When was the last time that you treated yourself to a giant-screen movie while sitting in the privacy of your own car?
For people in the 40-plus age bracket, it was once a popular rite of summer to load up the family station wagon (dogs included); drive a dozen miles out of town; hook a little speaker over the driver’s side door (or dial in to the corresponding radio number for stereo sound); and snuggle in for the evening. These days, however, “due to the advent of the electronic age, kids now go one way with their computers and the parents go another,” according to Pamela Friend, owner of the Star Drive-In on 600 East Miami Road in Montrose, Colo. She continues, “The drive-in helps to keep families intact. They can pull out lawn chairs here, buy supper at the concession stand and spend quality time together before, during and after the feature.” And because she tends to choose features that are rated “G” or “PG”, it’s a good place to indulge in a “good, healthy product in a great environment where family values can be taught.”
Joking that she’s “been around forever,” Pamela explains that she started working at the Star as a young girl in 1957. (Her parents built the theatre in 1949, and it holds the record for being the oldest, family-run drive-in west of the Mississippi.) “Our goal is to take people back to the simpler times of the 1950s and 60s. Moviegoers come here from all over — some as far as Durango, Fruita or Grand Junction — and about 30 percent tell me that they’ve never been to a drive-in before!” Although the business (as a whole) got hit hard in 1984 with the advent of VCR units and movie rental places, it slowly started picking back up in the 1990s due to the simple fact that “this is fun.”
There’s a carnival-like atmosphere in the huge parking lot while everyone waits for the sun to go down so the show can begin. On the evening that my friend Linda and I went to the Star, we watched a dozen children tossing balls back and forth in the grassy area immediately in front of the giant screen; parents talking and laughing with each other as they stood between their cars; and teenagers crowding in front of the counter in the concession stand to load up on goodies. You’d better come hungry during a night out here: the Star has everything you’ll need including hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, candy, sodas, bucket-sized containers of freshly-made popcorn and even French fries. (Bonus, turns out the fries are actually home-made since the potatoes are grown right on the family farm. Pamela — along with her children and grandchildren who also work at the theatre — is part of nearby Olathe’s well-known DeVries clan. When she isn’t running the projector at the Star, Pam is working with the truck garden growing tomatoes, chilies, squash, peppers, beans, corn and alfalfa.)
The Star traditionally hires teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17, and although she is known as a strict boss Pamela has had three generations on the payroll. The young people learn how to do math without calculators, cook, clean and most importantly, be polite. “We love it here,” one of them told me. “The customers are great. Everyone is so happy to be at a drive-in.” There is a four-night training period and “If they really like it and want to work, they’ll catch on right away. You can tell. If they don’t fit in, they’ll go their way, with pay ... but I’ve never fired anyone,” Pam added proudly.
In their heyday there were over 5,000 drive-ins across the United States but now, there are only 323, six of which are located in Colorado. As she threaded one end of the film from an enormous tray into a projector in a tiny control room, Pamela said, “This is the last year that we’re going to receive our film through the mail in an aluminum container. Next year, we have to go digital, and it’s going to cost between $75,000 and $100,000 to make the switch to a digital projector and format.” April of 2013 is the deadline, and “after that, there will be no more reel-to-reel products available.” The family will refinance the farm if they have to in order to raise some of the needed money, but Pam fears they won’t be able to get it in time. There’s hope on the horizon, though. Fighting to save this beloved relic, a group of citizens has recently formed a grassroots organization that they call “Save the Star.”. (For more information, please go to www.TheStarDriveIn.com and click on the “Save the Star” icon). Through a series of fundraisers including pancake breakfasts, car washes, and the sales of t-shirts, the sponsors have raised nearly $11,000 so far and they’re not going to stop until the town’s only outdoor theatre is safe ... and open for business as usual next summer and many summers after that.
Pamela talks about the large plot of bare land, over 60 years ago, before her parents put up the giant screen, the concession stand, and 300 parking spots, and she plans to do everything she can to keep things running. Recently featured in a little film, herself, entitled “Projector: The Last Outdoor Cinemas” she states, “This is not a business. This really is home.” Looking around at what the family has built up, it’s safe to say the Star is where the heart is. ❖