Why One Drive-In Theater Owner Is Ready to Sell

One of the perks of drive-in movie ownership, says D. Edward Vogel, is spotting shooting stars on summer nights.

But by this time next summer, he says the sight of the streaks of light could break his heart. It will be a sad reminder of a business he loves but feels he now has to sell.

"I'm not closing the Bengies Drive-In Theatre," Mr. Vogel emphasizes. "I'm the man who's kept it running for 11 years. I'm simply giving someone else the opportunity to continue." So far, no buyer has emerged. If none does, the Bengies will close at the end of the current season.

Vogel runs the Bengies alone, not as a family business. And he says he's had enough of getting three hours of sleep a night and battling what he considers unsympathetic film distributors. They want to "up the ante," he says, by booking movies for longer runs, which can cause a hardship when a single-screen theater gets a dud like "Godzilla." "I don't have a smaller screen to rotate it to, and are they going to let me off the hook? No," Vogel says.

Another challenge for any family-oriented drive-in is the long wait for showtime. In midsummer, its not dark enough for the first feature to begin until 9 or even 9:30 p.m. in some areas. "Drive-ins have always fought the sun," says Don Sanders, co-author of "The American Drive-In Movie Theatre." He considers the advent of nationwide daylight saving time, mandated in 1966, a blow to starlit theaters.

Other factors that have contributed to their decline are soaring property values ("How do you turn down $5 million for a piece of property," Mr. Sanders asks), TV, videos, multiplex indoor theater complexes, and difficulties in booking first-run movies.

Despite such challenges, Vogel is no doomsayer. While he laments certain trends, he sees a bright future for some independents, especially ones whose owners can afford to make changes and even expand.

"If you could add a 1950s-style restaurant to the concession building you could rock 'n' roll all year, and that's just the tip of the iceberg of what you could do," he says.

Bruce Shinabarger, the owner of the 49er Drive-In Theatre in Valparaiso, Ind., says he's also kicked around the idea for a 49er Diner. It would be open year-round and appeal to nostalgia buffs.

He'd like to follow the lead of other proprietors who have boosted income by opening daytime flea markets. "I just haven't found anyone proficient in running one yet," he explains.

Mr. Shinabarger says the business environment definitely challenges mom-and-pop theaters like his. To survive, he says, requires an upbeat attitude, changing with the times, friendly, energetic employees, and a strong commitment to creating a family atmosphere. The payoff comes in the form of customer loyalty.

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