When the ticket window at Palace Gardens Drive-In opened at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, vehicles were already lined up and waiting all the way back to Indian Springs Road.
But Tom Kerstetter and daughters Cassie, 11, and Shelby, 12, of Home, had avoided the traffic. They arrived at 6:15 as they often do, to get a front row parking spot — “prime seating,” Kerstetter calls it — with no one between them and the giant movie screen. They claimed a good spot on the grass where they could park their vehicle backward, facing the screen, and they could leave the hatch open and relax on lawn chairs and a blanket.
“We try to do the outside thing as much as we can,” Kerstetter said.
The Labor Day weekend is generally regarded, with some melancholy, as the end of summer. And the Kerstetters and many other families Saturday evening were hoping the waning of this summer is not also the permanent setting of the sun on one of their favorite warm-weather pastimes — a drive-in movie at the Palace Gardens theater in White Township.
Soon movie studios will phase out 35 mm film prints and switch to an all-digital format for new releases. That’s good news for movie l
overs because the digital releases will deliver a brighter, sharper image to the screen. But it could also be bad news for fans of drive-in theaters because the technology upgrade will cost about $80,000 or more per screen. And the owners of some drive-ins — which typically operate only a few months over the summer — may not be able to afford the upgrade to the all-digital distribution system. The hefty price tag may force them out of business.
Clarine Beatty, owner of the Palace Gardens, and her husband, Mike Hudzick, may fall into that group. Beatty estimates the
upgrade for the Palace Gardens Drive-In may actually be closer to $100,000 because her theater’s electrical system also needs to be upgraded and renovations will have to be made to the projection room to support a new digital projector.
Beatty and Hudzick are not sure what their response will be to the movie industry going all-digital. They plan to evaluate their situation through the fall and early winter months before deciding if there will be a 2014 season at Palace Gardens.
“It would be terrible” if it closed, Kerstetter said. “It’s an American institution. It’s been around forever and we want to keep it here. If I didn’t work nights, I’d be here more often.”
The Kerstetters settle in for a twin-bill evening of flicks at Palace Gardens about a half-dozen times a summer.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a very small child” in the 1990s, said Melissa Gbur, of Indiana. She and her daughter, Lexy Zack, 12, were getting comfy in the back of a pickup truck as dusk fell.
“I always like to sit outside, in the back of a truck or on a blanket on the ground,” Gbur said. “It’s summer. You like to be outside. It’s the atmosphere. Everything here is awesome.”
Gbur said she also appreciates what she considers to be very reasonable prices at the Palace Gardens’ ticket booth and in the concession stand.
“It’s $14 for four of us to sit here and watch two movies,” she said. It would cost $30 or more to watch one movie elsewhere, she said.
Josh and Jessica Patty, of Plumville, also were in the audience Saturday night. It was their fifth or sixth visit of the summer, Jessica said, adding that she started coming to Palace Gardens 30 years ago as a child with her parents.
“The cost,” she said, is one reason the couple and their kids are regulars. Her family of four might spend $50 to see a movie elsewhere.
At the drive-in, “20 bucks for everything,” Josh said.
“And it’s a better atmosphere, especially for the kids,” Jessica added.
Adam Gordish and Brittany Gaston, both of Marion Center, also appreciate that they can see two movies at the drive-in for less than it would cost them to see one at other theaters. And they enjoy the relaxed, informal surroundings.
They, too, take in several drive-in movies each summer at Palace Gardens and always park with the back of their vehicle facing the screen. Leaving the vehicle’s hatch up lets them watch from the outside, even if it’s raining, Gordish said.
Many of the movie fans at the Palace Gardens Saturday evening said they were aware of the financial dilemma drive-in owners are facing, and most said they’re trying to help — by casting votes for Palace Gardens as their favorite drive-in.
The American Honda Motor Co. started an online voting site (www.projectdrivein.com) where movie-goers can vote for their favorite drive-in. Fans can vote twice per day (once each on a desktop computer and through text message) through Monday. Honda will donate a digital projector to each of the five theaters that receive the most votes by then.
Drive-in fans apparently are rallying. The number of online votes at the website grew from 764,000 on Aug. 22 to almost 1.5 million as of this morning.
As they waited for the ticket booth to open Saturday evening, Jeff and April Bush, of Punxsutawney, were texting friends and reminding them to send in their votes for Palace Gardens.
“I’ve been coming as long as I can remember,” three or four times a summer, April said.
There are other drive-ins they could travel to, but “this one is so much cleaner, friendlier,” she said.
Beatty said she’s been told by the people running the website that there’s no way to learn where Palace Gardens stands in the voting compared to the other 350-plus drive-ins still operating in America.
In the meantime, the 2013 season has been extended by a week, and the theater will be open this Friday and Saturday, to coincide with the voting period in the nationwide contest.
Delaney Honda, in Indiana, and The Indiana Gazette have also teamed to sponsor a more local contest with prizes to encourage area drive-in fans to support Palace Gardens.
“Mike and I would like to thank Delaney Honda and the Gazette for their effort, and would especially like to thank the people who have taken the time to vote for us, for their support,” Beatty said Saturday evening from the drive-in’s concession stand.
Mark Stephenson, of Smicksburg, contemplated the drive-in’s future at dusk Saturday as his four grandchildren prepared to enjoy the movies from a blanket spread across the trunk of his car.
“I wouldn’t like to see them go out of business, if at all possible,” Stephenson said, even though he described his own attendance at Palace Gardens as “sporadic.”
“People get complacent,” and often don’t support a business until it’s facing difficult times, he said. “I think it’s one of those things: If you lose it, you’ll say, ‘I wish we had it back.’”