MONTROSE – Thirty-five millimeter film may be dying, but area residents and visitors aren't willing to let a classic evening tradition die with it.
Since 1950, families, friends and loved ones have parked, hung the speaker on the window, grabbed a bite to eat at the concession stand and cuddled up in blankets to watch a new release on the big screen at The Star Drive-In, in Montrose.
From the projector room, the movie scenes roll off of the 35mm film for the audience to enjoy – the film spliced together perfectly so that the movie flows without interruptions.
"It's a craft, a trade, an art, that's dying," Star owner Pam Friend said last Thursday afternoon.
Each Thursday, Friend spends a few hours unloading the large canisters of 35mm film onto a large roller that will feeds it through the projector for her nightly shows. Several canisters must be used to carry an entire movie, so Friend has to match each end with the start of another so that the film runs smoothly. It takes her about an hour per film, but she doesn't mind – she's been doing it since 1968.
But that could all change shortly, with the push from Hollywood to go digital.
The driving force is the studios' bottom line, according to an April article in the LA Weekly. It costs about $1,500 to print one copy of a movie on a 35mm film and ship it to theaters in heavy metal canisters, compared to putting out a digital copy at about $150.
Although there is an obvious cost savings for the studios, it means new digital equipment for theaters.
Friend knew the digital age was approaching, but based on the previous timeline she'd been given, she thought she'd be retired by then.
But then, at a movie industry conference in Las Vegas last April, a different reality was revealed.
"My booking agent said I could possibly last until June, but I'd have to hold films for more weeks," Friend said.
In the rural community of Montrose, Friend said she doesn't think she could get by showing the same films for numerous weeks – there just aren't enough customers.
She currently adds a new show or two a week, starting every Friday. In the summer months, when school is out, she is open seven days a week; during spring and fall, she is open Friday through Sunday (the drive-in is closed in the winter). On a busy evening, she gets about 150 cars, half of what use to come through the gates in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her profits come mostly from the concession stand, as the film company collects anywhere from 40 to 90 percent of ticket sales.
Friend still owns the original projector, installed in 1950, and she plans to hold onto the vintage equipment even though she doesn't use it any more. In 1990, she upgraded to the projector she uses now.
If she is forced to go digital, that new equipment will cost about $100,000. The member of a longtime farming family in the valley, who runs the drive-in because she loves it, the pending expense has forced Friend to consider selling.
In the heart of the city, surrounded by development, she fears a sale would mean the end of Montrose's drive-in era.
Her loyal customers fear the same, and upon hearing about the possible sale of a place they grew up coming to, with their parents, they have taken action and started their own campaign, "Save the Star."
"I've been going to the drive-in ever since I can remember," Montrose resident Chris Tolvo said. "Drive-ins are nostalgic. They are a part of histor, and I don't want to see it disappear."
Tolvo calls the fundraising efforts a "friends helping friends campaign," and made it clear that Friend had nothing to do with it.
"She wouldn't ask for a dime," he said.
Olathe resident Jody Baugh also believes in the cause, and is helping with the fundraising efforts. She worked at the drive-in as a young kid, as did her mother, and she hopes that one day, her daughters can work there too.
"Pam [Friend] taught me things that all good employers should be teaching," she said. "Pam has given so much back to this community, I feel as a community, we should give back too."
Save the Star volunteers have been at Main in Motion each Thursday on Montrose's Main Street selling tie-dyed shirts, with the proceeds going toward purchasing the new equipment. Through that and donations, the campaign has raised about $5,000, according to its website, www.stardrivein.weebly.com. Baugh said fundraising will continue until the goal is met, but to do so, they need more support and are looking for anyone who has fundraising ideas.
For Friend, her customers’ efforts are heartwarming, and demonstrate the community togetherness that has keep her at the drive-in for so long.
As one of the oldest drive-ins that has been continuously owned and operated by the family that built it, community and family is what Friend knows.
You can see it in her employees – generation after generation comes to work for the Star Drive-In.
Thirty-five years ago, Olathe resident Amy Womack got her first job at the theater – she was 15 years old. Her mom and brother have also worked there.
"I remember it always being busy," she said.
Living in Olathe, Womack says the drive-in – a popular hangout – gave her the chance to meet other teenagers.
Now, Womack's two daughters, Denise and Vanessa Ceballos, 16 and 14, respectively, work there.
And even in an era where technology surrounds them, the Ceballos' girls recognize the atmosphere that only a drive-in can provide.
"It's still fun, and it brings families together," Denise said. "Indoors, you have to stay quiet and follow certain rules. There is that freedom here."
Newly returned Montrose residents Elaine Hudson and Don Taylor were enjoying that freedom on a Sunday evening, as was their dog, sleeping in the back seat of their car parked in the front row.
The two just moved back to Montrose and hadn't even unloaded their U-Haul truck before loading up their car and heading to The Star.
"It's just such a friendly atmosphere," Hudson said. "I'd hate to see it go."
Kati O'Hare at email@example.com