Mt. Pleasant's Evergreen Drive-in to mark 65th anniversary
By Rachel Basinger
Published: Friday, June 15, 2012, 8:14 p.m.
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012
Next week, the Evergreen Drive-In theater will celebrate its 65th anniversary of providing fun and entertainment to families in the Fay-West region.
The business was originally opened on June 19, 1947, as the Ruthorn Drive-In. It was built by Donald J. Ruth, owner of Ruth Lumber and Builders Supplies of Scottdale. It was renamed the Evergreen Drive-In sometime in 1949.
In 1961, the theater was sold to the Michaels family of Pittsburgh, who owned and operated the theater until 1998.
In 1999, the theater was purchased by Warren Theatres, owned and operated by Joe Warren.
The Warren family is no stranger to the drive-in theater business. They have been involved in one way or another since 1949.
Joe Warren said his grandfather was involved in the construction of the first drive-in theater in New Jersey. He said he took a hiatus from the drive-in business in the late 1990s, but in 1998 he began searching for an established drive-in or a place to start over with a new one.
"I was put in contact with the Michaels family," he said. "He was a motorcycle police officer in Pittsburgh and he was ready to retire, so in the winter of 1998 we talked and I took over the property in 1999."
In the fall of 2001, right before Sept. 11, Warren decided to expand and add additional screens. But after the terrorist attacks, he held off. Eventually, two new screens were added, and in 2002, the drive-in opened as a first-run, three-screen theater.
In the last few years, the theater has remained open throughout the week, in addition to the traditional weekends.
"It's not extremely packed as it is on the weekends, it's a more relaxed atmosphere during the week," Warren said.
Over the years, attendance at drive-ins has ridden the waves of movie trends. However, the recent economic downturn has actually helped with attendance, Warren said.
"We try to keep our prices as competitive as possible, but we have to pay our bills as well, so it's a fine line. When the economy is in a downturn, or even when the gas prices go up, it actually helps us," he said. "People tend not to travel as much and they're looking for alternative entertainment."
Because the business is seasonal, it makes turning a profit a little more challenging, too.
"Our season is a six-month span and we're open just four of those six months full time," Warren said. "And out of that, we really have just nine weeks that are not interrupted with other activities, such as graduations and proms."
One sure way for drive-ins to make a profit is through the snack bar, since high percentages of money made go back to the movie studios.
"With a first-run movie (a new release shown for the first time), 60 percent of the intake goes back to the studio," Warren said. "On a second feature, 5 percent goes back, so that's literally 65 percent that's going back to the studio for a double feature.
"The biggest way to make money is through the concession stand, because you don't have to share your revenues with the studios," he added. "It's a way to keep the drive-in afloat."
Also, the way the future is looking for all drive-ins and indoor theaters alike, Warren needs to make as much profit as he can to buffer the cost of changing over his equipment from film to digital.
"As far as we know, this is the last year for film to be available for theaters, both indoors and outdoors," he said.
John Vincent, president of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, said film hasn't disappeared yet and no studio has actually set an absolute date for the switch, but it is, in fact, coming.
"No one knows for sure when it's coming, but if a theater wants access to all movies from all the studios, then 2013 will probably be the last year they can run film," he said.
For 100 years the movie industry has used film to distribute movies to theaters.
Vincent said that costs the studios between $1,000 and $2,000 per copy distributed.
"They're looking for a way to get that down to a more manageable number and digital technology has come a long way since digital projection was invented," he said. "They're now better quality and have better security than Blu-ray."
With the switch just around the corner, Warren said they should have enough time to do the conversion, but cost is a concern. "From what I'm hearing, it's going to cost over $300,000 for us to make the conversion, and to do that is a big risk for a seasonal business."
Vincent added that the cost of conversion is expensive for all theaters, including indoor theaters, but there are two things going against drive-in theaters that makes the high cost hard to bear.
The first is that drive-ins are seasonal businesses, so trying to get funding and justify the need for such a high loan amount from a business standpoint is difficult.
"Also, drive-in theaters have to use the brightest projectors that are out there, and those are the most expensive," Vincent said.
Warren hasn't decided what direction he will go with the drive-in when the switch is made, but there is an upside to digital.
"I have seen some digital installs at some other drive-ins and, in the off season, some hold car cruises and show movies like 'Grease' and 'American Graffiti' on Blu-ray," Warren said.
He also heard of drive-ins showing the Monday night football games and added that hooking up an Xbox to play video games on the big screen is another option.
Whatever decision, there's no denying Warren will have his work cut out for him. It's just another adjustment over decades he will have to make to continue doing what he loves, though.
"I was born and raised in it and some of my best memories are of playing at the drive-in when I was growing up," he said. "Now, I enjoy seeing all of these people coming and having a great time here. A drive-in is a family atmosphere."
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