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Gregory’s Hilltop Theatre to remain open as owners purchase new projector

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Cecil Harsin, owner of the Hilltop Drive Inn in Gregory, with the help of the Gregory Community was able to fundraise enough money to purchase a new digital projector so the theater could stay open for the 2017 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 6
Cecil Harsin, owner of the Hilltop Drive Inn in Gregory, with the help of the Gregory Community was able to fundraise enough money to purchase a new digital projector so the theater could stay open for the 2017 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 6
Cecil Harsin, owner of the Hilltop Drive Inn in Gregory, with the help of the Gregory Community was able to fundraise enough money to purchase a new digital projector so the theater could stay open for the 2017 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 6
Cecil Harsin, owner of the Hilltop Drive Inn in Gregory, with the help of the Gregory Community was able to fundraise enough money to purchase a new digital projector so the theater could stay open for the 2017 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)5 / 6
Before the recent purchase of the digital projector, the Hilltop Drive Inn in Gregory had always used film projectors and would have had to shut down if not for the new digital projector. (Matt Gade / Republic)6 / 6

GREGORY — The state’s oldest drive-in movie theater will live to see another season.

With funds secured for a down payment on a new digital projector, The Hilltop Drive-In Theatre will enter its 70th season, this year showing films in higher resolution, better clarity and brighter pictures.

With the projector ordered and set to be installed this summer, owner Cecil Harsin said it will replace equipment that has been in use since the theater was built in 1947.

“It has been updated several times throughout the past years. But the original equipment is that age,” Harsin said. “We had no choice, we had to replace it if we wanted to stay open, as our other equipment got completely outdated.”

The $45,000 projector is funded mostly through donations from movie-goers, Harsin said, and fundraising will continue through the summer to secure the final $25,000 needed. The support means the world to the 18-year owner, whose son recently died after a battle with cancer.

His son helped operate the family-run business, taking charge of the concession stands and managed much of the “dirty work” with movie companies. Without his son, Harsin said he isn’t sure how the family will move forward. But, Harsin said, he has faith they’ll figure it out together.

“It’s going to be darn difficult to go out there and do anything without him,” Harsin said. “But I guess life goes on apparently.”

Harsin started running the projector at the theater in 1954 as a part-time job, while he worked at the Gregory County highway shop. He bought the theater in 1989, when the previous owners threatened to close it.

And, with the purchase of the new projector, Harsin said he anticipates the theater will stay open for several years — as long as people remain interested. Interest shouldn’t be a problem, either, as The Hilltop Theatre is one of about six drive-in theaters in South Dakota.

Between 40 and 50 people attend shows each night the theater is open, Harsin said, and he hopes that number increases with the installation of the new projector.

Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, moviegoers can see an outdoor movie at the theater on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for $6 per person. As an added bonus, Harsin said the theater only shows movies that are less than two weeks old.

“I think the outdoor theater is kind of a nostalgic thing, people want to be outside, under the stars,” Harsin said. “It’s been open each day since 1947, so we sure plan on keeping that going as long as we can.”

Gregory is in south-central South Dakota, about 60 miles south of Chamberlain.

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