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Grandfather, grandson embrace traditions and changes to keep Boulevard Drive-In going

BY HUNTER WOODALL

hwoodall@kcstar.com

Brian (left) and Wes Neal had to turn away drivers from the sold-out show last Saturday at the Boulevard Drive-In Theatre in Kansas City, Kan. Owner Wes Neal started working at the theater in 1954, making $3 a night. Now 87, he continues to take tickets and roam the grounds, but he has handed over most of the business to his grandson, Brian Neal.
Brian (left) and Wes Neal had to turn away drivers from the sold-out show last Saturday at the Boulevard Drive-In Theatre in Kansas City, Kan. Owner Wes Neal started working at the theater in 1954, making $3 a night. Now 87, he continues to take tickets and roam the grounds, but he has handed over most of the business to his grandson, Brian Neal. along@kcstar.com

An 87-year-old man speeds by on his ATV.

He weaves past the cars that are trying to park perfectly between the speakers. He carefully hops off the vehicle, and a moment later he’s working the front gate, giving directions, calmly setting the pace for another night and another double feature at the Boulevard Drive-In Theatre.

Nights like this have dominated Wes Neal’s life for more than half a century. He’s likely the oldest person at the single screen theater at the moment, and he’s slowing down, but in the last decade the drive-in owner has ensured the Boulevard remains a family business.

Together with his grandson Brian, the Neals have kept the Boulevard thriving in an era of change for drive-ins across the country.

There are timeless challenges to running the outdoor theaters: keeping up with the grounds, doing routine maintenance and worrying about the weather. But all movie theaters, not just drive-ins, have to work nowadays to create an experience that’s more than just going to a movie.

“That’s what is bringing people back to movies altogether,” said Brock Bagby, director of programming and business development for B&B Theatres, which owns the two other drive-ins in the Kansas City area.

And three nights a week, there’s the Boulevard coming to life, its owner with his feet firmly planted in the drive-in’s past while his grandson tweaks and updates it for the future.

Brian Neal, 44, remembers his grandfather offering him some advice about three years ago.

“You need to run it like a business,” Wes Neal told him. “I’ve been running it like a love affair.”

And during a year when the Boulevard is celebrating its 65th anniversary, Brian Neal has been following his grandfather’s advice.

The family works seven days a week during drive-in season, when there are double bills on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and a weekend flea market called Swap ’n’ Shop. The Neals spend those nights in a nearby apartment, sleeping for a few hours, but they’re never far from the drive-in. The Boulevard is quiet during the week but it’s humming almost every hour of the weekend, save for about four hours each morning.

“Behind every drive-in you’re going to find one very determined person,” said D. Edward Vogel, the administrative secretary for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and owner of Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Maryland. “It’s a hard-earned business and it takes a lot of passion to keep it going.”

The two other Kansas City area drive-ins, the I-70 and the Twin, were bought by B&B Theatres from an independent owner in 2014.

“It’s pretty rare for there to be three in a market of our size,” Bagby said.

Brian Neal and his wife, Clarissa, are working on sprucing up the Boulevard. They’ve updated the women’s restroom, ticket booth and kitchen and painted over the faded peach interior of the snack bar.

Brian Neal has introduced some improvements but kept his grandfather’s traditions. For example, the theater has Wi-Fi — but cash still is the only form of payment accepted. The new projector sits side by side with the old, out-of-date one, a reminder of how quickly tech can evolve in the film industry.

“I don’t know what I would have done without Brian,” Wes Neal said.

Most of the drive-ins that remain took out mortgages or crowdsourced the thousands of dollars needed to upgrade to a digital projection system when film distributors moved away from 35 mm film and embraced digital, Vogel said. The Boulevard paid for it out of pocket.

Brian Neal persuaded his grandfather to pay more for a 4K digital cinema projector instead of the cheaper 2K version. In less than a year, Brian Neal said the drive-in had made the money back for the system, which cost about $100,000.

“You know, I’m tight,” Wes Neal said. “I don’t like to spend money. So we save money. When we get some money in, we keep it. We only spent money on what we had to spend on.”

Working side by side, the grandfather’s passion and younger manager’s business drive sometimes collide.

On a recent weekend night, a short line of cars snaked around the Boulevard’s driveway a half hour before it was supposed to open. The theater is programmed to go live at 7 p.m.; when gates open, the snack bar opens.

Wes Neal saw the line, and Brian Neal remembers his grandfather telling him they needed to open up and let the people in.

“That’s just rude,” Wes Neal told him. “Why are you making them wait?”

Gates open at 7 means gates open at 7, Brian Neal told his grandfather. If the line reached all the way to the street, then they’d open the gates. But the line was short, about seven cars, and it was early.

“You told me to run it like a business,” the grandson said. “Businesses have hours.”

They both stood their ground.

The drive-in opened about five minutes early.

“He’s a hoot,” Brian Neal said about his grandfather. “He’s definitely old school.”

Most weekends, they say, the drive-in is filled with families and couples both young and old.

The Hill family, from Kansas City, Kan., said they come to the drive-in because of the family-friendly environment and low cost. Admission is $10 for adults, and kids 11 and younger get in free.

“It’s usually a good time,” Tyler Hill said. “If you get here early enough you can bring the ball and play catch and then watch a great movie with friends.”

Monday morning comes on fast after the endless blur of managing the Boulevard through the weekend.

Brian Neal eats a late breakfast and then works on picking movies for the next weekend and updating the drive-in’s website. Wes Neal checks the forest of metal speakers. His hearing isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes he puts his hand up next to them to make sure he can feel the vibration of the sound. He’s out every day, wandering the drive-in grounds.

“He can still sprint,” his grandson said. “Oh, he can run.”

Wes Neal started at the drive-in in 1954. He worked 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. for $3 a night. He had so much energy after his day job at Bayer ended that he knew he needed to do something else to keep busy. Since then, he’s gone all the way to becoming its owner.

“This is the nicest drive-in in the world, I think,” he said.

For decades, he had to clean up time and time again when the drive-in flooded, but recent levee construction nearby has lessened the threat of floodwater from Turkey Creek. Brian Neal said it would have to be a historic storm for the Boulevard to flood again.

Wes Neal is used to not sleeping. He’s used to waking up when he has to. He could relax, retire. But he doesn’t want to sit around his house. He wants to be here, at the Boulevard, day after day, night after night.

“This is what I want to do,” he said. “It’s been my life and it will be until I die.”

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