ShareThis Page

Parks Township's Riverside Drive In must upgrade to survive

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
Jamie Baronie, of Frazer Township, shakes out a bedsheet for an inflatable mattress that she and her family brought to relax on while watching movies atat Riverside Drive-In in Parks Township on Friday, August 16, 2013. The outdoor theater will have to shut down if it cannot afford to update to new all-digital projectors.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
One year-old Bryce Bowser, of New Kensington, holds the hand of his brother, Kraig, 6, while his father, Rich, and mother, Cody, eagerly await the start of the show at Riverside Drive-In in Parks Township on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Kedrin Lasher of East Vandergrift looks for approaching cars from the ticket booth outside of Riverside Drive-In in Parks Township on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
Leland Toward, of Leechburg, reaches for popcorn while watching a movie with his parents, Jessica and Steve, at Riverside Drive-In in Parks Township on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
(from left) Chris Davis and his children, Kristen, 3, Addison, 5, and Noah, 8, all of Plum, pick out treats during their first visit to Riverside Drive In Theatre in Parks Township on Friday, August 19, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
A young girl runs towards the concession area at the Riverside Drive In in Parks Township on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Riverside Drive-In owner Todd Ament in the projection room on Friday, August 16, 2013.

On a typical summer evening, children run free in a big field, their laughter drowning out the crickets, before they settle down for showtime at Riverside Drive In in Parks Township.

It gets even better once they sit under the stars in the back of a pickup to watch movies, such as the recently released “Monsters University.”

But drive-ins across the country are fretting for their future because of the impending digitalization of major motion pictures.

Digitalized versions of movies will replace 35mm film in about a year or two, which will put a dent in the remaining vestiges of pure Americana, as some drive-ins and small independent theaters are expected to wither.

Todd Ament, owner of the Riverside Drive In, doesn't want to be one of them.

He is trying to raise $70,000 to buy a new projector system to stay in business. He has used a poker run and “crowdfunding,” which is soliciting donations from the public on the Internet.

More closures expected

The Riverside Drive In is entered in Project Drive-in, a national contest sponsored by Honda. Theaters must ring up votes to receive one of five digital projectors, which will replace the soon-to-be-obsolete 35mm projectors.

Fans of the Riverside are urged to register their votes at the Project Drive-in website.

With 360 drive-ins in the United States, the Honda contest provides better odds than playing the Daily Number, but that's hardly security.

“Unfortunately, there will be some closures,” said John Vincent, president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. Vincent owns an indoor theater and drive-in in Cape Cod, Mass.

Vincent doesn't know how many will close; 210 out of 360 drive-ins have yet to convert to digital projectors.

Many are mom-and-pop operations such as the Riverside, which grosses about $150,000 per year.

In the long run, it's just another technological and financial hurdle that the industry has to clear.

From a peak of 4,000 drive-ins decades ago to fewer than 400, some remnants of the drive-in market will continue to flourish, according to Vincent.

“The ones that are left are top performers in their district,” he said.

And people who love movies tend to frequent all movie venues.

“Some people go for the nostalgia, and they want to see first-run movies on their own terms,” Vincent said.

A professional projectionist, Ament has raised $22,000, almost a third of what he needs for the new projector.

“For me, it's showmanship and it's part preservation,” Ament said.

He remembers going to drive-ins as a kid and falling asleep in his grandparent's Chevy Vega, which had a hatchback.

Nostalgia stillan attraction

Families still roll into the Riverside — formerly known as the Galaxy Drive-In — on summer weekends for a double feature.

And it looks like this year's attendance, already more than 13,000 people, will top last year's, Ament said.

Long gone are the individual speakers hooked to each car's driver's window.

Members of the audience listen to the movie through their car radio, or, as many moviegoers on a recent night chose, through loudspeakers as they sit in the open air in the back of trucks and SUVs. Many customers fashioned comfy bedding areas with stacks of pillows.

Children-sized canvas chairs decorated with Tigger, Pooh or Barbie lined up next to adult tailgating chairs.

A half-dozen workers hustled behind the snack bar brimming with orders of pizza, nachos, cheddar bacon French fries and homemade funnel cakes — easily besting the typical movie theater offerings.

A collective hush fell over the crowd as the first feature began. The only detectable movement was the steady stream of flickering light from the projector, magically transporting Disney's animated “Planes” to the big screen.

Family friendly

The appeal is simple: “It's a place for family and kids — and you don't have to hush the kids,” said Emma Ross, 40, Ament's fiancée, who helps manage the drive-in.

“We used to do this as kids,” said moviegoer Christine Kelly, of Washington Township, “and now we can share this with our kids.”

Becky and Shane Sechrist of Murrysville and their two daughters visited the Riverside for the first time earlier this year.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Becky, who returned again last week. “It was soggy, and we still enjoyed ourselves.”

Her husband added, “It's very family-friendly and relaxing.”

Anna Sechrist, 5, noted, “And we get to stay up late.”

Longtime drive-in fan Ryan Schuller, 32, of Lower Burrell said, “It's the freedom and the experience.”

Freedom for children to run around, he said. Freedom for parents to bring whatever food they want.

And for Samantha Schuller, 9, it's freedom “to sit where you want and not in some wooden seat.”

For others, it's more than a night out.

Recently, 14 Boy Scouts from Troop 23 from Dormont set up 10 tents to watch a flick and spend the night.

Then the next day, the snack bar served breakfast as the boys got ready for a kayak and canoe trip down the Kiski River.

“This is something novel,” said Lou Casadei, assistant Scoutmaster from Green Tree. “Camping, movies, canoeing — it doesn't get any better.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.