MODERN TIMES DRIVIN’ THESE MOVIES OUT OF BUSINESS
Miami Herald, The (FL) - October 31, 1983
Author: MIKE WILSON Herald Staff Writer
They closed the Boulevard Drive-In in July. The screen and the projection house -- connected every night since 1948 by a colorful beam of light -- now stand unjoined, two strange structures from a different time.
The screen will be torn down soon. A shopping center is going up. Fast food, fast gas, fast film developing. Nobody waits anymore -- not for fuel, not for photos, and not for the second feature. Time is money.
Drive-ins are running out of both.
Families are staying away from drive-ins by the carload. When people go to the movies -- and statistics show they rarely do nowadays -- they seem to prefer air-conditioned indoor theaters to hot, cramped automobiles. Cable TV also siphons off business. Why drive to a dusty parking lot to see the same second-run, second-rate film you can see at home?
Three drive-ins remain in Palm Beach County: the Beach, the Trail, and the Delray. A family of four can catch a double feature for $5 or less at any of them.
Yet they’re struggling. Two of the theaters have tried to boost attendance with 50-cent tickets. All three offset losses by running daytime flea markets.
The managers of all three theaters realize their businesses could easily go the way of the Boulevard.
John Orcutt, now manager of the Trail, at 3450 Lake Worth Rd. in suburban Lake Worth, remembers the Boulevard: "The First and Best Drive-In in Palm Beach County," a sign in the projection room read. The theater was built in 1948, when most
families were nuclear -- and most missiles weren’t. Orcutt, 47, has been in the business 18 years. He worked at the Boulevard, at 4921 Southern Blvd. in suburban West Palm Beach, for 10 years starting in 1972.
He recalls cinema’s glory days, when the county’s 12 indoor theaters had faithful patrons and romantic names -- the Florida, the Palms, the Palace, the Arcade. He used to jump the fence to get into the now-extinct Skydrome Drive-In in Lake Worth.
Sometimes he cruised through the gate in his ’47 Hudson. His friends hid in the back. He later worked at the Skydrome -- and at the Beach -- before moving to the Boulevard.
The kids are baffled now when he catches them sneaking into the Trail.
"They want to know how I catch ’em. I say, ’Experience.’ "
The Trail, owned by Mack Theaters Inc. of Titusville, is open seven nights a week. Adults pay $2.25 each for a double feature; kids under 10 are free. The theater has an AM radio sound system and stalls for 530 cars.
Business could be better. "People would just as soon sit on their butts, I guess, and watch the boob tube," Orcutt said. "We have to compete with cable TV, the race tracks, now you have jai alai and the dogs starting up."
He admits the Trail would perish without the Swap Shop, open Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Dealers pay a few bucks to lay out goods and garbage; shoppers get in free. The Swap Shop recoups the Trail’s losses.
The Trail> is not the booming thing now, but I think in a few years cable TV will wear off and people will go back to the drive-ins," Orcutt said.
Hayden Bivins Sr., 59, has managed the Delray since 1957. A native Mississippian, he twangs instead of talks. He wears jeans and boots, calls people "Buddy," and rassles with the kids who hang around the snack bar. He recently canceled his subscription to HBO. He doesn’t even watch the films he shows.
The Delray, at 1601 N. Federal Highway, Delray Beach, is open nightly. It has FM sound and two screens, one at either end of six acres of blacktop. Theater 1 parks 250 cars. Theater 2 parks about 180.
Drive-In Theaters of Florida, a Margate firm that owns the Delray and the Beach, books mostly sub-run features. Revenge of the Ninja played last week. Bivins hasn’t seen it.
"There are not too many good family movies anymore," he said resignedly. "I don’t think the drive-in is as popular as it used to be for the lack of a good product.
"Going to the movies with my family and taking the kids to the snack bar and playing on the playground were the happiest days of our lives," he said. "But it’s just like any other business. Things change."
Not all things. The Delray, like the Beach and the Trail, does not show X-rated films. Bivins won’t allow them. Once, a booking agent sent him a copy of Debbie Does Dallas. He had to show it. It didn’t happen again.
"We don’t show anything that will make
the neighbors> complain," he said.
The Delray is, more than the other county drive-ins, a family theater . Bivins shows films in Spanish every autumn, attracting large migrant families with $2.00 tickets. He screened the first Spanish film of the season Thursday night. The elders watched intently. The children sneaked across the parking lot to see Revenge of the Ninja.
Despite Spanish features and 50-cent specials, the Delray "isn’t doing the business I’d like it to do," Bivins said. He isn’t optimistic about the future.
"I don’t think we could survive without the Swap Shop," he said. "
Drive-ins> can’t keep existing under the same circumstances they’re under now. I hate to see it, but it’s true."
Tom Winter prepared the Beach’s four weekend films Thursday afternoon. It took two hours to wind the features onto huge metal platters in the center of the screening room. With the flick of a switch Friday night, the films -- Halloween II, Halloween III, The Thing and Cat People -- would play automatically, one after another.
Winter, manager of the Beach since December, said he felt certain there would be an audience. He’s the only theater man in Palm Beach County who doesn’t think the drive-in is dead.
"I’ve been hearing that for the last year," said Winter, 43, who became manager in December. "Nationwide it might be. But here I don’t think so."
The Beach, a 6.6-acre property at the corner of Old Dixie Highway and 13th St. in Riviera Beach, sold out three times last year, Winter said. (Flashdance, 48 Hrs., and Trading Places
drew the crowds.) The theater has an FM sound system, 430 stalls and the largest screen in the county: 54 feet tall, 98 feet wide.
"If we do $1,800 to $2,000 a weekend, they won’t close us," he said. The snack bar alone grossed $1,000 one night.
Winter, a former auto parts salesman, moved to Palm Beach County 27 years ago. He drove a ’56 Chevy convertible and frequented the Skydrome.
"I used to babysit my older sister’s kids," he said. "I’d grab a six-pack and the kids and head for the drive-in. Easiest way to contain ’em." Winter said his son Chad, 15, can’t wait to start working at the Beach.
The drive-in may not be as popular as it used to be, but it’s still appealing, Winter said. Married couples, he said, need a place to spend an inexpensive night out. Unmarried couples do, too.
"It’s a dark place to go park," he said. "I don’t go out trying to catch anyone, but I walked by one unsteady van the other night."
The Beach charges $3 a car for two to four films. Early birds pay 50 cents. "It’s the cheapest entertainment around," Winter said.
If so, why don’t cars jam the entrances to the drive-ins? Why did they knock down the Skydrome screen several years ago to make way for a MacDonald’s? Why are they turning the Boulevard -- "The First and Best Drive-In in Palm Beach County" -- into a shopping center?
"I don’t know," Winter answered. "It doesn’t have anywhere near the appeal it used to. I don’t know why."
Caption: photo: abandoned drive-in, Tom Winter