JAMESTOWN – “Opening night was a monumental event for us,” Belinda Eckman said, recalling the first time a movie splashed across her huge, new outdoor screen at Jamestown’s Park 60 Drive-In theater on May 18, 2001.
“People thought we were nuts, opening a new drive-in,” Eckman added with a laugh.
“They thought we were building a dinosaur. But we opened with the premier of the first Schreck movie. It was a huge box office hit and it was great.” Belinda and Dale Eckman had grown up when drive-ins were in style but remembered when the last one in the area, in Lakewood, New York, closed down in the late 1980s. “We loved the drive-in and we dreamed of reviving it some day.”
Today, beginning its twelfth highly successful year on a scenic hillside south of Jamestown, Park 60 returns to the best features of the drive-in experience. At their peak, in the 1950s and 1960s, drive-ins showcased Hollywood’s brightest stars and starlets at nearly 4,000 locations across the United States. Park 60 is now among the elite, nearly 400, drive-ins spearheading a popular renaissance of the outdoor, family friendly entertainment.
“Projecting a crystal clear picture nearly 500 feet and sending hi-fi, stereo sound to your car radio takes technology drive-ins didn’t have in the old days,” Belinda said. “And we strive to keep the movies we show wholesome and family oriented too.”
“We have a lot of folks who’ve been regulars ever since we opened,” Eckman said. “We know a lot of them by name now; they’re old friends. We know their children and even their cars and their trucks.” Eckman even recalls once helping a young patron hide an engagement ring in his popcorn so he could propose to his sweetheart during the movie. “Park 60 is a family business in a lot of ways,” Eckman said with a smile.
The revived popularity of drive-in theaters is simply a natural swing of the entertainment pendulum, Eckman explained. “Everything old is new again, and for some very good reasons.”
When Daylight Savings Time became more widely accepted in the 1960s and 70s, summer sunsets (the movies start after dark) came an hour later every night. That made it harder for children and early morning workers. Then color TVs, VCRs and movie rentals made staying home a more popular alternative.
“But after 20 years of staying home, going out is getting popular again,” Eckman said. “After all, we all have kitchens, but we still like to go out to eat once in a while, don’t we?”
Today’s high quality audio, transmitted directly to a car’s modern sound system, instead of a tinny sound box hung on the window, has greatly improved the movie experience. And a chance to see a new release on a big screen six months before a rental comes out allows viewers to keep up with the latest in cinema entertainment.
“We give our viewers a double feature and an old fashioned intermission with great food for a single, low price,” Eckman said proudly. “That’s much better than the indoor theaters. Our cheeseburgers, by the way, are the best. We also have hot dogs, candy and beverages. You can have dinner and a movie by the carload on a pleasant summer evening. That’s the kind of things people are coming back to drive-ins for.”
“One day I bought an old fashioned cotton candy machine, sort of on a whim,” Eckman reminisced. “My mother, Sylvia, had never operated one, but on the opening night of Spiderman, she fired it up. She was kept very busy all night. By the end of Spiderman she was covered all over in her own pink and blue, candy spider web.” The Cotton Candy Lady has been a popular feature at Park 60 ever since.
“Park 60 is dog friendly too,” Eckman said. “As long as your dog is on a leash and you pick up any accidents, Fido is always welcome.” Some movie goers walk their dogs, others keep them in their cars or tether them to a comfortable beach chair or let them sleep on a bale of hay keeping the family company in the back of their truck.
More technology is coming to drive-ins. While most movies are shown from traditional movie film, computerized, digital projection from downloaded software is coming to more and more theaters, both indoor and outdoor, according to Eckman.
Industry experts say many drive-ins and smaller, indoor theaters are challenged by the estimated $150,000-200,000 needed to convert to digital projection systems. Operating only on evenings, warmer months and usually on only one or two screens, limits ticket sales, compared to indoor movie complexes. “For now, we’re staying with film,” Eckman said.
The revival of drive-in movie popularity has even led to the opening of one not-for-profit outdoor theater. Hull’s Drive-in, in Lexington, Virginia, was slated to close in 1999. Local fans formed the Hull’s Angels to raise money, buy the property and operate the theater, specializing in family-friendly films. Hull’s is the nation’s only non-profit drive in.
“We love running the Park 60 Drive-In Theater,” Belinda Eckman said. “All three of my children even worked here. It’s been a wonderful experience. We have made a lot of friends and thoroughly enjoy the business.”
Park 60 is located at 1529 Foote Avenue in Jamestown, NY. Readers can call (716) 484-6060 or log on to www.park60.com to check out the current showings. Nights of operation are Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the second week in June, after which the theater will be open seven nights each week until autumn.