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Survival in the digital age: NNY drive-in movie theaters adjust to change

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LYONS FALLS — Michael D. Dekin remains skeptical of digital cinema technology, even after purchasing it this summer for Lewis County’s only drive-in theater.

“I was forced into a corner. Either close or (convert and) stay open. And it’s only under warranty for one short year,” said the owner of Valley Brook Drive-In, at the corner of Route 12 and Burdick’s Crossing Road.

Although Mr. Dekin said his first weekend of using the technology began July 4 and went smoothly, the months and days leading up to showtime were a hassle — including a last-minute trip for installation technicians to Schenectady to pick up a new digital cinema server because the original one he received did not work.

The theater itself averages 80 to 150 cars on nights it is open, but capacity is 400 cars, according to Mr. Dekin. Also, he said, the drive-in used to be open seven nights a week, but the figure dropped to six days in the 1990s and three in recent years.

Despite Mr. Dekin’s challenges, Valley Brook is bucking the trend of the dying drive-in, along with a small number of other theaters in the nation, state and region.

Mr. Dekin said approximately 5,000 drive-ins existed across the country in the 1950s and ’60s heyday, but just over 300 remain. He said, however, that New York is doing relatively well in the marketplace.

“Other states have lost all their drive-ins. Most of it is for real-estate reasons. The average drive-in is five to 10 acres, and the land became more valuable than the business,” said Mr. Dekin, whose family opened Valley Brook in 1952.

In New York, an estimated 27 drive-ins are still operating, according to the website www.newyorkdriveins.com. The first drive-in in the state was established in 1938. Since then, there have been roughly 184, with that number beginning a steady decline in the 1990s.

Across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, four of 13 original drive-ins remain, and all four have gone digital in the past few years. The first to convert, from 35-millimeter polyester film, was the Black River Drive-In in 2012.

“So far the technology has been holding up pretty well,” said Loren E. Knapp, the ­theater’s owner. “We definitely have a brighter, crisper picture with improved sound.”

The two other drive-ins in the tri-county area are the Bay Drive-In in Alexandria Bay, and the 56 Auto Theater in Massena.

‘MORE OPPORTUNITIES’

Two years ago, word started circulating that all film companies would begin releasing movies only via digital format and that new movies no longer would be available on polyester.

Digital films are cheaper to produce and ship to theaters. The 35-millimeter movie could cost $100 just to send, as the film and case weigh about 80 pounds. Digital films are stored on a hard drive and then shipped to the theater. Once the film is returned to the film company, the hard drive can be wiped and a new film installed.

Some new films are available only in 35mm form, though that availability is limited. Converting to digital opens access to most films.

“When you go digital, you basically get more opportunities,” said Thomas H. Wade, owner of Bay Drive-In. “We did a Jimmy Buffett concert (via live stream), and we can do other things besides show films. We can show boxing matches in the off-season. And you get better availability on film options.”

Bay went digital in 2013, and Mr. Wade said the conversion has had its ups and downs. One issue, he said, is fixing the equipment if it stops running.

“You have no problem with the film breaking or getting caught in the machine. But if something digital goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Before, I could fix a film projector on the spot. If some component internally goes wrong, I have to get a technician, and it’s expensive,” said Mr. Wade, who already has put $180,000 into the equipment and remodeling of his two-screen theater.

“You’ve got to sell a lot of popcorn to bring that back,” he said.

The 56 Auto in Massena converted to digital in June. Though it’s too early to tell how the conversion will affect operations and sales, owner Jeffrey Szot said he’s optimistic.

“We’ve had very positive comments. One kid even came on a Friday night and told his mom it was great, (so) she came Saturday night,” said Mr. Szot, who fronted $80,000 for the equipment.

At Valley Brook, Mr. Dekin said he had intended to close the theater for good at the end of last summer. He said he was making back only between $5,000 and $10,000 each summer, and he speculated he would not be able to front the funds for the digital system.

But after a show of support from patrons on the group’s Facebook page, he said he knew he had to keep the family business going.

Enter the Snow Belt Housing Co., a nonprofit that aims to provide safe, affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families in Lewis County.

During the fall of 2013, Mr. Dekin filed a grant application through Snow Belt. He was awarded $22,000, which, combined with his $35,000 contribution, made the $57,000 worth of digital equipment affordable.

Funding business projects isn’t something Snow Belt typically does, but the group’s executive director, Cheryl L. Shenkle-O’Neill, said the board thought Valley Brook was “worthy of preserving.”

“I think it’s part of our culture, isn’t it?” she asked. “You grow up going to the drive-in, and it’s an experience you want to have for your children or grandchildren. There are few drive-in theaters around, and it’s a way to promote some entertainment that’s a part of the history of the community.”

Shenkle-O’Neill said she recalls her large family heading to a drive-in in Indiana when she was a girl. After moving to New York, she made sure her son had the same opportunity.

“I took my son when he was about 12, and he had never been to a drive-in before. We pulled in and he said, ‘Oh, wow, we watch a movie from our car!’” she said, laughing.

She always will remember the film they saw: “A Goofy Movie” from 1995.

CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

Mr. Knapp has invested about $100,000 in digital equipment at Black River Drive-In. He said he’s had very few issues with the equipment and considers the conversion more of a benefit than a shortfall.

“I was able to connect to the equipment and readjust the show from my home 70 miles away,” Mr. Knapp said. “I can shorten the intermission — I can do all that remotely.”

Mr. Knapp said he’s concerned that technology will change again in a few years, rendering the digital system obsolete, but that’s the game a theater owner plays.

“There is technology coming down the road,” he said. “For instance, they’re working on a light source ... the Zenon lamp is a 6,500-watt lamp. It has a 500-hour life span and costs $1,400. They’re working on laser technology to replace this.”

He added that technology already exists to equip projectors with 3-D options, but drive-ins would not benefit.

“Many cars have polarized windshields, so it won’t work,” Mr. Knapp said.

It can be difficult for a drive-in owner to tell whether showing films digitally increases the number of patrons, because movies and weather must be factored in. But after watching “Transformers 4” and “Jersey Boys” at Valley Brook on Fourth of July weekend, patron Royce Fitzgerald said the difference is clear to see.

“The new digital projector is fantastic. It’s like watching high (definition) on a very large TV ... This was a huge investment for the owner, and we should be thankful that he took this step to keep the drive-in opened. Now we need to show him how grateful we are and go and support him. Thank you, Mike, for making this possible,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in an email.

For Lewis County resident Edie A. Roggie, Valley Brook was a favorite pastime when she was younger.

“We went there in the early years of marriage because it was a fun, cheap date,” Mrs. Roggie said.

She and her husband, Wayne, would make a date night out of watching action films that otherwise would be too frightening to take their children to see.

“I was so disappointed when I heard that last year might be the last year it would be open, because even though we don’t go often, it represents a time of nostalgia,” she said.

With work and grown children, Mr. and Mrs. Roggie haven’t had time to visit the theater as much as they used to. But Mr. Fitzgerald said he has attended Valley Brook almost every summer for 60 years.

“I do remember looking forward to playing on the swing set, slide and merry go-round before the movie started, and it always started with a cartoon,” he recalled. “Talking about this is really bringing back some great memories. We always took our kids, and they enjoyed it just as much as we did. And now I get to take my grandkids, and they love it too.”

CURRENT NNY DRIVE-INS

Since the first drive-in theater was established in New York 76 years ago, Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties have hosted 13 drive-ins, but only four are operating now. (Sources: www.newyorkdriveins.com and Times staff)

Valley Brook Drive-In: Burdick’s Crossing Road, Lyons Falls. Opened 1952; converted to digital 2014. Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until October. Admission is $6 for adults, $2 for ages 7 to 11. Kids under 7 free. (315) 348-6315.

Black River Drive-In: 28035 State Route 3, Black River. Opened 1950; converted to digital 2012. Open seven days a week. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for ages 7 to 11. Kids under 7 free. (315) 773-8604.

Bay Drive-In Theatre: Route 26 at Bailey Settlement Road, Alexandria Bay. Opened 1968; converted to digital 2013. Open seven days a week. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for those with active military ID, $4 for seniors 65 and over, $2 for ages 7 to 11. Kids under 7 free. (315) 482-3874.

56 Auto Drive-In Theater: 9783 Andrews St., Massena. Opened 1955; converted to digital 2014. Open seven days a week. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.50 for ages 4 to 12. Under 4 free. (315) 764-1250.

PAST NNY DRIVE-INS

Information provided by Rick Cohen, owner of Transit Drive-in Theatre, Lockport. He created and maintains the website www.newyorkdriveins.com.

Northside Drive-In, Watertown. Open 1950-1988.

Star-lit Drive-In, Watertown, 1948-1988.

1000 Islands Drive-In, Alexandria Bay, 1948-1961.

C-Way Drive-In, Ogdensburg, 1948-1987.

Hi-Way Drive-In, Gouverneur, 1950-1983.

Ideal Drive-In, Canton, 1950-1986.

Moonlight Drive-In, Potsdam, 1948-1984.

Sunset Drive-In, Canton, 1947-1955.

Sunset Drive-In, Massena, 1948-1970.

A family business since 1952

By AMANDA THOMSON-TANGALIN

times staff writer

LYONS FALLS — The Valley Brook Drive-In theater has been a family business since it opened 62 years ago.

In 1952, 24-year-old Robert M. Matuszczak and his father — West Martinsburg farmer Michael Matuszczak — designed the theater, which is currently operated by Robert’s nephew, Michael D. Dekin. (Robert Matuszczak died in 1989.)

Mr. Dekin once ran the business with his mother, Dorothy Dekin, and his sister, Bernice Noody. But Ms. Noody passed away in 2006, and Mrs. Dekin has ongoing medical issues. Mr. Dekin, 49, now opens the theater three days a week with two other employees, including Donald Mulligan, who worked on and off as Valley Brook’s projectionist for 46 years.

Although he won’t be handling film as he once did — Valley Brook converted from a polyester format to digital last weekend — Mr. Mulligan will assist with general operations of the theater.

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