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Drive-in tradition hangs on in western Pennsylvania

September 7, 2019

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Every Friday during the summer, Cassandra Dzik packs up her car and heads to Evergreen Drive-In, the last remaining outdoor theater in Westmoreland County, with her sister, Carrie Schaming, and 11-year-old son, Richard.

One night this summer, the trio set up camping chairs on the Mt. Pleasant theater’s lawn, waiting for “Godzilla” and “The Hustle” to play on screen number two. Kids threw footballs nearby as some people blew up air mattresses.

For the Donora resident, going to the drive-in not only stirs memories from her youth but also is a way to pass those memories on to her son as the number of outdoor theaters dwindles nationwide.

“I wanted him to experience something that we experienced when we were younger,” said Dzik, 48. “Because now there’s a lot of things that they don’t even have. They’d rather sit in front of a TV playing games instead of going outside and fishing and climbing trees, like what we did when we were younger.”

Eight drive-in theaters are left in the nine-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania. That figure once exceeded 40 outdoor theaters, said Jennifer Sopko, a Pittsburgh-based local historian and author.

“Pittsburgh was called the city of drive-ins,” said Brian Butko, director of publications at Heinz History Center. “Pennsylvania especially has really thrived in that roadside era of diners and roadside attractions. . It was close enough to the East Coast that it spawned a lot of business.”

Rise of drive-ins

Trying to escape cramped indoor theaters, people ventured to drive-ins, where cars lined up side-by-side and wired radios hooked to vehicle doors.

The theaters touted nights where parents would not have to hire baby-sitters because children could come along. Several, including Latrobe’s former Hi-Way Drive-In, ran an ad saying, “Don’t bother to dress up — come as you are,” Sopko said. Teenagers nicknamed them “passion pits.”

By 1958, the number of outdoor theaters peaked across the country, Sopko said, with over 4,060 drive-ins. Two years prior, Pennsylvania saw its peak with just over 330 theaters.

Popularity gained after World War II, Butko said, when large pieces of land, once stripped for coal mining, became available. Those proved to be easy spots to put up a screen and concession stand.

And several area families took advantage of the space, like the Warrens — who own Evergreen Drive-In today.

Starting their local empire in 1949 with the Rose Drive-In in Harrison City, the Warrens eventually came to own the Blue Dell and Bel-Aire drive-ins in North Huntingdon and the Super 30 Drive-In in Irwin.

Located along Route 30 near where the Vangura kitchen and bath design business now stands, the Blue Dell Drive-In also included a diner and swimming pool. The theater, which opened in 1949, had a single screen and held 500 cars. It closed in 1985 after being sold to the Cinemette Corp.

Bel-Aire Drive-In also was located near the Blue Dell swimming pool and opened in 1957. The theater did not last long, closing the following year.

Originally owned by Andrew Battiston and Grance Theaters, the Super 30 Drive-In opened in 1947. Eventually purchased by the Warren family, the theater closed around 1970. Target and Giant Eagle now stand on the North Huntingdon site.

Family affair

While several family members chose to leave the drive-in business that spanned into Allegheny County, Joe Warren is keeping the tradition alive and giving people “an escape from reality” at Evergreen.

“I just think that’s keeping part of Americana alive, this type of experience for everyone,” said Warren, adding that he works 10- to 12-hour days during the summer months.

Dependable Drive-In in Moon, the last outdoor theater in Allegheny County, is slated to stay in the family for at least another generation, said owner Rick Glaus, 65, whose son plans on running the business.

At its peak, drive-in theaters and bowling alleys were some of the main sources of entertainment, Glaus said, whose family ran several drive-in theaters around Pittsburgh.

“It’s just a different setting from being in a theater, being closed off,” said Greensburg resident Nick Watson, 40. “You’re out in nature — sun, trees. Just a completely different vibe.”

Watson and his wife Amy, 41, go to Evergreen Drive-In every summer with their daughters Brooke, 13, and Savannah, 11. But as indoor movie theaters started growing and technology changed, drive-in theaters started to struggle, Glaus said.

“I think everything changes, even in the theater. . There’s so many more options for entertainment,” Glaus said. “When I was growing up, nobody would have ever thought of playing video games.”

The decline

While several area drive-ins closed between the late 1960s and mid-1980s, the start of digital projection took its toll on the industry, Sopko said.

“The technology is expensive, so drive-ins that can’t afford to make that transition or raise the money through crowd-funding would likely be forced to close,” she said.

Todd Ament, owner of Riverside Drive-In in North Vandergrift and a former employee at Evergreen Drive-In, said changes in technology have impacted him for most of his life when he worked as a projectionist.

Ament encourages people to use the concession stand while at the drive-in, as those are one of the few ways owners can make money.

According to Warren, between 60% and 65% of ticket sales go to movie studios. Rather than having a flat rate, studios base their cut off the number of ticket sales.

“Support your concession stand because without the snack bar here, the drive-in would not be able to survive,” Warren said.

Around the time digital projection came out, drive-in theaters also had limited choices on first-run movies, meaning they had fewer opportunities to show popular movies, Sopko said.

Some tried to hold on, however, like the Maple Drive-In in North Huntingdon, which started playing adult movies toward the end, Sopko said.

Today, 26 drive-in theaters dot Pennsylvania’s landscape, Sopko said, a decline of more than 300 theaters since the state saw its peak.

“Someday there’s probably not going to be any left,” Glaus said.

For Sarah and Justin Ludwig of Greensburg, who frequent Evergreen, the decline of drive-ins is something they would like to help slow down.

“We always say if we win the lottery, we would pay to keep this running as long as it can possibly run,” said Sarah Ludwig, 30.

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Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com

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