ALTOONA (AP) — For movie buffs looking to enjoy a big-screen cinema experience, outdoor drive-in theaters offer an alternative to the living room as COVID-19 restrictions keep indoor multiplexes shuttered.
"If you are looking to go out for dinner and a movie, we're your only option," said Dustin Grush, theater manager for the Carrolltown Hi-Way Drive-in and Portage's Bar Ann Drive-in. Both outdoor theaters, owned by Don and Judie Gawel, are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for double-features.
"A drive-in offers a safe way to enjoy a movie. You don't even have to leave your car if you don't want to," Grush said. "We have hired a few extra employees in the concession stands to make sure surfaces are properly wiped down. All our employees wear masks and gloves, and the only person who touches the food is the customer."
With the Bedford County Fair canceled because of the pandemic, the Bedford Chamber of Commerce is working with the fair board and business sponsors to create a drive-in experience at the Bedford County Fairgrounds, according to chamber President/CEO Kellie Goodman Shaffer. The first showing is expected July 4, and films will be family-oriented. One film will be shown per night.
Drive-ins are permitted to operate if they follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and limit occupancy to 50 percent capacity.
It's not known how large the Bedford drive-in will be, but Goodman Shaffer hopes it will number "a couple hundred" because of the interest being shown by the community.
The Bedford drive-in series will feature a "classic, family-friendly film," each Saturday beginning July 4 and continuing for 10 weeks. The first movie will be shown after the July 4 fireworks, if they take place. Additional dates may be scheduled for September and October depending on community interest and attendance, she said. The chamber has priced admission at $5 per person for ages 10 and older. Under age 9 will be free.
"Knowing our experiences in our community, we considered several factors: recognizing that we're showing only one film a night (not a double-feature); wanting it to be affordable for families and knowing we have costs we'll have to cover (license, projection, marketing, staffing, etc.)," she said.
Because it is not an owned theater, the Bedford facility will not be a member of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, unlike drive-ins in Cambria and Clearfield counties.
"We look at it more like a community event at a pre-existing facility. … I would not want people to expect a commercial drive-in experience. It is more a community event."
Goodman Shaffer sees the new facility being used as an alternative community venue such as a high school graduation events recently held in Portage, Carrolltown and Clearfield. More than 200 cars drove in a parade from Cambria Heights High School, Patton, to the Hi-Way Drive-In in Carrolltown, escorted by three volunteer fire companies and two ambulance services.
The design and construction of a permanent 72-by-40-foot movie screen is underway through a partnership of local businesses and community leaders, including: Clark Construction, Coughenour Engineering, Bedford REC, SKE Signs, Sherwin Williams, YBC Bedford, Soaring Eagle Productions, Bedford Speedway, Bedford Township and others.
"We think that a drive-in experience is a good fit for Bedford County. We are a community that appreciates history and heritage, and the movies we hope to show are classics that can be enjoyed across generations," she said.
Other regional drive-ins are also showing classics because movie studios shut down production due to the coronavirus, said Bill and Barb Frankhouser, a married couple and co-owners the Super 322 Drive-in, located between Clearfield and Philipsburg.
"The studios pulled all the new movies," Bill Frankhouser said.
"So all the drive-ins will be doing retro movies," Barb Frankhouser said. "You never know if people will want to come to them or not. We'll be lucky to break even because there are no new films."
Her husband of 42 years agreed: "It won't be a booming season."
The couple have worked throughout the region as projectionists, including the now-closed Blair Cinema in Hollidaysburg.
The Super 322 Drive-in attracts people from Altoona, Tyrone and State College, as well as from St. Marys and Brookville. They also have a contingent of out-of-state "regulars" — campers who schedule camping around what is playing, she said.
The couple were among seven founding members of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, a national organization dedicated to the preservation of drive-ins.
"In '50 to '60s, drive-ins were the place to be. But getting first-run movies back then was much easier," Barb Frankhouser said.
Her husband faults "the greediness of movie studio executives who demand higher and higher percentages (of the total attendance receipts). It used to be that they'd charge a flat rate per movie, but they want more and more. … That's why so many (theaters and drive-ins) closed. It was no longer profitable."
As of October 2019, the United States had 305 drive-in locations, according to the theatre owners association. That's considerably fewer than the 1958 peak of 4,063 drive-ins.
Pennsylvania had 28 sites for a total of 45 screens at the end of last season, according to association statistics.
Blair County has been without a drive-in since 1984, when the Altoona Drive-in Theatre operated by Blatt Brothers closed and was later demolished to make way for Orchard Plaza and Eat'n Park restaurant, according to Mirror archives.
"Pennsylvania has one of the highest number of drive-ins of any state in U.S.," said Bill Frankhouser. "Most of these drive-ins were built on the outskirts of larger towns. As the towns grew, the ground became more valuable than the drive-in business."
In retirement, their focus is the Super 322. Plans were underway to expand the concession stand, but they were canceled when the season was shortened and capacity restrictions were placed, she said.
On a recent weekend, Barb Frankhouser said, the crowd was cooperative with the restrictions. They spent $150 painting the 12-acre site to comply with occupancy requirements. Pre-pandemic, 650 cars could watch a double-feature each night.
"People have been really good about everything. People know to stand 6 feet apart and wear masks. … People are having a wonderful time and just want to get out," Barb Frankhouser said.
Drive-ins are sustained through concession sales, which is why delaying the concession stand expansion hit them hard.
"We try to keep the concessions reasonably priced," Bill Frankhouser said. "A really good quarter-pound hamburger is $3.75. We want it to be affordable and want repeat customers."
Since taking ownership of the Super 322 in 2001, the couple has invested more than $300,000 for a new ticket office, new marquee and a conversion to digital from film.
"We put our heart and soul into it, not to mention the improvements costing over $200,000," Bill said, with an additional $106,000 for the digital conversion.
"We're doing whatever we can to have the theater survive so another generation can enjoy the drive-in experience," Barb Frankhouser said.