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Modern technology helps some local drive-ins, dooms others

12:40 PM, Jul 3, 2013   |    comments
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MANSFIELD, Ohio -- The drive-In movie theatre is about as American as apple pie and the 4th of July.

In their heyday, more than 4,000 outdoor theaters operated. But now the number is less than 400 and it could be half that in the next year.

Surprisingly, technology designed to make the drive-in experience better, is the reason why more theaters will be shutting down.

The Aut-O-Rama in North Ridgeville has been showing movies outdoors since 1965. It takes Tim Sherman's who family, and some of their closest friends to run the show.

"There is no feeling like when the audience is laughing. We made that happen," Sherman says, on a moonlit night as "The Man of Steel" plays on the big outdoor screen.

It's tradition for the Villanueva family to go to the Aut-O-Rama almost every week and park in the same spot.

"When we first started coming here years ago, it was really, really crowded and we'd come late. We didn't want to bother anyone and it just became habit," Chris Villanueva says, of their favorite spot in the very back of the drive-in.

"It's a totally different experience out here and if we can stay awake, we can see two movies," Villanueva adds.

And those double features are now in digital. Soon the days of film will be completely gone, replaced by the new computer hard drive.

"They get shipped from the studio. Here is "Man of Steel" and that's tonight's movie. That's the entire movie right there," Sherman says, showing us the hard silver box movies now arrive in.

Hollywood has almost become the villain, telling drive-ins that they must change to the all-digital format by the end of this year, or they'll be cut off from getting movies.

The cost for two new projectors? $150,000. That's 25,000 buckets of $6 popcorn.

"It's that or go out of business," Sherman says.

And that's the fear for drive-ins like the Sunset at the corner of routes 309 and 314 in Mansfield. The drive-in, with a little more than half of it's sign, has been around for more than half a century.

It opened in 1946. Nelda Spore has been coming here since she was 4. She started working at the Sunset by age 12.

"I grew up here. This was my home away from home," Spore says. She eventually fell in love and met her husband there. He was always her first love.

"Well, when I was real busy, I didn't really love this place," Spore admits, with a laugh. But Nelda's boss doesn't have the money to make the changes, which will drive this drive-in out of business.

"If anyone wants to buy it or restore it, we're here," Spore pleads.

But for how much longer?

Just like the cowboys of the past, this piece of movie history may soon be riding off into the sunset.

There is little hope for the Sunset Drive-In. At the Aut-O-Rama in North Ridgeville, admission prices are staying the same.

But they did make a rule that you can't bring in outside food and have to buy from the concession stand. It's all in an effort to pay off those two new projectors.        

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