MONTROSE – Witnessing cultural and generational changes, surviving a tornado and then surviving the transition from film to digital, Pamela DeVries Friend and her family have lived – in more ways than one – through 65 groundbreaking years. For starters, they survived the peak, and the decline, of drive-in movie theaters across the U.S. Montrose’s Star Drive-In, one of the nation’s oldest, begins its 65th season next Friday. It shows no signs of fading away. From its beginning, in 1
933, in Camden, N.J., to its midcentury peak in popularity, the drive-in movie theater has remained a symbol of Americana and a time capsule of cultural heritage. At the height of their ubiquity, in 1958, America boasted 4,000-plus operating drive-ins. Today, there are 368 in the U.S. and 53 in Canada, according to data from DriveIns.com. The Star Drive-In is one of the oldest still owned and operated by the founding family. “There are very few of us left. We’re becoming a novelty item,” Friend admits. In 1949, Friend’s parents, George and Elizabeth DeVries, installed the Star’s original screen, opening at a time when families and teens flocked to the theater to hang out under the stars, eat popcorn and frolic in the back seat. The first movie shown at the Star was a 1949 western, The Younger Brothers, a “two-oater” about a pair of outlaw siblings who rode with the notorious gang led by Frank and Jesse James. The two brothers decide to go straight, get pardoned, and lead a law-abiding life. Two years after the opening, Friend was spending her nights as a baby at the theater, sleeping in a side room while her parents built the business. “So I literally grew up with it,” she said. By age 5, when most cars didn’t have seatbelts and got maybe 5 miles per gallon, Friend had started working at the theater, running tickets from the box office to her father in the projection room. At 16, she took over the theater’s operations. She’s been operating it ever since. “That’s more years than I want to tell you about,” she said, laughing. SURVIVAL On May 19, 1974, a tornado tore through the facility and ripped the original screen to the ground. “It was a nightmare,” said Friend. “A 110-mile-per-hour twister came through and took that out.” A newer, bigger, 80-by 90-foot screen went up and has been there ever since. By the 1970s and 80s, the theater was more of a “teen dive” than a family hangout, Friend said. “I wanted families, and that’s what I did. When I turned it around, I got it back into showing movies for families,” she said. “I show mostly G and PG [rated] movies. I try my best to stay away from Rs; I show some action based ones, the ones that don’t have too much foul language and sex.” In 1990, Friend said, the theater purchased some used automated equipment – about a decade after the industry had already switched. (“We don’t spend more than we make,” she explained.) But the biggest change, she said, has been the recent transition from 35-millimeter film to digital. “It’s something I work on now with pride and respect,” Friend said of her 65-year-old business. “It is one of the oldest drive-ins in the country owned and operated by the original [founding] family. There are not too many of us left. The transition to digital took a bunch of us out.” The film industry had been quietly transitioning from film to digital since 1999. In January of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that “for more than a century, Hollywood has relied on 35-millimeter film to capture its fleeting images and deliver them to the silver screen. Now, in a historic move, Paramount Pictures has become the first big studio to stop releasing its major movies on film in the United States.” The paper went on to speculate that the cost-cutting move would inspire other studios to do the same thing, and the entire industry could go all-digital by the end of the year. Theaters that have upgraded will remain open this year. Those that have not are seemingly gone forever, with an average cost, for new digital equipment, of roughly $80,000 per screen. Some theaters operate more than one screen, escalating that price-tag to hundreds of thousands of dollars. To date, some 60 percent of theaters have switched to all-digital, according to the Huffington Post. “I’d say about a third went under because of the [digital] transition,” Friend said. “Old film projectors were pretty stout” and required little maintenance, she explained: “a new light bulb here, an adjustment there,” as opposed to the costs of maintaining digital technology. Friend was forced to convert her projection room into a “clean room” for the new digital equipment, with temperature control gear and air ventilation to protect from dust and overheating, at a total cost of roughly $100,000. It was paid for by the family and by public donations. The Star still faces another hurdle. Even as the film industry moves forward, it is evident that drive-in theaters are not on the industry’s radar. Film conglomerates like Warner Brothers now require that each attendee buy an individual ticket, as opposed to the “carload” price the Star charged for decades. But even with the fast-paced changes and with the huge investment, Friend loves opening the theater night after night. “I enjoy seeing the families come out and seeing all the little kids out there playing. it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s something for them to do as a family. We need that. We need that in our society. There is not as much family time any more. Everyone kind of goes their separate ways. “Here, they can be together,” she said. There are seven drive-in movie theaters operating in Colorado including the Star – the “88” theater in Commerce City, the Comanche in Buena Vista, the Holiday Twin in Fort Collins, the Mesa in Pueblo, the Star in Monte Vista and TruVu in Delta. Friend said it will take 10 years to pay off the costs of the new digital equipment at the Star. Over the past few weeks, she and her daughter, April, have been preparing the drive-in for its 2014 season, stocking up on supplies and cleaning. “Novelty” or not, Friend said she maintains the facility to the highest level she can, repainting its iconic red trim and the seats at the snack bar every year. Next Friday, the Star will open its 65th season with The Lego Movie and Frozen. Friend expects hundreds of moviegoers – mostly families – to show up, have fun and eat the theater’s “world-famous” hamburgers. Tickets are $7.50 for adults and $5.50 for seniors (ages 60 and older). Children 11 years and under are admitted free. Visit www.stardrivein.com for more information.