The Saco Drive-In has been part of summer in southern Maine since 1939. It claims to be America's second-oldest drive-in. But 2013's could have been its last season.
For several years, major film producers have been pushing theater owners to convert to digital projection equipment. Computer hard disks weigh a lot less than 70 pounds of 35mm film. The studios were looking to save money on shipping while also at the time offering movie goers a sharper, clearer movie experience.
The conversion equipment can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000. For a small theater charging $3 a head, or a summertime drive-in asking $10 a carload, that' s lot of money.
As summer 2013 began, there were four operating drive-ins in Maine. Saco, near Portland, was one of them. It was managed by an energetic, focused, barely-out-of-college, self-starter, 20-something entrepreneur, Ry Russell.
Two years ago, I did a photo project on Maine Diners, another disappearing 'institution'. Now, here was another. I thought I'd better get to drive-ins sooner rather than later. I met with Russell and he welcomed me. For a few nights in July, I roamed his several acres, talked with folks, and took pictures.
It did not turn out the way I thought it would. After my first night of shooting, I realized this was not going to be like diners. No their neon signs, formica counters, ornate tiled floors, fresh doughnuts or comfort food and warm waitresses.
Nope. Memories of drive-ins have nothing to do with the snack bar and projection bunkers. My wife spent many a summer night with her grandmother, at a drive-in in Pennsylvania, watching numerous westerns and gorging on candy and popcorn. And it is one of her fondest memories of growing up and being loved.
So, my next nights at the Saco Drive-In focused :) on the people, couples and families, enjoying being together on a summer's evening, enjoying a movie and, sometimes, fighting the mosquitoes.
The drive-in, by the way, will NOT be closing. In the middle of July, Honda launched a promotion offering digital conversion equipment to five drive-ins across the country. The winners to be determined by online voting. Ry Russell smelled opportunity and grabbed it. Radio, Facebook, newspaper articles - he pushed every promotional button he could.
And Saco was the first drive-In to win, as the Portland Press Herald reported.
See ya at the movies next summer, Ry!