Movie drive-ins show plenty of popularity

By Tricia Pemberton Business Writer

At first glance, drive-in movie theaters seem to be a dying entertainment venue in Oklahoma.

Only seven operate in the state, down from a high of 95 in 1954. Only one each survives in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

However, owners of the drive-ins still operating say their theaters will remain open for years to come. It’s not just the value of two or three movies for the price of one that appeals to drive-in moviegoers, they say. Instead, drive-ins have survived because baby boomers crave the nostalgia, and owners are dedicated to the outdoor business.

"A lot of people say, ‘Do me a favor and never close this place up,’ " said Lindy Shanbour, owner and operator of the Winchester Drive-In at 6930 S Western in Oklahoma City.

"We’re gonna be here as long as we can," he said. Shanbour’s brother, Farris, built the drive-in in 1968. At one time, it was run by all four Shanbour brothers, including George and Kamal. The Shanbours also owned nearly a dozen indoor theaters in town at one time.

Farris died in 1981 and George died in February, leaving Lindy and Kamal Shanbour as the last men standing in the drive-in scene in Oklahoma City.

Thirty-five years ago, only a funeral home was next to the Winchester, Lindy Shanbour said. Now,
the theater is surrounded by businesses and homes. Once inside the fenced parking lot, however, patrons quickly forget the outside world as they set up lawn chairs or lay blankets on the hoods of their cars.

Their kids play nearby or sleep in the back seat of the car. The whole family can watch a double or triple feature into the wee hours of the morning and dine at the concession stand for less than the price of entrance to an indoor theater.

At the Winchester, children 11 and up and adults pay $5, and children 3 to 10 years old pay $2. Most items at the full-menu concession stand cost less than $3.

Other drive-ins in the state offer similar prices. Some offer carload nights, charging by the car, not the person. Still, a few people sneak in by getting into the trunk, Lindy Shanbour said.

On a recent Monday night, Tera Sukman, originally from Catoosa but now from Branson, Mo., was visiting the Winchester with her sister’s family.

"This is how we used to do it when we were kids," she said. "We’d pay by the car, string out lawnchairs and let the kids play on the playground. But this is the first time my sister’s kids have come."

Sukman said she grew up going to the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, where the movie "The Outsiders" was filmed.

Lindy Shanbour said he hears the "first time" story a lot.

"We have people that have lived right around the corner from us for 35 years, and they don’t know we’re here," he said.

Still, Shanbour sees brisk business seven days a week. He said he never fails to fill his 475-car lot every weekend with an average of 2 1 /2 people per car. Most weekend nights he has to turn cars away, he said.

John Pickle, the owner of the Tower Drive-In in Poteau, said since re-opening in 1994 after a lighting strike burned the projection booth in 1990, attendance has continued to increase.

"My drive-in does far more than the walk-in ever considered doing," said Pickle, who also owns an indoor theater in Poteau.

He said many of his customers on Friday and Saturday nights come from the Fort Smith, Ark., area, 30 miles away.

Robert George, owner of the Route 66 Drive-In in Weatherford, summed up why moviegoers go to his theater:

"No. 1, you get to watch two movies for the price of one, but No. 2 is nostalgia," he said. "People always tell stories of when they were a kid."

The crowds are more relaxed, George said, including kids in pajamas and people who can smoke freely in their cars.

So why is the number of drive-ins down since their peak in the late 1950s?

"VCRs killed the drive-in trade," said George Onyshczak, the projectionist at the Winchester since 1968. "That, and families aren’t what they used to be. Used to, mom stayed home and dad worked, and on the weekends they’d load up the kids and go to the movies. Now, with both working, they don’t take the time."

Add malls, cinema megaplexes, cable television and the Internet to the mix, and its easy to see why outdoor family entertainment has taken a bite, owners say.

In 1958, 4,063 drive-in theaters were in the United States, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Last season, 443 were operating. But the association reports an increase in new drive-ins since the 1990s. Eighteen have been built since 1990, and 42 have reopened.

However, don’t expect new drive-in theaters in Oklahoma any time soon, observers say, because they are too costly to build.

Local banker Jeff Massad said it would cost more than $1 million to build a 7 1 /2-acre-lot drive-in, similiar to the Winchester, on Memorial Road.

Instead, the theater owners are revamping their facilities, updating concessions and making use of new technology.

Instead of the clunky speakers that had to be mounted on car windows, most drive-ins have FM stereo sound, so patrons can listen to the movie on their car radios.

Even the projection is changing. The first digital drive-in opened in Hagerstown, Md., on Friday.

But as some things change, some stay the same — the love of the business, for instance.

"Gosh, it’s right down inside of me," Lindy Shanbour said, who is at his drive-in seven days a week. "It gets in your blood, and you can’t get it out. I enjoy the people that are out here every night. You see all kinds. And the movie stars I’ve met at film conventions. It’s just a wonderful business."

Robert George of Weatherford agreed. "Even if I had to sell my other theaters, I’d keep my drive-in," he said. "It’s just a different crowd."

"It’s not a money-maker," Poteau’s Jon Pickle said. "But it’s such a blast."