- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - For Joe Warren, there is no sweeter time than those nights when he gazes out over the crowd at his Evergreen Drive-In to see kids bundled up in blankets in the backseats of their parents’ cars, munching on popcorn, mesmerized by the big screen.

But it’s no secret that across the nation, this idyllic scene is quickly vanishing as drive-ins go the way of rotary dial phones and the floppy disk, their numbers slipping from more than 4,000 in their post-World War II heyday to 390 today, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

The exception is Pennsylvania, along with Ohio and New York, where the numbers of drive-ins are holding steady: Pennsylvania has 27, Ohio has 28 and New York has 29, more than any other states in the nation. Today, only 10 states have more than 10 drive-ins.

Pennsylvania also boasts the nation’s oldest operating drive-in - Shankweiler’s, which opened in the Lehigh Valley in 1934 and recently launched its 83rd season.

Experts point to a concentration of family-based operations - such as Warren’s - as the reason the outdoor theaters have survived in these states. He said these owners fiercely battle to keep their family businesses alive and thriving.

“In Pennsylvania, you have owners who are driving the survival of drive-ins. I don’t think the Evergreen would be there, but for Joe Warren,” said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the drive-in owners association.

“Right outside of Pittsburgh, (in Moon) you have the Dependable Drive-In where Rick Glaus is the son of the original owner, and out east (near Allentown) at Becky’s Drive-In, you have Cindy Deppe. She’s the daughter of the owner and has decided that in her life she will keep it alive,” Vogel said.

Warren, 59, who owns the three-screen Evergreen Drive-In located along a two-lane road just outside Mt. Pleasant, will tell you he was “born into” the business and will show his birth certificate listing his home as a New York drive-in as proof.

“I was born in New York where my family was building a drive-in. At one time, they had six or seven drive-ins going at once,” said Warren, of North Huntingdon.

Today, owners face myriad obstacles, including film distributors who snub drive-ins in favor of traditional indoor theaters, costly digital technology upgrades and light pollution from sprawling development that threatens drive-ins’ dark skies.

But Warren remains steadfastly devoted to watching movies under the stars.

“I honestly always knew I wanted to do this,” Warren said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The beginning

Drive-ins peaked in the late 1950s when America’s love affair with the automobile blossomed as teens crowded into sedans and parents bundled kids born amid the baby boom into the family station wagon for a night at the movies.

Although much has stayed the same - popcorn and hot dogs are concession-stand favorites - much has changed.

Warren’s Evergreen opened as the Ruthorn Drive-In in June 1947 with its Academy Award-nominated feature, “Salty O’Rourke,” starring Alan Ladd and Gail Russell. Cost of admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, according to the Evergreen’s archives.

It was renamed the Evergreen in 1949 and purchased by the Warren family in 1999.

This weekend, the Evergreen is featuring “Zootopia,” ”The Jungle Book,” ”Captain America: Civil War” and “Mother’s Day,” to name a few. Admission to see two movies is $9 for adults, $4 for kids 6 to 11 and free for children 5 and under.

The changes

April Wright, a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker, visited more than 500 drive-ins, including long-abandoned sites in 49 states, to make her documentary, “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie.”

She said the expansion of suburbs that grew up around drive-ins, the gas crisis of the 1970s and a move to smaller cars, the birth of the indoor multiplex theater and the advent of videos games and video-cassette recorders contributed to the decline of the drive-in.

“And a lot of them were built on land that the owners held on long-term leases that were beginning to come to term. All of these things were piling up on top of each other in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” she said.

Vogel, who owns Benjie’s Drive-In in suburban Baltimore - that state’s only drive-in theater - boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry.

Like Warren, Vogel was born into it. He got his first taste of the business in Western Pennsylvania.

His father, A. Fred Serro, who died when Vogel was 3, built the now-defunct Gateway Drive-In Theatre in New Kensington. His stepfather, Jack Vogel, an architectural engineer, built drive-ins throughout the Northeast and even ventured to Lima, Peru, in 1952 to build that nation’s first drive-in, Vogel said.

He bemoans the passing of other Western Pennsylvania outdoor theaters.

While the remaining drive-ins draw crowds of nostalgic fans, Vogel said they require a lot of hard work and operate on a thin margin.

“If these things were incredibly lucrative, would major (film) distributors not be players in this game?” Vogel said. “And not a single one is.”

That hasn’t stopped drive-in fans from getting into the business.

Todd Ament of Vandergrift, who once worked at the Evergreen, bought the Riverside Drive-In in 2004.

He recently launched his 12th season at the drive-in on River Road, between Vandergrift and Leechburg.

The Riverside opened in the 1950s as Lee’s Woodland. Ament said it sat closed from about 1980 until 1995, when it reopened as the Galaxy and then finally began operations as the Riverside.

“The patrons love it. We get a lot of positive feedback from our regular customers and people who visit us for the first time. Mostly, the family shows do the best. We have grandparents coming with grandkids saying, ‘We haven’t been to drive-in since we were young,’” Ament said.

Drive-ins like the Riverside, the Evergreen and Benjie’s are pure Americana, Vogel said.

“We don’t have mom and pop grocery stores anymore. Would you come to Baltimore just to eat at the Olive Garden, or shop at Target or stay at the Hilton? But you can come to Baltimore and come to Benjie’s Drive-In. There are not a lot of things left like the drive-in,” he said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1Xc7bDa

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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