News & Features

Driven to Extinction

Montana Drive-Ins

COLUMBIA FALLS – When the storm died down on the night of July 18, the Libby Drive-In Theatre lay in shambles. A hundred miles east in Columbia Falls, the Midway Drive-In started its feature presentation, right on time.

Kiersten Hoerner knows what she would have done if Midway fell.

“I would have cried,” said the Columbia Falls 12-year-old while watching the film, Evan Almighty, at the Midway eight days after the storm.

Hoerner, sprawled out on an air mattress in the back of a pickup, said she goes to the drive-in nearly every week, sometimes more. She’s lucky. Midway is one of only five operating drive-in movie theaters left in Montana after Libby’s collapse. There were once as many as 40 in the state.

There’s no doubt that people still want to go to drive-ins, Libby Drive-In owner Bert Wilson and Midway owner Phil Harris say. The problem is that drive-ins aren’t moneymakers. The dirt they sit on is worth more than the business they bring in.

“The real estate value has become more profitable than the drive-in itself,” Wilson said, which will factor in his decision of whether he can afford to rebuild Libby’s theater. It depends on insurance, he said. “It’s up in the air right now.”

Then why operate a drive-in?

“It’s done more in the spirit of community service,” Harris said, “than to make money. People love them.”

Montana drive-ins face additional operating difficulties, Wilson said. First of all there’s not the population base to support many theaters. Secondly, movies in the summer can’t start until after 10 p.m. or later because it gets dark so late. If you watch the double bill, Harris says “you could be leaving the drive-in at four in the morning.” Lastly, theaters are only open in the summer, while in warmer states they’re open year-round.

“You have to pay bills for 12 months,” Wilson said. “And you’re open for three months.”

Harris has put the drive-in up for sale in the past, though he said it is not actively for sale right now. While he’s currently “not looking to re-develop that property into anything other than a drive-in,” business is still business.

“If someone makes a good offer,” he said. “We might be in the position to sell it.”

Ashley Wiebelhaus, Midway’s manager, said the drive-in was nearly sold last year but the deal fell through at the last second.

“We thought it was sold,” she said. “It was pretty sad.”

The Coburn family, on vacation from Washington, saw Midway on the way to Glacier National Park and immediately planned it into their trip. The son had never been to a drive-in before and the parents were feeling a bit nostalgic.

“I used to go every week when I was a kid,” Steve Coburn said. “People stopped going to drive-ins.”

The Coburns exemplify one reason there is still a demand for drive-ins: many young people have never been to a drive-in and would like to. There are other reasons too, of course. Convenience, privacy, choosing who you sit by, not bothering others with screaming babies – and there’s just a certain ambience that makes drive-ins a world apart from “hardtop” indoor theaters.

Wiebelhaus would know. She has worked for Signature Theaters, Harris’ local movie theater chain, for five years. While she has spent most of her time at Midway, she’s also worked at the Liberty and Strand in Kalispell.

“It’s the atmosphere,” she said of Midway. “(Hardtops) are a lot more strict, with lasers and stuff. People get mad there and want more things. Here, if their car has cup holders, then they have cup holders.”

“I come here on all my days off,” she added.

Drive-ins first appeared in the 1930s. After World War II, they skyrocketed in popularity, Harris said, partly due to the nation’s “love affair with cars” and also to a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Paramount Pictures that essentially broke large studios’ total control of the movie business, including theaters. After 1948, independent theater operators had a chance.

Operators made the bulk of their money off of hardtop theaters, Harris said, but many also took advantage of the car craze, whereas large studios previously had no interest in drive-ins. Also, the expanding interstate system brought thousands of cars right to many drive-ins’ doorsteps.

“People ended up being wealthy beyond belief,” Harris said of some operators.

Soon after drive-in theaters’ peak in the 1950s, theater operators discovered another source of wealth: selling drive-ins, which are on multi-acre lots often in prime development locations. An increased effort in the 1990s to modernize and expand hardtops compounded drive-in decline. By 2000 drive-ins had become an obscure relic in many states.

Wilson wants to rebuild the Libby Drive-In exactly as it was. Most drive-in screens are supported by metal, he said, but his was timber. Timber is more expensive. He also wants to replace the 15-foot wood fence and playground, which got crushed by the screen.

As terrible as the drive-in’s collapse was, it could have been much worse, Wilson said. The storm happened early enough that nobody had arrived yet. As a result, no kids were on the playground when the screen tumbled down.

“It could have been a tragedy,” he said.

While Harris said it’s “reasonable” to say that no drive-ins will be left in Montana in 10 years, Wilson said he’s trying to make sure that’s not the case.

“If we rebuild,” he said. “We’ll be around in a decade.”

For now, Midway is in good shape. Wiebelhaus said she had one night this summer when all 230 lots were filled and many others in which more than 150 cars showed up. On those nights, when hundreds of people sit in their cars and on the beds of pickups, listening to the movie through their stereos via FM transmitters, the drive-in doesn’t look like a dying breed.

“What a place,” said Shelly Martin, who has been going to the Midway for decades. “Go in your jammies, with your family, bring your dog. Just great.”

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