Our opinion: Keeping classic Americana alive

Friday August 16, 2013

The technological advancements in filmmaking over the years have been amazing. Young movie-goers today may take special effects for granted, but those who remember spaceships hanging from visible lines of string while smoke rises upward in space can appreciate just how far we've come.

In more recent years we've seen the transformation from film to digital media enhance the movie theater experience even more. The digital projectors splash twice as much light on the screen, giving viewers a stunningly brighter, clearer image, and the sound quality is infinitely better without the static that came with the 35 mm film. The downside of this wonderful technology, however, is that it could lead to the demise of a classic piece of Americana -- the drive-in theater.

Many of us have fond memories of piling into the family car and enjoying a movie in our own private mobile theater, or spreading out on blankets and lawn chairs that gave us more room and comfort than an indoor theater. And when we got to our teenage years the drive-in became as much about the social setting -- hopping from car to car in American Graffiti fashion -- as it was about seeing the actual movie.

Through 80 summers, drive-in theaters have managed to remain a part of that American fabric. At one time there were as many as 6,000 drive-in theaters across the country, but now there are only about 350 or so left, and many of them could be forced to turn out the lights because they can't afford to adapt to the digital age.

By some estimates it could cost as much as $200,000 for an outdoor theater to go digital with all the new equipment and technology. That investment is significant, especially for what is in most places a summertime business kept alive by mom-and-pop operators. Paying for the switch would suck up most owners' profits for years to come.

One such mom-and-pop business in our area is Northfield Drive-In, which opened for business on Aug. 3, 1948, the same year "Joan of Arc" staring Ingrid Bergman made its debut on the silver screen. If the current owners had decided not to take the leap to digital, this would have been the final summer of The Northfield Drive-In.

Fortunately, Mitchell Shakour, whose family bought the place in 1968, marked the 65th anniversary earlier this month with an announcement that promises to keep the drive-in experience alive in our area.

Shakour said he hopes to capitalize on a resurgence of drive-ins that is sweeping the nation as the seductive nostalgia of classic Americana draws in people looking for a taste of yesteryear. The news -- which was posted to the business' Facebook page -- was met with the honking of horns at the drive-in to represent applause.

We share that enthusiasm and offer our own "honk" in support of Shakour and his efforts to keep part of that nostalgic past alive as he transforms his drive-in for the future.


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