Drive-in theaters adapt for 21st century

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FRANKLIN, W.Va. (WHSV) — At the Warner’s Drive-In on a Saturday night, a concrete block wall near Franklin, W.Va., comes alive.

“We love it. We come frequently,” said Rose King of Fisher, W.Va.

King is at the theater with her family, spending time together before the main show.

“We actually come early every time, and we throw around the ball with the girls, which I just sit and watch,” King said. “My husband and the two girls throw balls around, socialize with anyone else … and just hang out, and then the movie comes.”

The night WHSV visited the theater, the featured movie was “King Arthur.” The theater sits along Route 220 north of the town of Franklin.

“This drive-in is probably one of the oldest in West Virginia. It was built in 1952-1953 [and has run] continuously since then,” said Bob Davis, one of the drive-in’s board members. “It’s a really interesting drive-in. The screen was built on the foundation of a house. The idea was that somebody would live in the screen building.”

In 2014, the future of the Warner’s Drive-In seemed in doubt. The industry was switching from traditional film to digital equipment, which Davis says can cost $60,000 to $100,000. That expense closed the drive-in down, Davis said.

“I just didn’t want to see another institution in our community die, so about eight of us got together, we formed a board of directors, we formed a non-profit, we got our 501(c)(3) status,” he said.

That board is keeping the theater running in the 21st century.

According to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, there were 4,063 drive-ins in 1958 at the industry’s peak. By June of 2016, 324 remained. West Virginia and Virginia each have eight of these theaters, per the association’s figures as of September 2015.

“I was very concerned when they started pushing to digital equipment that this theater was going to get cut out of it,” said board member Mike Mallow, who serves as the projectionist for the theater. He would always come out to the theater on weekends growing up.

“I’ve always been a big fan of movies, and the fact that there’s a local theater was incredible to me growing up,” he said. “I didn’t go to my first movie until I was 12. That was the Lion King. We begged our parents to go.”

The theater board plans to expand well beyond just movies. It’s looking to put a stage in front of the screen for live music and performances and add a pavilion and a playground.

“We want to make it a larger opportunity and larger enterprise for the community, something that may draw people from as far away as Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley over this way for a Friday or Saturday night,” Mallow added.

“The drive-in is the last of a dying breed,” King said. “There used to be one in Moorefield where I had my first job at 16. It was such a big thing then, but that’s been gone for a long time. It’s just a very nice, enjoyable thing that you get to do all summer long.”