Six SD drive-ins still lighting up the night
In a cramped, dimly lit room, a film projector came to life, it's light cutting into the night air and illuminating a giant screen a few hundred feet away.
It was April 9, 1976, and rows of cars filled Mitchell's Starlite Drive-in for a double feature -- "Walking Tall Part 2" and "Macon County Line" -- on the first night of movies after Jeff Logan bought the drive-in.
"It was busy," Logan said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. "It was a kick."
Now, the Starlite's projection room sits quiet.
The Starlite closed after a final show -- "Despicable Me 2" -- on Sept. 21. Logan was the third owner of the drive-in, which was first built in 1949 as Lake Vue Drive-in.
As the typical drive-in season approaches this year, Logan said it feels odd not to be making the normal preparations -- a lot of cleaning, a lot of painting -- to make way for movie-goers.
"You miss it," he said. "You just feel like you should be out at the drive-in."
The Starlite closed, Logan said, because of a sweeping change in the film industry from 35 mm film to a new, digital format. With the switch, the Starlite -- along with many other small indoor theaters and drive-ins -- was faced with being forced to buy costly new digital projection equipment or take the risk of trying to get increasingly rare film prints of new movies.
"We enjoyed it and loved running it," Logan said. "The problem was, financially, it was just getting more difficult."
The number of drive-in theaters in the U.S. peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but declined in the decades that followed. There were 2,084 drive-in screens in the country in 1987, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. That number was more than halved to 1,014 by 1989. After more declines in the 1990s, there were just 606 drive-in screens at 366 drive-ins in the the country in 2012. And with the Starlite's gates seemingly closed for the last time, there are now only six drive-ins left in all of South Dakota.
As film continues to be phased out, drive-ins in Redfield and Winner are making the switch to digital this year, joining drive-ins already using digital projectors in Miller and Hermosa. In Gregory and Mobridge, drive-in owners are sticking with film this year, but both are faced with difficult decisions about the future of their businesses.
For many drive-in owners, Logan said, the decision to go digital isn't always made strictly from a business perspective.
"I think some of them that are doing it are making the decision out of love," he said.
More and more often, no film prints are being made of new movies at all, leaving small theaters and drive-ins with only film projectors in difficult positions. This summer, Logan estimated only about half of the movies released will be available on film.
"With such a limited number, even if it's available, you're going to be waiting a long time," he said.
The price of going digital varies, but Logan said a switch at the Starlite would have cost about $70,000, with higher operating costs to go with it. It was a debt the drive-in, which was already losing money, couldn't afford to take on, he said.
"It would be a nice if we could reopen again, but a lot of conditions are going to have to change," he said.
The Pheasant City Drive-in in Redfield, built in 1953, was recently on the brink of closure. That's when Dave and Stacey Marlow, and Stacey's parents, Clark and Rosa Davis, stepped in and bought the drive-in in January.
"We just didn't want to see it close," Stacey Marlow said. "If it was closed, our community would lose something pretty great."
The family, which plans to open the drive-in in late May, has been busy fixing up the drive-in's concessions stand and painting the fence -- a task that required about 35 gallons of red paint, Marlow said.
The drive-in's new digital projector, which cost about $70,000, arrived about a month ago, but was just installed this week.
Buying the drive-in, Marlow said, was about more than saving a dying business.
"Not every business is a place you can take your family and create memories," she said. "That's something you can do at the drive-in."
After much thought, Betty Fast, owner of the Winner Drive-in in Winner, has also decided to get a digital projector.
"It is an expensive switch, but it's something that I've enjoyed doing," Fast said. "I want to do it and the community needs it."
Fast has been involved in the Winner Drive-in for 64 years, ever since her late husband built the theater in 1950.
"The people that come, they aren't my customers, they're all my friends," Fast said.
The Midway Drive-in in Miller will be starting its third year with a digital projector when the drive-in opens in May, according to co-owner Mike Donlin.
"Everything is going fine," Donlin said. "Now we have our pick of any product we want, as far as films."
The upgrade to digital cost the drive-in about $71,000.
"It's a good chunk of change and it only benefits the studios," Donlin said.
In the past, feature-length movies came on reels of film, with usually six to eight reels per movie, according to Donlin. As a result, an entire movie could weigh as much as 70 pounds, which meant significant shipping costs for studios. Now, movies come on lightweight hard drives.
Donlin, who works another job in construction, said the Midway Drive-in is still getting by financially.
"We're sitting fine," he said. "I've never really figured out what we make in wages, but we pay all our bills and everything and people have a good time. That's all I really care about."
For the person running the projector, the switch to digital means building a movie -- including ads, previews and a feature -- on a computer, rather than physically splicing together rolls of film.
"From the projectionist's point of view, it's a lot simpler," he said.
Donlin, who has run film projectors for 45 years, said he now misses the experience of running a film projector. The Midway Drive-in, built in 1953, was still using its original projector before making the switch to digital, Donlin said.
"There is nothing in this day and age that is going to match the longevity of that," he said.
Logan, too, said he is disappointed to see the art of running a film projector disappear with the rise of digital projectors.
"It doesn't have the romance the job did before," Logan said. "There was a whole culture around projecting, and all that's gone."
Sticking with film ... for now
Cecil "Louie" Harsin Jr. remembers watching as a kid while his dad, Cecil Harsin Sr., operated the film projector at the Hilltop Drive-in in Gregory.
"You actually worked then," he said. "You had to be on the ball."
Now, Harsin Jr. said, the Hilltop Drive-in -- which opened in 1946 and is thought to be the oldest remaining drive-in in South Dakota -- will open again in May or June with the same film projector used at the theater for decades.
"We're just going to keep plugging away the way we have been," he said.
Unwilling to make the expensive switch to a digital projector -- for now, at least -- Harsin Jr. said he is aware of the wait times that could be involved in getting film prints of movies this year. Harsin Jr. said he has been in contact with a few film companies and has yet to hear of a firm cutoff date for when production companies will stop using film completely.
"As long as we can still get them, we will," he said.
Harsin Jr. operates the drive-in with his father, who, at 85-years-old, still technically owns the drive-in.
"It's something to keep him busy," Harsin Jr. said, referring to his father. "He just loves to go out there and mow. There's more to it than just a business."
Ron Meyer, owner of the Pheasant Drive-in in Mobridge, is giving the drive-in's film projector one more year when he opens in May. Then, Meyer hopes to sell the Mac Theatre, an indoor movie theater in Mobridge he also owns, and get enough money to buy a digital projector and keep the drive-in open.
Meyer, 68, has been around the movie business for nearly his entire life. His uncles built an indoor movie theater in 1949 in McLaughlin, a town in Corson County about 30 miles northwest of Mobridge. Meyer worked at the theater, first taking tickets and cleaning up, and later running the projector. He bought the drive-in in Mobridge in 1976.
In all his time in the business, the biggest change, by far, has been the switch from film to digital, Meyer said.
"I'm going to miss the old projectors, all right," he said.
If he isn't able to switch to a digital projector, Meyer said this could be the last year for his drive-in.
Back to the future
Roy's Black Hills Twin Drive-in in Hermosa, about 18 miles south of Rapid City, brands itself as the first all-digital drive-in in the country.
Roy Reitenbaugh, the drive-in's owner, said the idea to open a drive-in came from a discussion he had with Gerald Bullard, owner of the indoor movie theater in Hot Springs. After years of working to find a location and an investor at the same time, the drive-in opened in 2012.
It cost about $300,000 for the drive-in's two digital projectors, which project onto two 80-foot wide screens, Reitenbaugh said. In its first full year -- last year, because the drive-in didn't open until late July in 2012 -- more than 6,000 people came to the drive-in.
"I know one thing, you get a big movie, a big box office hit, and you'd never believe it," he said. "They swarm to the theater. We had traffic half a mile down the road."
With the Starlite deserted but still intact, Logan said he is keeping his options for the future open.
"It's an annoying feeling," he said. "We'd like to do something with it."
For Logan, the blow of losing the Starlite is softened by the success of the indoor movie theaters he owns in Mitchell, Huron and Dell Rapids. But even the cost of keeping those theaters up to date with digital projectors, stadium seating and other improvements has been tremendous, Logan said.
"It's literally been millions of dollars in the last 10 years, just to keep up," he said.
It's likely more drive-ins and small indoor movie theaters will close as the transition from film to digital becomes final, Logan said.
"The big, old movie palaces of the past are kind of fading away, but the new theaters are just as exciting to go to," he said.