East Huntingdon drive-in theater pans to digital age
The Evergreen Drive-In Theatre made its digital-age debut Friday before carloads of enraptured onlookers, including Greensburg's Tracie Burkhardt.
“With the new technology, the picture is much clearer,” said Burkhardt, who attended with family and friends.
The East Huntingdon-based facility kicked off its 2014 season with six, feature-length offerings on its three, 100-feet-wide screens.
Evergreen's owner Joe Warren said he and his staff worked to ensure all of the movies — from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” to “The Lego Movie” — met each viewer's eyes with much greater clarity, brightness and panoramic scope.
“As far as picture quality, (movies here) will now be superior to film,” said Warren, the owner and operator of Warren Theatres, who in 1999 purchased the local facility from former owner Homer Michaels and his family.
“The brightness will be even from edge to edge and (from) top to bottom, and (the viewer) won't have to deal with scratches on (35 mm film) print.”
“No matter how many times you show a movie, it will be the same quality.”
That's due to Warren's purchase of three Barco Alchemy DP2K-32B digital cinema projectors, each of which offer a light output of 6,500 watts.
Each device costs more than $75,000, Warren said, plus the cost of upgrading projection booths and other electronic equipment.
In the weeks leading up to opening night, Warren said, he patiently awaited some back-ordered parts for the devices prior to installation.
Once the devices were in place, he spent most of his time calibrating and testing them while training his staff to use them properly.
“We got two more days to get this thing 100 percent,” said Warren during last week's pre-opening day rush.
As far as he was concerned, digital was a direction Warren absolutely had to go in, despite the associated equipment costs, which he chose not to disclose.
“At least five or six years ago, we started the process introducing the digital technology into the theaters by attending seminars and conventions,” he said. “Now it's at the point where there won't be enough film available for any theater to continue that way, anyway. The more they have to produce (film), the more it costs (to do so).”
An industry veteran looks back
Prior to purchasing the Evergreen, Joe Warren worked for more than four decades at other drive-ins throughout the region, which his family owned and operated, he said.
For that reason, among others, the groups running the facilities were close-knit, he said.
“Our family's been in the business since 1949,” Warren said.
His grandfather, also named Joe Warren, was involved in the construction of the first drive-in theater in New Jersey.
The patriarch also helped establish the industry locally in the summer of 1949 by opening The Rose Drive-In and Motor Speedway in Harrison City, which he ran with his three sons through 1954.
“There was my father, Martin, and his brothers, my uncles Ernie and Floyd,” Warren said.
In the early 1950s, the family also opened and operated the Blue Dell Drive-In located in North Huntingdon.
By the middle part of that decade, the Warrens opened the North Versailles-based Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In and, in 1955, added a second screen.
A year later, the family ventured out-of-state to establish the Super 50 Drive-In, located in Ballston Spa, N.Y.
In 1958, the Warrens opened the South Hills Drive-In in Pleasant Hills, which was the last one the family built for operation.
Over time, the family also owned and operated the Super 30 and Bel-Aire drive-ins, both in North Huntingdon, as well.
Heyday hits the drive-in scene
The Warren family started adding screens through the 1980s, Joe Warren said, and attendance at shows reached its zenith in the early 1990s with the regular showing of what he termed as “first-run” movies.
“That's when the drive-ins were showing movies that came out in the indoor theaters around the same times,” he said.
That kept every employee busy, and they all looked familiar to one another, Warren recalled.
“It was brothers, sisters and wives running it,” he said. “You had to change hats a lot; overall it was a good experience.”
Over that time, however, some of the Warren family's theaters were closed due to performance shortfalls, decreasing land value and discontinued property leases.
In addition, some of the pioneers of the industry throughout the area were disappearing, as well.
“In that period of time, the original owners were passing on, so a lot of the stories were, too,” Warren said.
A gamble worth taking
After Warren sold the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In in 1997, he said, he was eventually put in contact with Homer Michaels, who was interested in retiring from his ownership of the Evergreen.
Originally opened on June 19, 1947, as the Ruthorn Drive-In, the theater was eventually renamed the Evergreen by subsequent owners.
It was built by Donald J. Ruth, owner of Ruth Lumber and Builders Supplies of Scottdale, and R.M. Thorn of Scottdale.
The drive-in was renamed to its current moniker sometime in 1949, according to the theater's website, evergreendrivein.com.
In 1961, the theater was sold to the Michaels family of Pittsburgh, who owned and operated it until 1998.
Upon learning it was for sale, Warren traveled to inspect the Evergreen, and he decided to take a chance on it.
“It was a gamble, actually, and it paid off in a big way,” he said.
In the fall of 2001, two new screens were added at the Evergreen, and in 2002 the drive-in opened as a first-run, three-screen theater.
Since then, Warren said he has coasted the ebbs and flows of movie trends and other challenges faced by all drive-in operators.
“It's just like anything else, the theater business has always been a cyclical one,” he said. “But it's kind of like Kennywood or Idlewild (parks), I guess it's a unique tradition. The less there are, the more there are people who want to see them.”
With technology comes challenges, change
In a way, Warren said, he wishes he never had to make the switch from film to digital.
“Honestly, I did not want to, but it was a matter of if we wanted to stay in business, we had to,” he said.
Now that he has, Warren said, it could take some time before the business recoups the cost of all the necessary equipment.
“We're not even sure we're going to be able to cover the cost of it, especially this summer. It's going to take time,” he said.
Much of what keeps the drive-in running are the profits made at the concession stand, which is run by Joe's wife, Debbie.
“It takes 16-20 hours a day to keep this place going with all of the maintenance,” she said. “We change the oil in the fryer twice a week. I wouldn't give anything food related to other children that I wouldn't give my own children.”
The benefit of preserving the drive-in experience for the buying public is enough to keep the Warrens dedicated to screening movies during week nights and over weekends for another season and, hopefully, more to come, the owner said.
“It's a whole event, it's the complete night out, a whole different experience than sitting in a dark, indoor theater,” Warren said. “But with the digital conversion, the whole skyline of the drive-in industry may change in the next few years.”
East Huntingdon Township supervisor Joel Suter said Warren's decision to go digital is a move that probably will attract more movie-goers to the facility.
“I wish him the best, and I think it's a smart move,” Suter said.
Following a night of outdoor cinematic enjoyment, Burkhardt agreed.
“It's nice to keep an outdoor theater. It's a nice treat for families to enjoy the nice weather,” she said. “We'll definitely come again.”
Staff writer Kelly Vernon contributed to this report. A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.