that they could then invest in a second themselves.

“Our hearts are into the drive-in and keeping it open, but it’s going to boil down to a financial decision – what it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to take to pay for that equipment,” Eckman said. “My feeling is that there is no cheaper way to help something stay then to get online or text to vote. There are such a limited number of drive-ins left in the entire country, and they play such an important part. So, I hope that people see that the drive-in is beneficial for both enjoyment and tourism.”

According to Emily and Dana Harrington, two Park 60 Drive-In regulars, they are an unlikely couple who may have the drive-in to thank, in part, for bringing them together.

“We really enjoyed hanging out together, but there wasn’t always that common activity for us to do,” Mrs. Harrington said. “But, he had a Jeep Wrangler and during the first summer we were dating we decided to go to the drive-in. Our first experience was with the Corry Drive-In, and we just had a blast – we loved it so much. Because I was living in Jamestown at the time we decided going to the Park 60 Drive-In every weekend. We did that for about three years before introducing ourselves to Belinda, and since then everyone knows us. It’s our romantic thing to do – we like being out under the stars.”

“We live in a world that is ever more impersonal, and you don’t really have to interface with people if you don’t want to,” Harrington added. “It’s very fast paced, and there’s always something required of you. So, it’s really nice to have a place to go where life slows down a little bit and it’s much more personal – it’s really about the people and the experience you’re having together.”

Park 60 Drive-In is located at 1529 Foote Ave in Jamestown. For more information call 484-6060, visit www.park60.com or search for “Park 60 Drive-In” on Facebook.

PROJECT DRIVE-IN

Park 60 Drive-In is among nearly 367 drive-ins across America that are required to make the digital conversion by the end of the year.

Honda is currently hosting a national competition called Project Drive-in, which aims to provide five drive-ins with a new digital projector. In order to win the projector, Park 60 Drive-In needs votes, and there are two ways to do so: visit www.projectdrivein.com/vote_45 and by texting VOTE45 to 444999. Users can vote twice per day, every day, once via the website and once by text. Voting has already begun, and it will continue until Monday, Sept. 9, at 11:59 p.m. The winners will be announced shortly thereafter.

Eckman’s brother, Brian, owns Erwin’s Comet Drive-In in Connellsville, Pa., which is also participating in the competition. To vote for his drive-in, visit www.projectdrivein.com/vote_69 or text VOTE69 to 444999.

In addition to voting, there are several other ways in which people can help save their local drive-in theaters. Spreading awareness of the project and the fact that theaters need to make the costly upgrade is a key factor in ensuring that none are forgotten. Visiting the theaters themselves and spending money is also a way to invest in the business’ future.

Another way is to contribute to the general drive-in fund, in which proceeds will be donated to drive-ins in need, by visiting www.projectdrivein.com and clicking on “Make A Contribution.” According to the website, nearly $15,000 of the $100,000 goal has already been raised, but only 52 days are left.

AREA THEATERS

Drive-Ins aren’t the only theaters required to make the digital conversion. Every theater across America that currently utilizes 35mm film and projectors will no longer be able to do so.

Independent theaters, such as The Reg Lenna Civic Center, The 1891 Fredonia Opera House and Struthers Library Theatre in Warren, Pa., have also been faced with the digital conversion ultimatum.

The Reg Lenna Civic Center began a campaign in February called “Donate For Digital,” which according to The Reg Lenna’s box office manager, Lynn Warner, has not raised enough funds to purchase the upgrades.

“We could be looking at $80-90,000 total when it’s all said and done,” Warner said. “Sadly, the community component has not been what we were hoping for. I know that people are being asked from many different directions to contribute these days, but I don’t know that the community realizes that this is not a luxury – it’s something necessary if we want to continue with the film component of our programming.”

Those who wish to make a donation can visit www.reglenna.com and click on the button labeled donate. In addition to supporting the theater by making donations, area residents can also purchase tickets to one of the theater’s events. Warner also said that she is willing to hear any creative ideas for fundraising opportunities. One example of a creative fundraiser is that Jamestown Paranormal is considering hosting a spend-the-night at the Reg tour in which they take a small percentage and donate the rest of the proceeds towards the digital campaign. For more information call 484-7070.

Struthers Library Theatre has already invested in the upgrades, thanks to the DeFrees Foundation and a gift from the Friends of the Library Theatre group, and is currently utilizing the new technology. For more information visit strutherslibrarytheatre.com.

The 1891 Fredonia Opera House has also installed a new digital cinema projection system for use in presenting its “Cinema Series.” Funding for the system was provided, in part, by contributions to the organization’s capital campaign, “Maintain And Sustain … A Capital Campaign for the Next 20 Years,” which is currently underway. A portion of the upgrade was also financed in order to complete the installation. For more information call 679-0891 or visit www.fredopera.org.