At The Drive-In

Sep 9, 2013

Across the country – hometown drive-in theater owners wonder whether the transformation to digital technology will sink their businesses. Many drive-ins face having to raise upwards of 80,000-dollars to install digital projectors… or they’ll be cut off from the world of modern cinema and lucrative new releases.

The Cherry Bowl Drive-In in Honor is no exception.

But many are hoping community spirit over the drive-in will be enough to save the day.

It’s just about dusk at the Cherry Bowl Drive-In and owner Laura Clark stands in the projection booth getting ready to show the night’s first movie in a double feature.

(Laura Clark on microphone addressing movie-goers): "I have one more announcement for you. I have a new best friend, Matthew Philips. He's 4-years old and he's from Kalkaska and he fell on one of the obstacles outside and he has a little scratch on his chin. But he's such a trooper, he's going to make his mom proud. He's not going to cry. He's going to show her his blue tongue because he had blue cotton candy. Matthew, get well soon. (Horns honk)

Her well-wishes are not out of character in this small community – which only last year rallied around her family after her husband suffered an accident on the theater grounds. It left him a quadriplegic and he died a few months later. A community work-bee was the only way to keep the theater going.

Now the theatre faces a new threat – this one in the projection booth.

Reels of film about the size of garbage can lids lie flat on big platters ready to go through the projectors and be seen on the 80-foot screen.  

Laura says, "These are both 35mm projectors. They are air-cooled and this is the movie here. This is the second film. The first one is down on the bottom platter, runs at 24 frames per-second. I can show you the indivdual films. So it runs about a mile-an-hour." 

After this season – there will be no more film.

Laura says, "If you want current releases they'll only be available in digital format. So to play something old - we have played with that a little bit, some nostalgia stuff - and it doesn't seem to draw the crowd like one of the top ten movies which is what we're noted for. 

Families pull up to the ticket booth sometimes a couple of hours before the movies begin in order to grab the best spots. Just under the screen is a playground where kids are sliding, swinging and climbing.

And movie-goer Erin Taylor heads to the concession stand. Her family comes to the Cherry Bowl almost every week.

Erin says, "I'm here with my family, I'm here with my husband and my son and we've been coming here consistently for about 15 years, well actually, since I was 13, so it's been quite some time. It's a tradition."

Erin’s already heard about the theater’s troubles. 

Erin says, "Well, it's been all over Facebook and then when we came up to the window we dontated a nice amount of cash for the (digital) projector so we do what we can to keep this place going." 

She’s also voting in a national contest by the Honda motor company. It’s called Project Drive-In. Five theaters from around the country will get free digital conversions. They’ll be chosen by popular vote.

Back in the projection room -- Laura Clark says the Cherry Bowl runs on a shoestring. And she just doesn’t rake in the money needed to simply buy digital projectors. But closing – she says – is not an option.

Laura says, "If we don't make the number 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, we'll be scrambling for loans and grants, whatever we can come up with. The Cherry Bowl needs to live on. It's so important to the community and to families and making memories for generations and it's just so much a part of everyone's lives around here." 

The community has rallied around this theater before. Whether their votes will be enough to stave off those loans – we’ll know soon enough. Voting ends Monday.