Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Movies

The Drive-In Theater Tries a Comeback; Looking for a Few Hundred Adventurous Moviegoers

Published: July 23, 2004

Bob Madara remembers the last night at the old picture show not with nostalgia but with bittersweet disdain.

He was the projectionist at the Delsea Drive-In the night of July 18, 1987. The movie was ''La Bamba,'' the story of Ritchie Valens, who died in the plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in 1959.

It seemed like a good booking, considering the large Hispanic population in surrounding Cumberland County. Unfortunately, Mr. Madara said, there was also a Spanish heritage festival going on, so virtually no one showed up for the movie.

''AMC, which owned the place, just decided that drive-ins weren't going to be part of the future game plan,'' Mr. Madara said. ''I think they just did things like that on purpose so they could justify closing it up.''

From that night to this, the Delsea Drive-In lay dormant, weeds growing into trees in the parking areas, random vandalism taking its toll, the ticket booth losing its roof, the concession stand partially burned. The area, too, saw a decline, with drivers on their way from the Philadelphia area to the Jersey Shore diverted away by the Route 55 bypass. But Friday night, Mr. Madara hopes a few hundred people will be adventurous. He will be back in his old place, the Delsea Drive-In projection booth, rolling a double feature, as the theater reopens with ''The Bourne Supremacy'' and ''Anchorman.''

It will be the first drive-in movie showing in New Jersey -- the state that spawned the craze in the 1930's -- since the Route 35 Drive-In in Hazlet closed in 1991. ''I've moved up, from projectionist to manager,'' Mr. Madara said. He also works as a D.J. at WVLT-FM, the oldies station in town, but he's taking a leave for the summer to work at the Delsea.

''The Bridgeton Drive-In closed and it became a ShopRite,'' he said. ''The Atlantic Drive-In at Tilton Road and the Parkway closed and became an Outback Steakhouse. The Circus Drive-In in Hammonton is just a bunch of trees. I want to help make this a great comeback story.''

A group of Vineland businessmen bought the 17-acre property for $1.8 million last year with an Urban Enterprise Zone loan guarantee. They planned to put a skate park and restaurant on the site, with maybe more teenage-oriented entertainment later. But the family of one of the investors, Dr. John DeLeonardis, encouraged him to try to revive the drive-in.

''The screen was still in good shape and so everyone thought, 'Why not?''' said Bob Olivio, the broker with Venture Realty in Vineland who helped put together the deal and then decided to stay on and help with the project. ''It's a chance. But I think it's worth taking.''

Those coming to the opening show will certainly not be seeing a finished project. John Chupashko, an excavation contractor, was digging in the old dirt driveway Thursday, making a proper path for cars to get to the projection area.

''The town wouldn't let us go like they used to, under the sign,'' Mr. Chupashko said, ''because it's old and who knows whether it might come down.''

That sign on the Delsea Drive-In has an ''S'' missing on its south side, and the red-orange paint around it is chipping badly. Mr. Chupashko said the roof on the old ticket booth went on Wednesday night. As for the old concession stand, he said he was able to save most of it, but it couldn't be rebuilt in time. So there will be portable toilets and a food truck on opening night instead, as well as a generator instead of permanent new wiring.

''It was important to us to get up and running this summer, not to wait any longer,'' Mr. Olivio said. ''But the 120-foot-wide screen is great. The sound will be good. It will be a real fun experience for everyone.''

There is capacity for 700 cars, which will be reduced by half next year when the skate park opens up toward the road side of the theater. Instead of paying by the carload as in the old days of drive-ins, the Delsea will charge $6 for adults and $3 for children for the double feature.

Sally Starr, the cowgirl who was Philadelphia's most popular children's television hostess in the 1950's and 60's, is scheduled to give out autographs on opening night, and tickets will have a 1950's look, Mr. Olivio said.

 

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