Historic small town drive-in theater up for grabs
GRANBURY, Texas — The sign in front of the historic Brazos Drive-In says “closed.”
But the owner, Jennifer Miller, insists it isn’t for good.
This spring, Miller plans to reopen and show movies as long as she can get them on 35 mm film, although it’s not clear how long film prints will remain available.
Many theater owners expect them to disappear this year as Hollywood shifts entirely to digital releases. Paramount Pictures just became the first studio to stop releasing movies on film in the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I’m hoping I can squeeze another year out of it,” Miller told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Like many other mom and pop drive-ins nationwide, the Brazos is at a crossroads.
Rather than pay up to $100,000 to convert her projection system from film to digital, Miller is putting the Brazos up for sale for $575,000. She hopes to find a buyer who will keep it as a drive-in and perhaps find more uses for the 5-acre property.
“I’ve been the caretaker for the last 28 years,” Miller said. “I’ve kept it going, but I’m tired. I’m wanting to retire. It’s just time for me to move on.”
In Granbury, where historic preservation has helped turn the courthouse square and many of its older homes into tourist attractions, preservationists see the Brazos Drive-In as one of the city’s main draws.
The Brazos is one of the city’s historic landmarks, so it must have the approval of Granbury’s Historic Commission to make improvements to the exterior, including its 70-foot screen tower.
“This is a significant site – no doubt,” said Mary Saltarelli, consulting executive director of Preserve Granbury. “It’s a reminder of ’50s drive-in culture that was so prevalent after the war. People had time. They had money. Most people could buy cars.
“But they were also in a hurry, so there were drive-in motels, drive-in restaurants and drive-in movie theaters – all of those boomed up.”
The Brazos looks largely the same as when it opened in 1952. It still has a vintage concession stand and a patio with old metal chairs where people can watch the movie if they don’t want to sit in their cars or pickups.
One change is that moviegoers listen through their radios rather than old speakers that were attached to car windows – and were notorious for their less-than-ideal sound.
Both Miller and Saltarelli said drive-ins don’t have to be used just for movies. They pointed to the temporary ice-skating rink that Fort Worth’s Coyote Drive-In installed during the holidays and to San Antonio’s Mission Drive-In, which was converted to a city park with a walk-in theater where movies, concerts and other events can be held on a 1,700-square-foot stage.
“I think the key word is adaptive use,” Saltarelli said. “You can build on what’s already in place.”
Some drive-ins have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, including the Spud Drive In in Idaho, the Moonlite Drive-In in Abingdon, Va., and the 66 Drive-In in Jasper, Mo. No Texas drive-ins are on the list, said Greg Smith, national register coordinator at the Texas Historical Commission.
“Any number of drive-ins could be eligible for a national listing. What’s really essential is for new property owners to find a use that complements the use of the historic property,” Smith said.
That said, the popularity of Texas roadside attractions from the postwar era is only growing, Smith said, as tourists drive Route 66 in the Panhandle or hunt through small towns for old motels or dilapidated buildings. Groups such as the Society for Commercial Archaeology, which focuses on 20th-century commercial architecture, have helped fuel the interest.
“People are interested in heritage tourism of all types,” said Smith, a former board member of the group. “Drive-ins are just another one of those that serves as a draw.”
But Miller still must find someone willing to keep the Brazos a drive-in.
John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and owner of the Wellfleet Drive-In in Wellfleet, Mass., said there are interested buyers for old drive-ins.
“Some are still going to go for the highest and best use, and that may not be a drive-in,” Vincent said. “But there are people who want to buy them and keep them as drive-ins if they can make it work.”
At the end of last year, 357 drive-ins were still open nationally, with a total of 604 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Texas had 15 drive-ins with a total of 26 screens, including Fort Worth’s Coyote Drive-In. About half the screens had converted to digital by last fall, Vincent said.
“I don’t think anyone knows how many will convert and how many will just throw up their hands and not reopen in the spring,” Vincent said. “Whether it’s 10, 15 or 25 percent that don’t reopen, I can’t predict at this point.”
Drive-in owners do have another chance to use a virtual print fee program – a subsidy to help offset the cost of digital equipment – but Vincent said they have a tight deadline to convert.
Kipp Sherer, who runs Drive-Ins.com, which includes a database of nearly 5,000 current and former drive-ins, said up to 100 drive-ins could balk at the cost of converting.
“When you boil down the conversion costs, it’s often not going to be cost-effective,” Sherer said. “Often, these are family-run and they’ve got to look at running their drive-ins for another 15 years to amortize the cost of converting.”
Brady Wood, chief executive of Coyote Drive-In, which opened in May just north of downtown Fort Worth, said he views the drive-in as an entertainment venue that shows movies. The ice rink was successful, he said, but the theater had help from the Trinity River Vision Authority, the government entity that leased the land.
The Coyote is planning new attractions for the next year, Wood said, but he isn’t ready to announce them.
As for the Brazos, Wood wants to see it survive.
“I think it’s essential to save all of the historic drive-ins,” Wood said. “We don’t view them as competition, and I hope they don’t view us as competition. We want to see them survive.”
The other historic North Texas drive-in, the Graham Drive-In Theatre in Graham, about 85 miles northwest of Fort Worth, didn’t have to make the tough decision about converting. It was one of the winners of Project Drive-In, a nationwide contest sponsored by Honda that paid the conversion costs. Honda plans to keep the project going but hasn’t revealed its plans for this year, Honda spokeswoman Alicia Jones said.
Since installing the digital projector, the Graham Drive-In has been open on warm winter weekends, and owner Pam Scott is encouraged about the future.
“I just know the Honda project has brought a lot of light on the plight of the drive-in,” Scott said. “I hope that translates to more attendance. The weekends we’ve been open, it’s been up.”
The Graham Drive-In wouldn’t have won the contest without community support, and Scott hopes that someone in Granbury steps forward to save the Brazos.
“It almost feels like there’s a resurgence in interest. Maybe somebody in the community will step forward,” Scott said. “I think that’s why we won the contest. A lot of people who voted didn’t patronize the drive-in, but it became a rallying point for the community. I think those tentacles just went out in so many directions.”