HUNTINGTON – Showtime isnt until 9:20 p.m., or until the sky gets dark enough, but the cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles begin pulling into the 17-acre lot off of Condit Street a good hour and a half before then.
Soon enough, there are people folding out chairs, spreading blankets over the beds of pickups, throwing Frisbees and footballs, spraying bug spray over their arms and legs and making beelines for the concession stand.
Looming in front of them is Screen 1 of the Huntington Twin Drive-in Theatre, which will shortly begin showing this Saturday night of the Fourth of July weekend the double feature of Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University.
And in between those movies, owner John Detzler will announce over the PA system that the crowd has just given him his best weekend business in the 12 years he and his wife have owned the theater.
Drive-in theaters were once a staple of this country, but they have become an endangered piece of Americana as their numbers dwindled from more than 4,000 in 1958 to less than 400 today.
But the drive-ins that still exist are seeing more and more people come through their gates.
Whether its for the cheap entertainment, or the chance to watch a movie without worrying about quieting cellphones, kids or voices, or just for a nostalgic experience, people are discovering or rediscovering these theaters under the stars.
Come a long way
The Huntington Twin has now been in business for 63 years, and is showing double features on two screens during the summer months.
By the time Detzler bought the theater in 2001, it had fallen badly into disrepair, almost symbolic of what the drive-in business had been reduced to from its heyday.
The fence surrounding the lot was barely held up by wire. There was no playground, and the only screen the theater had at the time was not in good shape.
There was no gas line to the concession stand, so hot items like fries could not be whipped up. The roof of the stand didnt keep rainwater out, anyway.
The way Detzler, 60, described it, the theater has come a long way.
The place was pretty run-down, said Detzler, who has worked as a projectionist or in some other capacity of the theater business most of his life. Im not patting myself on the back, but it had only one to three years left in it.
Now, there are two screens, the second one added about 2011, doubling the number of movies shown at the theater.
Kids can slide and swing on the playgrounds in front of those screens before movies, and french fries – both curly and regular – are served up with hamburgers, hot dogs and even ice cream at the concession stand.
All on the cheap.
In fact, affordable movie and concession prices are two of the factors that bring people to drive-ins, according to Drive-ins.com, a website devoted to the history of the business.
Catering to families has also helped, according to the website, with movies in the vein of the Despicable Me series or the DreamWorks picture Turbo.
And while catering to families has helped bring people to the theater, industry experts are not saying that means drive-ins will become what they once were.
No one is predicting or expecting drive-ins will become the mass market entertainment choice they were in the late 1950s, writes Jennifer Sherer Janisch, co-founder of Drive-ins.com, on the website.
Her brother and the websites other co-founder, Kipp Sherer, said in a phone interview that while there is a bit of a resurgence, there is more of a decrease in the number that are going away.
Ones that have gone by the wayside, he said, were either in bad locations or maybe did not do well on the business side of things to begin with.
The ones that remain are the ones that are strong, offering up affordable entertainment to people who are seeking a nostalgic fix or, more readily, for families.
The bread-and-butter customers are the families with kids, Sherer said. It offers a communal experience, where if theres someone you want to talk to, you can without disturbing others, or if you want to have a smoke, you can.
According to Detzler, the younger people, the teenagers and those in their 20s who come, theyre shocked at the prices. Its $8 a head to get into the Huntington Twin – for two movies.
Theyll come through and ask, Do we have to come out and leave again, Detzler said. They never believe it that youre getting two for one.
The line at the Huntington Twin concession stand wraps far out the door to a row of parked cars.
A man has his two anxious boys on both sides of him. Theyre hopping around, wanting soda and hot dogs. Or maybe candy.
One asks the man when Despicable Me is going to start; the other asks whether this is really an outdoor theater. Its the first time theyve been to a drive-in.
You know the last time I was at one of these things? the man asks rhetorically. It was for Star Wars. The original one. My parents took me.
That tells you how long ago it was.
Detzler gets customers like that man all the time, he said. Maybe its been an eon since theyve been to a drive-in theater. Maybe its something they went to as kids and now theyre taking their own kids.
Almost on a nightly basis, we get people that havent been to one in years, Detzler said. They come because they kind of forgot about it.
The trick is to get them to come back, Detzler said.
And while there may be an uptick in business, Detzler has seen the swings in trends in the past.
So far, hes ahead from last year, he said, but he started the year nearly 18 percent down. That was mainly due to cooler summer weather, he said.
But when movies such as Iron Man 3 open, which happened this spring, and then a slew of family movies like Turbo begin playing, its hard to stay down.
What may hurt drive-ins in the near future is a problem facing all small theaters: the digital revolution.
Major movie studios are phasing out the traditional film, forcing movies to buy digital projectors, which can cost upwards of six figures in some cases.
Many independent theaters – such as downtown Fort Waynes Cinema Center – have had fundraisers to get the money for these projectors.
On the Huntington Twin website, Detzler makes a plea for people to visit as often as they can so a new projector can be bought when the time comes.
Other theaters, though, wont be so lucky.
The switch to digital is going to cause a chunk to close, said Sherer of Drive-ins.com. Its too early to tell.
Detzler, though, might not be around to see whether the Huntington Twin makes the switch.
Just as there was an end to the drive-in heyday, Detzler wants his days in the theater business to come to an end as well: the Huntington Twin is for sale.
Hes put it up for sale before, and its not that the business doesnt make money; its because he and his wife, Anilda, need to retire.
Detzler said hes kept operating the theater even though he worked days at a warehouse. He said its a young – or at least younger – mans game.
Be ready to go to work, I would say, 10 or 15 hours a day, seven days a week in June, July and August, he said. But with the second screen, it produces.
So now theres a 17-acre lot available in Huntington, with two screens, some ratty-looking speakers and a concession stand, just waiting for someone to take it over.
And maybe let others relive some nostalgia.