On summer and fall days, you’ll find parking lots at sporting arenas and concert venues packed with people doing more than parking their cars. You’ll find chairs, bean bags, tables and barbecue grills as they gather for some fun before heading in to watch a country band or a football game.
If you head over to Valparaiso, you’ll find a different kind of tailgating going on. You might call it the “original” tailgating, as it’s been done there since the 49er Drive-in opened in 1956. The gates for the outdoor theater open at 7 p.m. each night and vehicles begin piling in for the evening’s double feature beginning at dusk. There are no big spreads of food or barbecue grills, but replacing that are sleeping bags and pillows spread out in the backs of SUVs and minivans, folding tables with citronella products and checkerboards and portable radios tuned to 88.5 to listen to audio for the movie that’s on the big screen. In a grassy area off to the side, you’ll see patrons throwing around a football or Frisbee.
While the barbecue grills can make for a fun football tailgating time, the drive-ins depend on customers spending money in the concession stand, so grills aren’t allowed and bringing in outside food is strongly discouraged. “Give the drive-in concession a try. Concession sales are the drive-in’s main profit center,” it states on the Drive-ins.com website. “Drive-ins do not make much money on ticket sales. That money goes to the studio to pay for the movie. If you want the drive-in to stick around, patronize their snack bar often.”
It was 80 years ago when the first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey, but it was in the 1950s when the outdoor theater industry peaked with about 4,000 drive-ins across the country. Today, less than 10 percent remain, and we’re lucky enough to still have one in the region. Stop by the 49er on a warm summer Saturday night, and you’ll see that this throwback hasn’t lost its appeal. Rows of cars fill the lot as the sun sets and patrons honk as nostalgic singing popcorn boxes dance across the screen to signal that the movie is starting.
Kipp Sherer, who co-founded the website drive-ins.com with sister, Jennifer Janisch, in 1999 said the siblings often went to the drive-in movies growing up in Northeastern Ohio, but now that he lives in the Las Vegas area, there’s only one within a reasonable drive. The two keep up on closings and openings/re-openings of drive-in theaters in the country, and he said that the current number stands at 355.
“The ones that remain open seem to be doing pretty well,” Sherer said, “but it’s been a hard year overall for the industry because there’s been a mandatory switch-over to digital. Studios decided to no longer print 35 mm reels. It’s a costly upgrade and some smaller theaters decided they couldn’t or weren’t going to make the investment and ended up closing. It won’t be until next year that we’ll really know how many were lost because of this.”
The 49er seems to be doing well this year - a combination of the dry weather, string of family friendly summer blockbusters and the savings that it offers to customers. “It’s a very good value when compared to other entertainment venues,” Sherer said. “Usually you get two movies at one price and concessions are usually more moderately priced than at indoor theaters or other outdoor venues.”
Karen Kijewski of Lansing has made numerous trips to the 49er with her kids and granddaughter, and they enjoy getting there early and spreading out in front of the vehicle. “We love that there are always two movies for one price,” she said.