Movies aren't just a passion for drive-in theater operators Vicky Hardy and Jay Mowery - they are in their blood.
They earned their work ethics the old fashioned way, slinging milkshakes and burgers with their siblings at their families' respective theaters, Haar's Drive-In Theatre and the Cumberland Drive-In Theatre.
“When I was 10 or 12 years old, they showed films seven days a week,” Hardy said. “I thought it was pretty cool to sit back and run the concession stand by myself.”
Prepping the snack bar and the big white screen usually are their priorities as they kick off a season of thrillers and monsters. This year, a new boogie man will crawl onto the screen: digitalization.
Say the dreaded “D” word to most movie purists and you will hear lots of adjectives. Mowery’s not entirely sold on the concept. “For us, I don’t think it will greatly improve picture quality, but I can see the studios’ side of it,” Mowery said.
Hardy can’t wait to get her hands on her new Christie Digital Cinema Projector later this month. “I’m an IT tech by profession so for me, I’m excited about it,” Hardy said.
Good old days
Drive-ins are a deeply cherished part of Americana. For parents, they were a boon. Children could cheer for the Duke as he shot up the bad guys or scream in delight as UFOs invaded while parents rested easy, knowing what their children were up to.
Both theaters were founded months apart in the early 1950s. Jay Mowery’s father, Donn Mowery, founded the Cumberland in 1952 in Newville. “Our house was on the property,” Mowery said. “Our whole life, growing up, couldn’t be separated from it.”
Mowery still feels the same rush when his season starts. On Friday, he will screen a double-header of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Jack Reacher.”
“It’s an action-packed way to start off the season,” Mowery said. “It has a real nostalgic feel to it, not only because our family has done it for so long. It has a certain excitement about it.”
The Cumberland retains its family flavor, employing the same family members and teens each year. “It’s a very close knit group of people,” Mowery said. “I think kids know they are part of something unique working at a drive-in.”
A family affair
Vance Haar’s dream wasn’t running a theater according to his granddaughter, Vickie Hardy. “His passion was the circus, but with a family, he couldn’t have kids and go after that,” Hardy said. Haar found a creative solution, taking a home projector on the road to show films. Soon, he sat down at a table with a business partner, creating a stable Dillsburg theater that now employs its fifth generation of family.
Both businesses have bucked the corporate trend to remain family-owned businesses. Haar and her husband, Doug, took over the business a decade ago with relatives Sandra Haar and Connie and Al Darbrow. A fifth generation has joined them in tradition.
“Once you get it in your blood and it becomes your passion, it stays with you,” Hardy said.
The new frontier
Upgrading is a necessary evil for Mowery as studios phase out expensive and flammable film.
“Originally, it was going to cost us $100,000 but with the improvements in technology, it has come down in price,” somewhere “north of $50,000,” Mowery said. Hardy won’t name a figure but estimates “you could buy three cars” for the cost. “We decided to take advantage of deals this year,” Hardy said.
“I see a lot of major changes,“ Mowery said. “It’s 100 years of history disappearing into a computer. It’s either convert or go out of business. Home theaters are as sophisticated as a movie theater but you can’t duplicate our 100-foot screen.”
As he looks toward converting in the fall, Mowery thinks technology will inevitably change studio profit margins. To serve the Northeastern market, studios print and distribute about 5,000 copies of a film, an enormous investment complicated by high shipping costs.
“For them to burn CDs will cost pennies,” Mowery said. “It’s always been celluloid and 35 mm film; now it’s basically a CD. Eventually it probably will be a streaming, encrypted video you will receive over the Internet.”
“I feel strongly that we are fine for the season,” Mowery said.
A new policy of reserving spots for $10 on their website, www.81fun.com, will ease long line lengths and help a dedicated fan base that drives in from Washington, D.C., Maryland and West Virginia.
“So many nights we sell out and we have to turn them away,” Mowery said, “This way, they can drive here knowing that we have a spot for them.”
No small feat
Finding a projector was no easy task for Hardy’s family. Since companies have not been around long enough to build up a performance record, they took bids from companies from both manufacturers and installers. Digitalization opened up an incidental revenue stream, allowing them to sell local advertising that can be produced in-house. “Before it was a little limited because we had to have film created,” a process Hardy said could take eight weeks.
As they reach their golden years, both theaters struggle to retain an emphasis on wholesome entertainment. Neither shows R-rated films, a restriction Hardy said she will have to revisit at some point since ratings may be determined only by a few objectionable scenes or words.
“You have to take it on a case by case basis,” Hardy said, “If that changes, I don’t think we will be willing to continue with it.”
*Editor's Note: Story changed to reflect the correct spelling of Jay Mowery. 8:29 a.m. 4/11/13