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Author Topic: Story about RI's only Drive-In
Paul Goulet
Master Film Handler

Posts: 347
From: Rhode Island
Registered: Jan 2000


 - posted 07-13-2007 02:39 PM      Profile for Paul Goulet   Author's Homepage   Email Paul Goulet   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Projo.com

A reAl night out

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, July 13, 2007

By Michael Janusonis

Journal Arts Writer


NORTH SMITHFIELD Although the sun won’t set for almost another hour, movie fans have already set up their lawn chairs on the battered asphalt to face one of the three screens at the Rustic Drive-in. They’re opening the potato chips, checking their bottled water supplies, carrying bags of popcorn and plastic plates of nacho chips back from the snack bar, installing fresh batteries in boom box radios to pick up the movie soundtrack. Some of them come back nearly every week.

Co-owner Beth Desmarais says that on busy weekend nights shows on all three screens often sell out. On those nights, the left lane of Route 146 North can be blocked for more than a half-mile as cars wait to make a U-turn at the traffic light into the Rustic’s lot on the other side of the highway.

It’s a ritual that has gone on here since the mid 1950s, when the Rustic was built and drive-in theaters were in their heyday. In 1958, the watershed year for drive-ins, there were 4,063 of them. Today, there are only a little more than 400, the 90 percent drop due mainly to the fact that land values became too high to support ventures that were only seasonal. The flat land that drive-in theaters sat on was perfect for countless malls and the acres of free parking they required.

But in 1958, outdoor movie-going was a regular summer pastime in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, where drive-in theaters dotted the landscape. Their ranks included the Cranston (now the site of the Marshalls plaza on Oaklawn Avenue and where Beth Desmarais had her first job), the Shipyard in Providence, the E.M. Loew’s Providence on the Pawtucket line (now the site of the Shaw’s supermarket plaza), the Lonsdale, the Starlight in Middletown, the Bellingham, the Sutton, the Boro in Attleboro, the Seekonk Twin (now the site of the Home Depot/Stop & Shop plaza), the Bay State also in Seekonk, the Pike in Johnston, the Hilltop in East Greenwich, the Quonset, the Somerset, the Route 44 on Smith Street. Today, only the Rustic is left in Rhode Island, while four remain in Massachusetts, the nearest being the Mendon Twin, just north of the Rhode Island line.

WHEN BEV AND CLEM Desmarais bought the Rustic in 1986, they turned what had been an all-year single-screen “adults only” operation into a three-screen seasonal family-oriented theater where G, PG and PG-13 movies are the primary fare from late April to September. After they died in 2001, their daughter, Beth, took over the day-to-day operations. Although the asphalt is crumbling and the snack bar hasn’t had an upgrade since anyone can remember, Desmarais points out that Screen Number One, at 60 by 120 feet, is still the largest movie screen in Rhode Island. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the Rustic puts together spectacular double features to draw customers. “You can get just about anything if you pay for it,” says Desmarais about such recent pairings as Live Free or Die Hard coupled with Ocean’s Thirteen and Evan Almighty playing with Shrek the Third.

When a film begins to falter at the box office, it may depart. Yet the stronger film in that double bill may stay on and be paired with something else. When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest left, its partner film, Shrek the Third, stayed to be hooked up with Evan Almighty.

But that all depends on the contract signed between the theater and the film company regarding the length of a run. Those deals are worked out on Mondays, when the dust has settled on the all-important weekend business and Desmarais’ booker can plot the next move. “There’s a lot more behind the scenes than the public realizes,” says Desmarais, who has to worry if she has too many first-run hits, which will make it difficult to unload one of them in favor of some newer, potentially bigger, picture in the crowded summer release pattern. “You just hope to get it right.”

For $20 a carload — and that could be a lot of people when you consider that many parents fill a van with not only their own children, but their children’s friends — you get to see two movies that would cost nearly $20 if one person had seen them separately at an indoor theater. Double features, which were just about everywhere from the 1930s to the early ’60s, have been out of fashion for so long that many Rustic patrons still can’t wrap their minds around the concept of seeing two movies for the price of one. Sometimes, says Desmarais, they’ll arrive at 10:15 for a show that had gone on screen at 8:45, expecting it would be shown a second time. Others will leave after the first movie, believing another admission would be charged for the second.

BUT THEN, nothing much surprises Desmarais who has had people ask why the Rustic doesn’t have matinees (“and the scary thing is, they’re serious”) or why the movies start so late. (At this time of year, when the sun sets late, it doesn’t get dark enough to see the image projected on screen until well after 8:30.)

As it has been ever since Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the first drive-in movie theater in Camden, N.J., in 1933, rain is still the killer. “Usually we try to open,” says Desmarais. But during a rainy spell in early June she closed for one night “because you might get only 10, 20 cars and it’s just not worth it.”

For most, the drive-in is an adventure, especially for children who have never before watched a movie under the stars or for grownups that haven’t been to a drive-in since they were teenagers. “A lot of people come up here very excited,” says Lillian McNeil, who has been in the ticket booth since the Desmarais family took it over. “Especially the kids, who are at a drive-in for the first time.”

One thing that old-timers who haven’t been to a drive-in in years will notice is that the familiar poles that once held individual car speakers, patented by RCA in 1941 and in use in every drive-in in the country by 1946, are long gone. Too-often victims of patrons who drove off, forgetting that the car was still tethered by a wire to the speaker pole, they’ve been replaced by radio signals that broadcast the soundtracks from the projection booth on either AM or FM band frequencies.

Today, too, there are actually fewer parking spaces at the Rustic than there were a decade ago. Desmarais wouldn’t give a number, saying it changes day to day, depending on the number of vans and SUVs that pull onto the lot. Patrick St. Don of Central Falls, is helping line up the vehicles in front of the big screen more than an hour before the movie begins. He has the driver of a small car pull forward one row; the back rows are reserved for bigger vehicles. St. Don has to keep the big guys from parking too close to the screen, because patrons in autos wouldn’t be able to see over them. Many of those big vehicles are pointed with their back ends to the screen, so the patrons can watch the movie either from the lawn chairs they’ve set up or while seated in the back of the open van.

That’s just what Donna and Jay Petrarca of Scituate have done. They’ve set up a couple of lawn chairs behind their SUV, checking the bottled water and bug spray supply before the movie begins, settling in their three children in preparation for watching the first film this night on the biggest screen, a cartoon. They weren’t planning to stay for the second film, scheduled to go on screen well after 10 p.m. because Donna didn’t think the kids would still be awake. They’d visited the Rustic last year, when Jenna was 2. But, says Donna, “We’re hoping it will be better now that she’s 3 years old.”

Nearby, Reg Barrows of North Providence was loading batteries into his boom box radio from a stash of Duracells in the trunk of his red convertible, the perfect drive-in movie car. With daughter Josie, 7, in the back seat munching on cheesy nachos from the snack bar, and wife, Donna, cozy in the front seat, they looked movie-ready. “We used to come here before anyone else; since they got rid of the porno,” says Barrows, who fondly recalls long-ago nights at the Lonsdale, the Shipyard and, recently, the Mendon Twin to which he gives better grades on the upkeep and the snack bar, although they don’t have clam cakes like the Rustic.

NATASHA DUPUIS of Cumberland, manning the cash register inside the snack bar, says the wonderfully golden clam cakes, better than those you’ll find in some restaurants, play second fiddle in sales to things like chicken fingers, individual pizzas and, of course, popcorn. When customers spy the clam cakes, she says, “Everyone asks, ‘What are those?’ ” Well, perhaps North Smithfield is simply too far from the shore.

Hot dogs, hamburgers, meatball or sausage subs, frozen lemonade, French fries and bottled water are also on the menu, as well as mosquito coils — $3 — just in case.

When the Rustic’s lot is not quite so crowded with vehicles on weekday nights, kids toss footballs, Nerf balls and Frisbees to one another before the show. The Kiddie Playground, once a mainstay of drive-in movie-going, is long gone, the victim of rising insurance rates.

Lisa Stampfli of Manchester, Mass., has brought her two children and their two friends to see Shrek the Third. She’d checked out the Rustic’s lineup on projo.com. As dusk was descending, they’d lined up their lawn chairs behind the van and were setting up a big portable radio because, as Stampfli says, “I don’t want to end up with a dead [car] battery.” (Robert Gosselin of Central Falls, who got a job parking cars at the Rustic in 2001 and is now the projectionist, keeps battery chargers in the projection booth above the snack bar, for just such occasions.)

“We come once or twice a year,” Stampfli adds. “It’s just a whole different atmosphere — sitting outside, bringing your own snacks, making a whole night of it. For me, it was something I did as a kid and one thing I didn’t think my kids would be able to enjoy.”

Yet here it is, pretty much like it has been for more than a half century. Desmarais says she has had offers for the Rustic’s land, but hasn’t been tempted … yet.

As the sky darkens, Gosselin is in the air-conditioned projection booth getting the three projectors ready for showtime. He has spliced each screen’s feature films into three giant wheels of film that lie on their sides on big metal platters stationed next to the corresponding projector. When in motion, the film unspools from the middle of the wheel of film, travels through the projector and then rewinds itself from the middle out. Gosselin was being trained by the theater’s longtime projectionist, but the man died before he could teach Gosselin all the ins and outs of the job. He had to learn fast, with the help of other projectionists because, of course, the show must go on.

These days, Gosselin says he spends 45 minutes per feature film splicing the five or six or sometimes even nine reels of film (for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) which are delivered to the theater in a heavy metal canister. When a film moves from the Rustic’s big screen to one of the smaller ones or vice versa, Gosselin must take the whole giant reel of spliced film apart, then splice it all back together again, usually with a new co-feature. Some nights, he says, he doesn’t get home until 2 in the morning.

LITTLE PIECES of “edge marking tape” stick up at several points on the giant reel to show him the location of each splice, making it easier when he must take the film apart. He also must keep track of the first film’s running time on each projector so he knows when it will end. At the end of every first feature, Gosselin has spliced a short loop of film that reads “Intermission.” Once that appears, he shuts down the projector for about 10 minutes before starting it up again with the second feature. “I want to bring back the dancing hot dogs,” he adds, referring to the snack bar promos that were shown during intermissions at every ’50s drive-in. So far, he has come up short.

Maybe the best part of his job is getting to watch all those movies. Once he has started the projectors and fine-tuned the focus on each, he says there are rarely problems. On a warm night he can sit outside on the snack bar roof to watch a film, the sound wafting up from all those boom-box radios that are blaring the soundtrack from the cars down below.

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Rick Raskin
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 - posted 07-13-2007 04:02 PM      Profile for Rick Raskin   Email Rick Raskin   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Try this URL instead of the above.

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Mike Blakesley
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 - posted 07-13-2007 05:43 PM      Profile for Mike Blakesley   Author's Homepage   Email Mike Blakesley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote: Michael Janusonis
When a film moves from the Rustic’s big screen to one of the smaller ones or vice versa, Gosselin must take the whole giant reel of spliced film apart, then splice it all back together again, usually with a new co-feature. Some nights, he says, he doesn’t get home until 2 in the morning.
Hasn't this guy ever heard of $100 worth of rollers, or a set of clamps?

quote: Michael Janusonis
At the end of every first feature, Gosselin has spliced a short loop of film that reads “Intermission.” Once that appears, he shuts down the projector for about 10 minutes before starting it up again with the second feature.
Sheez, he's spent thousands of $ on platters and Xenon and air-conditioned the booth; why not a few bucks for some basic automation?

quote: Michael Janusonis
(Lisa) Stampfli adds. “It’s just a whole different atmosphere — sitting outside, bringing your own snacks,
The theatre owner ought to track this woman down and chew her out for bringing her own crap in. Pretty hard to police that at a drive-in, I guess.

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Scott D. Neff
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From: San Francisco, CA
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 - posted 07-13-2007 06:18 PM      Profile for Scott D. Neff   Author's Homepage   Email Scott D. Neff   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
My guess about the comment of having to break the film down and build it back up is likely because they run both features off one platter. Just the way the article reads about the intermission trailer and the co-feature.

Somebody should tell them about the bottom platter. [Razz]

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Brad Miller
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From: Plano, TX (36.2 miles NW of Rockwall)
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 - posted 07-13-2007 06:49 PM      Profile for Brad Miller   Author's Homepage   Email Brad Miller       Edit/Delete Post 
Actually Scott, this theater has a SPECO LP-270 platter with only two decks. No joke! I didn't even know SPECO would make such a beast, or why anyone would order it. An Asst Manager gave us the tour and everyone at the theater was very nice until we met the lady manager and asked if we could take a few pictures. As such, I unfortunately don't have any pictures of that machine. [Frown]

Regardless, that guy needs a set of film clamps...or maybe a brain.

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Mark Gulbrandsen
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 - posted 07-13-2007 07:04 PM      Profile for Mark Gulbrandsen   Email Mark Gulbrandsen   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
The Drive In at Cranston had a pair of Jet Arcs when it opened! It was featured in Box Office Magazine many years ago. Imagine cramming a pair of Jet Arcs into a tiny place like Rhode Island, I'll never know how they fit [Roll Eyes] .

Mark

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Scott Norwood
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 - posted 07-13-2007 10:02 PM      Profile for Scott Norwood   Author's Homepage   Email Scott Norwood   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
The unfortunate reality is that there seem to be about two projectionists in Rhode Island who know what they are doing. This guy is apparently not one of them.

This lack of competent projectionists is why I keep having to drive an hour to show movies in another state a couple of times per month. (No, I've not worked at this drive-in and don't know the person mentioned in the article.)

The author of the article is the usual film reviewer for the Providence newspaper. His reviews seem to depend more upon his mood at the time of the screening than on the quality of the films in question. As such, some of his ratings are quite whacked. Apparently he is a nice guy, however (I don't know him personally).

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Daryl C. W. O'Shea
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 - posted 07-14-2007 02:37 AM      Profile for Daryl C. W. O'Shea   Author's Homepage   Email Daryl C. W. O'Shea   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote: Paul Goulet
For $20 a carload
...and here I get bitched out about $8 a carload.

quote: Paul Goulet
At this time of year, when the sun sets late, it doesn’t get dark enough to see the image projected on screen until well after 8:30.
Holy crap, that's the earliest I ever start. I bet that that picture sucks... mid-summer I usually wait until nearly 10pm. Does RI not participate in DST or am I just too far west in my timezone?

quote:
As it has been ever since Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the first drive-in movie theater in Camden, N.J., in 1933, rain is still the killer. “Usually we try to open,” says Desmarais. But during a rainy spell in early June she closed for one night “because you might get only 10, 20 cars and it’s just not worth it.”
...and those are 10 to 20 cars that aren't comming back any time soon. I can't stand theatres that operate on minimum attendence requirements. Then again, people are always surprised when I'll run for a single car in the middle of a snow storm.

quote: Paul Goulet
Some nights, he says, he doesn’t get home until 2 in the morning.
OMG! He does realize he's running a theatre, right? An outdoor one at that. I actually just got home.

quote: Paul Goulet
Gosselin has spliced a short loop of film that reads “Intermission.” Once that appears, he shuts down the projector for about 10 minutes before starting it up again with the second feature. “I want to bring back the dancing hot dogs,” he adds, referring to the snack bar promos that were shown during intermissions at every ’50s drive-in. So far, he has come up short.
You'd think he might consider investing in 4 or 5 trailers for a 10 minute intermission. I also seem to recall that the "hotdog jumping into the bun" countdown was available from someone (mine are still in pretty good shape so I haven't looked into buying new ones), but if they're not there's a whole whack of both new and old intermission/countdown films available.

No wonder people always tell me "I had thought drive-ins all sucked".

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Louis Bornwasser
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 - posted 07-14-2007 05:59 AM      Profile for Louis Bornwasser   Author's Homepage   Email Louis Bornwasser   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Remember that drive ins either "just opened" and have no money or are "about to close" and want to "wait until next year."

Expenses seem to be deferred for decades. At one time I had a drive in that needed sprockets so badly that sound loops would not run.(Motiograph)

The intermission clock with the "dogs" is (apparently) still available from Filmack in Chicago. Pricey (for a drive in) at $400+.

BTW: I have finally realized that no drive in should use less than a 4500 watt bulb, good lens, etc. Concession money is directly related to start time. We are in EDT zone, even though we are supposed to be CDT, so a dark drive in might not get on in June until after 10 pm. Louis

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Mike Blakesley
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 - posted 07-14-2007 11:28 AM      Profile for Mike Blakesley   Author's Homepage   Email Mike Blakesley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
If it's $20 a carload, and 10 to 20 cars is "not worth it," they must gross pretty well on most nights. 20 cars = $400. There've been a lot of nights I've had grosses 10% of that.

Check this photo from the article:
 -
I don't think I'd like watching a movie with my car tilted sideways like that.

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Paul Goulet
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From: Rhode Island
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 - posted 07-14-2007 11:54 AM      Profile for Paul Goulet   Author's Homepage   Email Paul Goulet   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Could anyone guess what might be a little suggestive about the Rustic Sign?

Hint: they used to show Porn movies there during the 1970's, early 80's...

Rustic Sign

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Tim Reed
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 - posted 07-14-2007 12:17 PM      Profile for Tim Reed   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote: Louis Bornwasser
The intermission clock with the "dogs" is (apparently) still available from Filmack in Chicago. Pricey (for a drive in) at $400+.
That's the "Variety Show" clock. It's $620 for the 10-minute version. Pretty steep for what amounts to just that one scene (the whole clock is very repetitive, with excessively-cycled animation).

This theatre could've gotten Screen Attractions' 10-minute Showbiz Clock earlier this year (on special) for just $300, delivered. Brand-new Estar print... in Dolby SR stereo, yet.

See it here (thanks, Brad!)

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Paul Goulet
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From: Rhode Island
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 - posted 07-14-2007 12:26 PM      Profile for Paul Goulet   Author's Homepage   Email Paul Goulet   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote: Mike Blakesley

I don't think I'd like watching a movie with my car tilted sideways like that.

Mike, It's kind of hard to explain the layout of the place, but the original land only had one screen located at the "bottom" of the hill, then when they put the other two screens up they put one on the top of the hill and one on the side of the hill, so one car could be facing one screen while the car next to them is watching another screen. You really have to see the setup to beleive it!

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Daryl C. W. O'Shea
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 - posted 07-14-2007 05:02 PM      Profile for Daryl C. W. O'Shea   Author's Homepage   Email Daryl C. W. O'Shea   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote: Louis Bornwasser
Concession money is directly related to start time.
Interestingly, I find that temperature seems to have more of an effect than start time. The hotter the better. Start time does have its effect, though, and I find that the later you start the better.

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James Westbrook
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 - posted 07-19-2007 11:47 AM      Profile for James Westbrook   Email James Westbrook   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
We had a 2 deck Speco Lp-270 in house 7, but that was because the welds on the top platter arm broke while my manager was threading the movie, almost dumping the platter and the print on her. We had a local metal shop re-weld the arm back to the brackets, and though the top platter is a tad tilted, #7 has a 3 deck platter again.
I'm speculating that particular platter was the last one fabricated on a Friday or the first one on a Monday...

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