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Is the sun setting on drive-in theaters?

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins
Chris Dorst
From their cars and from their camp chairs, families watch "Despicable Me 2" at the Mt. Zion Drive-In in Calhoun County.
Chris Dorst Brady Whipkey, of Grantsville, and his children, Alejandra, 9, and Joseph, 10, enjoy the movie from the back of Whipkey's pickup truck. The theater transmits FM sound so families can listen to the show outside their vehicles.
Chris Dorst The view from W.Va. 16: Agnes Bever collects tickets from patrons. In the background is the snack bar and restaurant, which opens 30 minutes before the drive-in, allowing time for customers to eat before the show begins.
Chris Dorst The snack bar is bustling on a Friday night at the Mt. Zion Drive-In as patrons load up on popcorn and other movie-watching fare.
Chris Dorst Waiting for the movie to begin, children play under the movie screen on the playground at Mt. Zion Drive-In.
Chris Dorst Inside the snack bar, there are lots of things to do before and between movies. The facility offers pool tables, a jukebox and video games to keep patrons entertained.
Chris Dorst Families prepare to watch the show by stocking up on snacks at Mt. Zion Drive-In's large and spacious snack bar. The snack bar/restaurant is the original building onsite, built in 1947.

MOUNT ZION, W.Va. -- Off the Big Otter exit of Interstate 79, out a winding two-lane road, on top of a grassy knoll sits a little piece of Americana from a bygone era. The Mt. Zion Drive-In Theater & Restaurant is a 90-minute drive from Charleston, but the relatively short trip is like traveling 50 years back in time.

Marshall and Virginia Bever bought the drive-in theater in 1979.

"That was the pinnacle of the drive-in era," recalls their daughter, Bonnie Sands, who works at the drive-in with her parents.

Originally from Craigsville, the Bevers were friends with the owner of the Craigsville Drive-In, a booming business in the late '70s. So when the Mount Zion drive-in, then known as Cook's Drive-In, became available, they made the move to Calhoun County. Sands remembered the family spending that first winter living in a room attached to the restaurant/snack bar.

In recent years, Sands said, there has been a resurgence of interest in drive-ins, but this newly rediscovered pleasure might be in jeopardy.

"There are rumors flying all around that we are going out of business because of the move toward digital prints. Do we plan to shut down? No. But if 35 mm film goes out of stock, yes, we would have to shut down. We wouldn't have a choice."

In many ways, Mt. Zion Drive-In holds tight to tradition. They still serve a large menu of movie fare, and the poles that once held the in-car speakers still divide the parking spaces. During intermission, they even show the "Ten Minute Clock," a short film that counts down the time remaining between movies with original drive-in ads from the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Over the years, Sands said, the drive-in has made many concessions to modernity. When CinemaScope came along, they accommodated the new wider movies by building wings onto the screen. And as sound technology advanced, they did away with the in-car speakers and installed an FM transmitter, which allowed patrons to listen to the stereo sound of their car speakers, or to bring radios and sit outside on lawn chairs.

But some advancements are just outside the realm of possibility for small operations like Mt. Zion.

"Our films still come on reels, which are going out of style. It costs more money to create and ship those prints than the new digital hard drives," Sands said. She estimated it would cost $85,000 to upgrade from 35 mm film to digital. "We just don't make that kind of money," she said.

In December, IHS Screen Digest reported that distribution of 35 mm film would be phased out by the end of 2013. Some distributors, like Technicolor, began closing 35 mm film labs in May.

The answer to Mt. Zion's problem, and a few other drive-ins like it, may come from an unlikely source. The automaker Honda has stepped in to save a least a few of the country's drive-ins with a contest called Project Drive-In.

An assistant manager of Honda's public relations, Jessica Fini, said, "We got word that the drive-ins across the country had to switch to digital projectors this year. We're a car company, and drive-ins are a car-related piece of Americana. We thought it was a great connection."

The contest will run from Aug. 9 through Sept. 9, and the voting will be completely online with a social media campaign.

Fini said, "The more support a theater has, the better. These theaters are independently or family-owned, so we're helping them take their stories online."

The theaters will be able to create their own pages linked under Honda's contest page, which is not yet operational, where they will compete with other drive-ins for a limited number of digital projectors. Community members will be encouraged to vote and to share by way of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

As more information becomes available and voting begins, Sands said they will make the public aware through their website, http://mtziondrivein.com, and their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/mtziondrivein, where people can vote and find instructions on how to vote.

For now, Sands and her parents carry on as they always have, showing a double feature every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at dusk, on an old screen, behind some well-used playground equipment, in front of the star-swept skies.

If you hurry, you can still enjoy this passing piece of history -- at least until the end of this summer's season.

Want to go?

WHEN: At dusk on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays

WHERE: Mt. Zion Drive-In Theater & Restaurant, 7540 S. Calhoun Highway, Mount Zion, WV 26151

TICKETS: Adults $7, children 5-10 $1 with paying adult

INFO: Call 304-354-9405 or visit http://mtziondrivein.com for current movies and show dates

Related story: Demise of 35 mm film impacts small theaters

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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