Mt. Zion Drive-in mounts a fight to stay open - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Mt. Zion Drive-in mounts a fight to stay open

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

A Calhoun County resident is trying to keep her family's drive-in movie theater open. 

It's not about staying in business, Bonnie Sands says, it's about preserving a piece of history and a place where families gather for alcohol-free entertainment: the Mount Zion Drive-in in Grantsville.

"It's really not about the business," Sands said. "We're not getting rich off this. But when you walk out on the field and flip on the floodlights at the end of a movie like ‘How To Train Your Dragon,' and you see little kids running around with their arms stretched out and they're flying their dragon or you walk out of the projection room to flip out the lenses and you can't hear the movie because everybody is singing (the theme) ‘Scooby-Doo, where are you?', things like that are more important to me, those families making memories."

The drive-in is a fixture in Sands' childhood memories. She was a toddler when her parents, Virginia and Marshall Bever, bought the theater in Grantsville in 1979. They are the fifth owners since it opened in 1950.

Since then they've upgraded to FM sound — patrons hear the movie's soundtrack through their car radio speakers instead of a speaker that mounts on their car window. But the latest upgrade the drive-in is being asked to make will cost $85,000: a digital projector.

Don Dzikowski, a drive-in historian in New Jersey, says about 360 drive-in theaters remain open throughout the country and one-third are in danger of not reopening in the spring because of the need to replace their 35mm projectors with digital ones, to show movies in the format moviemakers prefer these days.

To Sands, the update isn't do or die. She plans for Mount Zion to re-open for the next season during Memorial Day Weekend 2014.

"We'll keep doing what we can; 35mm isn't completely gone yet," she said.

According to her booking company, Sands said, only a couple of movie companies have said they will produce no more 35mm films, including Fox, which makes the "Diehard" series, of which Sands is a fan.

The other companies, Sands hears, will continue making 35mm prints, but produce fewer copies. That means it will be harder for Mount Zion to get the first-run films, which they usually put up four weeks after the movie's release date.

"We might not be able to get them 'til it comes out on DVD," she said.

In the meantime, Sands has been looking for ways to get a digital projector without borrowing money.

"We don't do a lot of business here," she said, noting the last time every one of the theater's 215 spots and back lot was filled was in 2005 when "The Dukes of Hazzard" came to the big screen.

"I don't think a loan is feasible for our business location," she said. "It would take us another 50 years to pay off the loan. We're open 16 weeks, three days a week. 

"The business pays its bills and employees and has enough to start it up again the next year. We do a lot of the work ourselves, and we're not even making minimum wage."

Sands has applied for a $250,000 Mission Main Street Grant from commercial banking company Chase. Mount Zion Drive-In had to get at least 250 votes on the Mission Main Street website by Nov. 15 to have its application considered. As of Nov. 13, it had received more than twice that many. In January, 12 grant recipients will be announced.

This summer Mount Zion competed in Project Drive-In, from Honda, but it was not one of the nine theaters selected to receive digital projectors from the company.

Voting was conducted online and Sands said she thinks coming from a small, rural area hurt Mount Zion's chances. 

"We just don't have the population to compete with bigger places," Sands said. "The smallest drive-in that won is in a county of 30,000 people." 

Calhoun County had a population of 7,607 in 2012, by comparison.

Dzikowski, the historian, said other automakers should follow Honda. He is circulating a petition to bring the plight of small, family-owned drive-ins to the attention of the U.S. automakers GM, Chrysler and Ford, asking them to donate digital projection equipment.

He says in the 1950s and early '60s, drive-ins would host events such as "Ford Nights," offering Ford owners free admission.

Find his petition at goo.gl/qHV6cW.