KC drive-in movie theaters saved with digital projection upgrade

05/24/2014 10:28 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

There will be no last picture show after all for two area drive-in movie theaters.

Early this year, the future of the I-70 and Twin drive-ins and their six screens looked bleak. Deadlines loomed for an expensive jump from film to digital projection, which movie studios were requiring, and it seemed a pretty good bet that the two drive-ins wouldn’t open after their usual winter hiatus.

That would have left the Kansas City area, which decades ago was dotted with outdoor movie palaces, with just one outdoor screen, Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, Kan.

But a new owner stepped up and made the projection switch and other upgrades. This weekend the I-70 and Twin are celebrating a grand opening with free popcorn and a future that looks a lot brighter. The I-70 is in Kansas City, a mile from Kauffman Stadium, and the Twin is in Independence.

“We were able to save them, and we’re proud of that,” said Brock Bagby, director of programming and business development for B&B Theatres.

Drive-in theaters, deemed by many as cultural dinosaurs, are enjoying some success in fighting off extinction.

The nation once had more than 4,000 drive-in screens, but changing tastes, higher land values and aging owners whittled them down over the decades to 604 by last year. Many in the business saw the cost of going to digital projection, roughly $60,000 to $80,000 per screen, as the last act that would finish them off.

Drive-ins aren’t out of the woods yet, but more than half of the remaining screens have already made the jump to digital.

“It’s going more our way — more than anyone thought it would,” said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

The I-70 and Twin deal is seen as proof of that.

B&B Theatres, which has its headquarters in Liberty, has roots back to 1924, when Elmer Bills Sr. bought the Lyric Theatre in Salisbury, Mo. He hired a young concession clerk, Sterling Bagby, who later with his wife, Pauline, started the Bagby Traveling Picture Show. They took a projector, seats and a snack bar to show films in barns, parks and schools around rural Missouri.

They both grew their businesses, including drive-in theaters. In 1980, their families joined forces creating B&B Theatres. It remains a family business, and has indoor movie theaters in 35 locations in five states with about 240 screens. It recently jumped into some larger markets such as Oklahoma City, and it has movie houses in Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Liberty.

B&B once had 14 outdoor screens. But like others, it had cooled on the prospects for drive-ins. Despite a sentimental attachment to them, it was down to just one in Moberly, Mo., when earlier this year it learned that the I-70 and Twin were available.

The company took a look and decided that the drive-ins were actually a pretty good bet. The market was big enough to support them, and families, looking for some inexpensive entertainment, seemed willing to give them a second look. The reopened drive-ins don’t charge admission for those 11 and younger, which is fairly typical for drive-ins, including at Boulevard.

“We felt like it would be a good time to get back in,” Brock Bagby said. “We think there’s a lot of potential.”

The deal closed in March, and since then the switch to digital projection has been completed. Movie screens were repainted, and restrooms and the concession stand were upgraded. The menu has been expanded, including adding corn dogs and ice cream. Credit cards will be accepted at the I-70 and the Twin for the first time.

The grand opening this week comes with some drive-in flair. The first 50 customers in movie-themed decorated cars on Friday were to receive free popcorn for a year. Everyone else attending Friday and Saturday who buys a ticket will get free popcorn during those visits.

The change in ownership is a relief to Darryl Smith, who had owned the I-70 and Twin drive-ins since 1999 and was worried about closing them.

“I’m pleased as punch,” he said.

Smith, who worked at the I-70 in the 1960s when he was a college student, was facing the switch to digital projection.

Boulevard Drive-In had made the change, and Smith had done the same for two of his screens. But he balked at taking out a large loan to do the four others.

“For an old geezer like me I wasn’t sure about it,” said Smith, who is 67. “It was more than this little guy could handle.”

Drive-ins and their owners have long had their quirky side. His parents named their kids after people they saw in movie credits. Smith got his first name when they saw a film produced by Darryl Zanuck.

“Why wouldn’t I end up in the movie business?” he joked.

Drive-ins got their start, according to the Smithsonian Institution, when Richard Hollingshead, an auto-parts salesman in Camden, N.J., wanted to take his mom to a movie in 1928.

She was supposedly too big for the local theater’s seats, so he put a projector on his car’s hood and tied two sheets to trees for the screen. He toyed with the commercial possibilities and created a ramp system for cars to park at different heights so everyone could see the movie. He got a patent and in 1933 opened a drive-in theater.

Independent types have been drawn to the business ever since.

Vogel, of the drive-in owners group, said it was great news the I-70 and Twin were saved. Each drive-in has its own personality, he said, something that’s getting harder to find.

“The whole world has become a rubber stamp, except for drive-ins,” he said.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.


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