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Oklahoma's drive-in theaters provide nostalgic experience despite difficulties

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Drive-in

A view of the screen at the Chief Drive-in Theatre in Ninnekah, Oklahoma from inside a car March 29. The theatre was showing Dumbo and Captain Marvel.

Editor’s note: Read this story in print in the April 2019 edition of the Crimson Quarterly magazine.

On a gravel road south of the small Oklahoma town of Chickasha sits the state’s oldest drive-in theater — the Chief Drive-In.

The Chief is reminiscent of the classic 1950s drive-in experience. Cars have tuned into a radio station for audio, parked in front of the large screen and watched double features on the weekends since 1949. But it is also a nostalgic reminder of owner Barbara Egbert’s teenage years.

Egbert worked at The Chief as a 16-year-old in 1979 and fell in love with the drive-in environment.

“It was fun. It still is fun to me,” Egbert said. “I do about the same thing I did back then.”

Although Egbert went to work as a newspaper carrier at the town’s local newspaper, when The Chief was put up for sale in 2004, she jumped at the chance to run it herself.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to own that?’” Egbert said. “I told my husband, ‘I want to do that.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”

The property was sold to Steve LaForge, a Chickasha businessman, in 2004, who leased the property to the Egberts until 2009, when they officially purchased the property.

Since 2004, the family has made the theater a family-friendly outdoor experience for the surrounding community year-round Friday through Sunday.

“I wanted it to be a place where families could come, bring their kids, let them grow up,” Egbert said. “You could be sittin’ in your lawn chairs and lay up blankets and have family time together … You can go and enjoy yourself and have entertainment.”

On a typical weekend, The Chief will have 100 to 300 cars, but in the summer it can sell out, once with as many as 1,200 cars, she said.

Egbert and her husband, Greg, keep The Chief running with the help of their children Brandon Egbert and Chrystal Martin. Greg works the box-office, Brandon works projection and Chrystal covers social media and online maintenance. As for Barbara — she does everything else. She runs the concession stand, orders supplies and films, keeps up with the books and more.  

Egbert said she hopes to keep the business in her family for years to come.

“(We’re) not goin’ anywhere … but drive-ins have it hard,” Egbert said. “(It’s hard) to stay open — that’s why so many of ‘em are closing.”

The Chief is one of the few drive-ins open year-round, since many are open seasonally due to a decline in customers during the cold months of the year, according to drive-in website database driveinmovie.com.

Egbert said the majority of their revenue comes from concessions, which is the reason for common drive-in rules like no outside food or drinks. Buying new and popular movies — The Chief showed “Dumbo” during its opening week and “Captain Marvel” a few weeks after its release — is expensive, Egbert said.

“The films cost the majority of our money that comes in from the box office — we don’t make hardly anything,” Egbert said. “If we make 10 percent, we’re lucky, and sometimes we don’t even make that.”

The drive-in also recently experienced storm damage, forcing it to replace the front sign, and there is now additional wind damage on the back side of the film screen, Egbert said.

The Chief is one of seven currently operating drive-ins in Oklahoma, and 325 operational drive-ins nationally.

Other operational Oklahoma drive-ins include the Winchester Drive-In in Oklahoma City, the Admiral Twin Drive-In, located in Tulsa and Oklahoma’s largest drive-in, and the Cool Breeze RV Cinema and Resort, the state’s newest drive-in, which opened in 2018.

Noah Simpson, Admiral Twin projectionist and social media manager, said the Admiral Twin is a Tulsa landmark.

The theater has more than 12,000 parking spots, with additional unofficial spots off to the side, and it often sells out during the summer, Simpson said. He added that the Admiral Twin is a Route 66 icon, so it often gets out-of-state visitors as well as Tulsa locals.

Despite the Admiral Twin’s success, Simpson said they, too, “survive on concession sales.”

The Tulsa drive-in is only open seasonally, closing in October when sales decrease due to the colder weather, and opening again in March for spring, he said.

In 2010, the Admiral Twin was temporarily closed due to a fire, and only raised the funds to re-open in 2012 because of the devoted drive-in community, Simpson said.

“The movement to actually rebuild was started by (the community), not by us,” Simpson said. “Once we saw the support that we were receiving from our community we kind of sparked the initiative to rebuild — and we did.”

Drive-ins like The Chief and Admiral Twin have remained open, yet drive-ins across the nation continue to close annually due to the difficulties of maintaining the businesses, said Nick Hensgen, owner of the website driveinmovie.com.

Hensgen and his son track every operational drive-in across the nation, in Canada and in Australia, watching for closures and openings, he said.

On his website, Hensgen detailed the in-depth history of drive-ins. He writes that drive-ins hit their peak in the 1950s and 60s with more than 4,000 operational locations, but began to decline in the 70s when at-home movies with VHS tapes became popular.

By the 2000s, drive-ins began to make a come-back, but then the film industry switched from film reels to digital, creating the “go digital or go dark” phenomenon, Hensgen writes. The switch to digital in the industry forced drive-ins to convert to expensive digital projectors, costing upwards of $60,000. Drive-ins were forced to adapt to the changes or close altogether.

Then, the 2010s digital age of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu added further difficulties for drive-in proprietors, Hensgen said.

While the nostalgia around the experience of attending a drive-in has kept some drive-ins alive, they are still steadily closing annually, Hensgen said.

In 2018, Hensgen tracked eight to 10 drive-ins that planned to open, either being built from the ground up or renovated. Of those, Hensgen said only three ended up successfully opening. Additionally, 10 to 12 existing drive-ins closed in 2018.

“Unfortunately, every year we are losing more drive-ins,” Hensgen said. “I certainly wouldn’t say we’ve had a comeback, even though we have some new ones opening. There’s still more closing than opening.”

The drive-ins that have remained open have maintained digital projection and sound, Hensgen said, allowing them to stay in business while the drive-ins that are steadily closing typically never converted their systems due to the cost.

Hensgen said he thinks the family-friendly drive-in experience is what keeps drive-ins rooted in local communities, and that despite the steady closures, the drive-ins are here to stay.

“What keeps people going to the drive-in, No. 1, I think, is a sense of nostalgia for older folks, but also it’s just a great family entertainment option that you can’t get many other places,” Hensgen said. “Something else may come along, but I think people still enjoy that social factor of getting out of their house and enjoying a night out, be it at the drive-in or movie theater.

“I think the future is what’s happened the last several years, you know, some of them are going to continue to close and a handful will remain open."

Assistant culture editor

Abigail Hall is a journalism junior and assistant culture editor at The Daily. She previously worked as an arts & entertainment reporter.

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