Vintage drive-in theaters’ prices, upgrades still draw in Western Pa.
When Eric Butler takes his family to Starlight Drive-In near Butler, everyone is happy.
“We take our kids there and they love it. If they get tired or bored, they can just fall asleep in the back of the car. It’s nothing like a regular theater,” said Butler, who lives in Saxonburg and is a Butler County 911 emergency dispatcher.
He’s a father of three children, ages 8 ,7 and 3.
“We always want to take the kids out, but it’s not always cheap. The drive-in is affordable,” he said.
Butler, 44, is no newcomer to the vintage theater in Center, which opened in 1958 and is being renovated under a new owner. He and his wife were regulars there before they married.
“We enjoy the movies. It is half the cost of a regular theater. The concession stand prices are reasonable,” said Butler, who has been to the Starlight — known for decades as Pioneer Drive-In — about eight times this summer.
Despite the decline in drive-ins in Western Pennsylvania and nationwide, John Manson sees a future for the Starlight, which he bought this year for $550,000.
Manson, 47, an electrical engineer from Center, plans to spend $200,000 on renovations and digital upgrades to the theater’s five screens and its restrooms. He will upgrade the theater’s kitchen equipment by adding a conveyer-belt pizza oven.
He wants to build a miniature golf course on the site.
The Starlight is one of nine drive-in theaters in Western Pennsylvania, a number Manson says is down from about 150 during their peak popularity in the late 1950s. It’s one of fewer than 400 drive-ins in the United States.
“I intend to have this and my house paid off in 10 years,” said Manson, who thinks drive-ins are making at least a niche comeback.
Like Butler, Manson has enjoyed the drive-in for decades.
“My wife and I would go there almost every weekend; it was our way of winding down. It is cheap entertainment,” he said.
The Starlight can accommodate 550 cars, and each car typically has two or three people.
In neighboring states such as Maryland and New Jersey, drive-ins are nearly extinct. Each state has just one theater.
“There were once more drive-ins than regular theaters. Then land became valuable,” said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the United Drive-in Theater Owners Association and owner of Bengies Drive-In Theatre near Baltimore. Built by his father and uncle in 1956, it’s Maryland’s last drive-in.
In many cases, Wal-Mart bought the land occupied by drive-ins, said Vogel, whose family owned, among many theaters, the Gateway Drive-In Theater in New Kensington, which closed in 1990.
Over decades, drive-ins have been done in by suburban sprawl and rising property taxes.
“They use a large amount of land on a seasonal basis,” said Brian Graff, manager of the Pioneer and Starlight for 25 years.
Yet, he noted, “they are making a comeback. People want to get out of the house.”
Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].