- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

VINELAND, N.J. - With a carful of children and sentimental memories tumbling in his head, Brian Riley steered his Chevy Blazer over the crunchy red dirt and rolled to a stop, its front end tilting uphill.

A huge, white screen filled the view through his windshield.

As darkness fell at the Delsea Drive-In, the screen flickered to life to start the evening’s double feature — “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Anchorman.”

Mr. Riley, 38, hadn’t been to the movies like this since he was a child. Now, he was back, with three children of his own in tow.

“When I was a kid, I went to drive-ins,” Mr. Riley said. “I figured I’d take my kids to see what the experience is like.”

Banking on that kind of nostalgia, new owners have resurrected the rickety old theater, joining what drive-in buffs call a resurgence in a medium that is way past its prime.

In the 1990s, 22 drive-ins were built, and since then, 15 others have opened, said Jennifer Sherer, co-creator of the Web site www.drive-ins.com, which tracks active and former drive-ins. More than 50 others have been renovated and reopened in the past 10 years, she said.

“It’s a mode of experiencing the movies that shouldn’t go by the wayside,” said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “There’s something very special about watching movies at a drive-in, with the outdoor experience, the communal experience.”

Invented in 1933, drive-in theaters married two of America’s biggest obsessions: cars and movies.

By 1958, more than 4,000 had sprung up, offering outdoor showplaces where families, couples and car enthusiasts could catch a movie on a summer night.

But rising land prices, the growth of multitheater megaplexes and the advent of home video, computers and other home-entertainment options helped shut down most of them.

Today, about 400 are in operation, some of them renovated showplaces, others newly built.

New Jersey gave birth to the phenomenon. On June 6, 1933, the Camden Drive-In, in Pennsauken, showed “Wives Beware,” starring Adolphe Menjou. The state’s last drive-in closed in 1991.

The Delsea, which closed in 1987, caught the eye of a pediatrician who was looking for a site to build a skate park.

Dr. John DeLeonardis couldn’t bring himself to demolish the drive-in, though, and decided to reopen it, with the idea of devoting some part of the 17-acre site to a skate park to be built later. Along with other investors, he spent about $1 million to buy the site, clear it and renovate the drive-in.

“To take down something like this, it would be a sin,” Dr. DeLeonardis said. “Besides, it’s going gangbusters.”

To say the Delsea has been resurrected might be exaggerating. In some ways, it is only slowly crawling out of its 17-year slumber.

The 400 cars that showed up on opening night on July 23 found a concrete ticket booth that uses plywood boards for windows; the restrooms are portable toilets in a trailer.

The grass and weeds that took over the site during its long hiatus have been cut, revealing dozens of soda-can pop tops, the detritus of summer nights gone by.

The white poles that once held speaker boxes to car windows don’t work. Instead, the movie audio is piped from the cinder-block projection booth via a 1-watt transmitter. To hear the movie, you tune to 90.5 on the FM dial. No working radio? Just pull your vehicle close to the projection booth, where manager Bob Madara has pulled the speakers off a boombox and stuck them into two openings at the front.

A mall megaplex, it’s not. But neither are its prices — $6 for adults, $3 for children, $1 for a box of popcorn.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mr. Madara said. “People want it so bad, they’re willing to put up with this. We get cars from Pennsylvania, from Delaware, and the phone’s been ringing off the hook, people calling from Brooklyn and everywhere else.”

The people who turned out on a recent night — a mix of families and young couples, minivans and convertibles — liked the prices and the atmosphere. Some set up lawn chairs or blankets on the dirt, or in the beds of pickup trucks.

“It’s something to do with the kids. Gets ‘em out of the house,” said Shawn Griffin, 36, of Vineland, sitting in her Daewoo Leganza sedan, eating potato chips with her 9-year-old stepsons and 13-year-old stepdaughter, awaiting the start of the movie.

“We read about it in the paper, that it was $6 and $3 to get in, and I said, ‘We’ve got to do that one of these nights.’ The movie theaters are ridiculous. You go to the movies, you might as well go to the amusement park,” it’s so expensive,” Mrs. Griffin said. “I think this is cool.”

Mr. Riley, who lives in Bensalem, Pa., drove for more than an hour to get to the drive-in.

“It was his idea,” said his wife, Carolyn, 37, who sat in a back seat. “I wanted miniature golf and milkshakes. He said this would be fun.”

“And it’s not,” their 6-year-old son, Kevin, chimed in from his upside-down position on a passenger seat, awaiting the start of the movie. As it turned out, he fell asleep before “The Bourne Supremacy” even started.

Drive-in buffs say the atmosphere is unique enough to appeal in a world where people can watch a movie in a theater, in their own living room or even in their car.

“There’s something about having this communal experience out under the stars,” Miss Sherer said. “People bring sleeping bags, lawn chairs, and it’s like a picnic. It’s OK to talk out loud, your kids can have fun without disturbing others. It’s a come-as-you-are kind of thing.”

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