- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

GEORGETOWN, Ind. (AP) - It was the fall of 1996 when a wind storm roared through Georgetown. The gusts caught the broad side of a 45-year-old screen at the Georgetown Drive-In like the sail of a ship at sea and toppled it like a Domino. The screens’ fate wasn’t far off from the trend in the drive-in market, a harsh reminder that nearly 80 percent of the drive-ins once operating in Indiana are now closed, or demolished since the 1950s heyday.

However, when the dust settled in Georgetown, no for-sale signs were posted. No doors were closed. Like any other day at the drive-in, originally built in 1951, owner Bill Powell Jr. called upon his troops — some family, some friends — and got to work.

The product of growing up with a tight financial belt, Powell has the kind of knowledge that’s typically reserved for the sons of farmers, but he came to have that education by keeping a dream alive. One screen and one popcorn kernel at a time.

When Powell was born in 1960, the smell of popcorn on mother Dorothy’s stove filled his parent’s home on Goss Avenue. Each Saturday his father, Bill Powell Sr., a truck driver and avid movie fan, hosted a backyard movie night. The elder Powell picked up candy each week from Hauck’s Grocery to operate a makeshift concession as his Germantown neighbors filled his lawn.

In 1965, Powell Sr. took a gamble on hosting much bigger movie nights when he bought the property at 8200 Indiana 64 in Georgetown. It was the heyday for such venues, and there were plenty of competitors. “He put everything on the line,” his son said. “The year after, mom had to get a full-time job.”

When it came to screening nights, everyone had a job. From concessions to ticket sales, the Powell children were doing their part to contribute.

“One of my earliest memories is it being jam-packed when we screened Bonnie and Clyde,” Bill Powell Jr. told The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky (https://cjky.it/1uIDg5h ). He was 7 then. By age 9, he was running movies himself, repairing speakers, and mowing the grass.

“As I broke things, I just learned how to fix them,” he chuckled.

Many things did break. There were times over the years that the family nearly went broke. After 43 years of marriage, Powell’s parents separated. Their son, then a newly married and 20-year-old Louisville mechanic, soon found himself at the helm of the family business.

Times were tough. The opening of megaplexes over the years had been like a plague on the success of the Norman Rockwell era drive-in Saturday nights.

“I saw all the other drive-ins close up. There was a Clarksville Drive-In and a New Albany Drive-In. All closed. There was the Preston, then the Twilight, then the Kenwood Drive-In in Louisville,” Bill Powell Jr. said. “Business got so bad one summer, we were thinking about shutting the door. I wanted us to hang in there, and not give up just yet.”

The megaplexes took on the role of an apex predator in the drive-in ecosystem. It seemed the most stubborn, or maybe just the craziest, might survive, like youngsters in a pool seeing who could hold their breath the longest.

If that were the case, Bill Powell Jr. would still be under.

Nostalgia seekers delighted this summer when he hinted at a long future ahead when he traded in his nearly wagon wheel-sized film reels for a modern digital projection system. Powell’s loyalty to his product is only matched by the loyalty of his clientele.

“I’m just happy to have the business to make investments,” Powell said.

With the ruins of drive-ins all a short drive away, he remains optimistic about his role in the area.

“If there isn’t a drive-in going with a 50-mile radius of your community, I just feel like the community would be missing out on something. I’m just trying to keep something from the past alive.”

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Information from: The Courier-Journal, https://www.courier-journal.com

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