Until temps hit the mid-50s last week, this was shaping up to be one of the most discontented winters of all the winters of our discontent.
Should temps dip back down to subzero levels, we will have some gloriously summery news to sustain us: The owners of the Huntington Drive-In theater, John and Nellie Detzler, are putting the finishing touches on a second screen.
This development comes a year after those same owners indicated that they would be retiring soon.
It’s not as contradictory as it might seem. John Detzler says it was his plan all along to install a second screen. But fate kept intervening.
Life happens, as he puts it.
Playground and concession stand renovations were a priority after the Detzlers bought the property a decade ago.
And then in 2005, a windstorm knocked down the newly refurbished main screen and that set things back even more.
As Detzler tried to secure financing for the second screen, he looked for ways to do it more cheaply than the standard steel model.
His initial idea was to attach the screen to a tower of stacked cargo containers but the city put the kibosh on that.
Then he heard tell of a new trend in the drive-in movie biz (such as the biz and new trends in it are these days): pole barns.
Some theater operators who wanted to add an economical second screen were attaching them to modified pole barns.
Detzler says he was able to add a barn, screen and second projection booth to his property for what it would have cost to build a traditional steel screen.
The Detzlers bought no new land for the project.
They are merely splitting up the existing space: patrons will just point their cars at whatever screen is showing the movie they came to see.
A lot of (theaters) do this because it is very rare to have a sellout, Detzler says. We usually don’t come close to selling out.
This is far from a risky venture. In fact, it will ease some of the frustrations that are unique to the drive-in movie business.
In the Huntington Drive-In’s single-screen days, Detzler could not show all of the movies he wanted to show.
Each new summer blockbuster comes with a two- or three-week guarantee, Detzler says, meaning that he is prohibited from swapping that film out for another during the agreed-upon period. Neither can he pair it with a film from another studio, he says.
With big films opening every weekend in the summer, Detzler used to have to pick and choose.
Last year we had to pass on Karate Kid,’ he says. We never did end up playing it, and it was a shame. It was a good PG-rated family movie.
Now, Detzler can shift a movie in its second week of release to his second screen and open a new movie on the main one. Cars 2 and Transformers 3 open within a week of each other this summer, Detzler says, and in the past he would have had to pass on Transformers 3 or show it at a much later date. Now he can bring both films to the theater.
The new scheme of things will make the Huntington Drive-In theater much more profitable and, therefore, more attractive to potential buyers.
Yes, the Detzlers are still thinking about retirement. But Detzler says he would never consider just closing the theater to achieve it.
No, I certainly wouldn’t do that, he says.
Detzler has spent his entire adult life as an owner and projectionist in the movie exhibition biz, mostly in Lake County.
He says he started to consider the purchase of a drive-in when projectors became more automated and the job of projectionist was handed over to untrained concessions workers and ushers.
In this age of digital movies, it is easy to forget what a brouhaha this caused among union projectionists, not to mention cinephiles who quickly grew tried of unfocused and badly framed movies.
The Huntington Drive-In is still all celluloid and there will always be a man on site who knows his way around a projector – the way Itzhak Perlman knows his way around a fiddle.
Detzler says that whoever buys the Huntington theater has to be a special kind of person, perhaps someone who fully appreciates the enduring specialness of drive-ins.
The buyer has to be someone who doesn’t mind giving up every weekend all summer long, he says. It is something that they really have to enjoy doing, especially on holiday weekends. That’s what the job is, because that’s what people are coming here for, to enjoy themselves.
As hard and exhausting as the job can be sometimes, Detzler says he still gets a thrill walking the perimeter at dusk.
Yeah, I get the show started and walk by the cars up front. Kids are there playing and families have blankets spread out. Moms and dads are sitting on lawn chairs and you just know you are doing something different. It can be very satisfying and rewarding.
Just not necessarily monetarily, he says with a laugh. But sometimes monetarily!