You’re with friends and family beneath the stars in a grassy field. You’re sipping on a slush puppy and munching on a handful of popcorn. Laughter sweeps over the crowd of moviegoers who are watching with you from their cars, the beds of their pick-ups or sprawled out on blankets.
The Super 322 Drive-in Theatre has painted this very picture over and over for the past 63 years. But now co-owners, Bill and Barb Frankhouser are challenged with preserving “the drive-in experience” with the film industry requiring the conversion to digital.
The couple first heard of the film industry’s plans about 10 years ago and has since kept a watchful eye on the conversion to digital. In 2005 they watched the first digital presentation at the Transit Drive-in Theatre in Lockport, NY.
“It was a sickening feeling just knowing that the price of equipment was extremely high,” said Barb Frankhouser. “Since then it’s come down a little bit, but every year we’ve been putting a little money back for this expense.”
The new digital projector, a Barco 32B from Belgium, is the largest one available, said Bill Frankhouser. He estimated the digital projector equipment would cost $84,000, and their renovations to the booth to accommodate it to be $20,000.
According to him, the couple must convert from its 63-year-old 35mm film projector to digital by the end of this year. He said it’s been well-maintained over the years, and they would only be getting rid of it, because of the conversion to digital film. The film industry, he said, is already producing less and less 35mm film stock, and theaters are now fighting over them.
Today the United States has 357 drive-in theaters. Pennsylvania has 30 drive-in theaters, which is the most nationwide, said Barb Frankhouser. Pennsylvania beat out both New York and Ohio; both have 29 drive-in theaters.
Bill Frankhouser explained the film industry takes a large percentage of its ticket office sales. As a result, he said the Super 322 Drive-in, like many other theaters, relies upon its concession stand, and for that reason, they implemented a “No Outside Food” policy several years ago.
“We have May, June, July and August. That’s four months to make it or break it,” said Barb Frankhouser. “We love the nostalgic atmosphere. We just want to make sure our teens of today get to enjoy the same things that we did. We want to pass the drive-in experience from generation-to-generation. It’s a whole different way to see a movie.”
According to the couple, they have “regular” moviegoers, as well as visitors who are coming from out-of-state and even from other countries. Two weeks ago, they had a family visit the drive-in from Australia who was amazed by the atmosphere and experience. “Most can’t believe we still have one,” said Barb Frankhouser.
The couple said moviegoers “fix up” their vehicles for their drive-in outings, as it’s a “big deal.” One young, couple, they said, came to the drive-in with a couch in the bed of a pick-up truck. The couple unloaded the couch in the field to watch the movies. When the double-feature was over, they loaded up their couch and went home.
“It’s hard to explain, but with drive-ins, once you get it into your blood stream, you can’t get it out,” said Bill Frankhouser. He said on the last night of each season, the couple has a special tradition. They walk out back and look up at the picture projected onto the movie screen.
To continue the drive-in experience for all, Bill and Barb Frankhouser are seeking the community’s support. They have placed a collection jar for donations toward the drive-in’s digital upgrade at the concession stand and invited community members and businesses to hold fundraisers to help them.
The couple noted the concession will be open Saturday during the seventh annual Super 322 Drive-in Theatre Car Show. All proceeds from the concession stand will be put toward the drive-in’s digital upgrades. Donations can also be accepted by visiting the drive-in’s Web site and completing the payment via PayPal.
Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., a salesman for his father’s Whiz Auto Products, loved two things – cars and movies. About 85 years ago, he started to envision the first outdoor theater, so that movie enthusiasts could enjoy movies from their cars in Camden, NJ.
He tinkered around in the driveway of his home at 212 Thomas Ave. He hung a sheet in his backyard and mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. He then placed a radio behind the screen for sound and tested the audio with the windows up, down and halfway. He used a lawn sprinkler system to test his idea’s vulnerability to varying weather conditions.
Hollingshead soon realized people who parked behind others would have difficulty viewing the entire screen. As he experimented, he moved cars around in his yard and driveway. He determined the appropriate spacing and placed blocks and ramps beneath the front wheels of those cars that were the furthest away and this would allow the movie to be seen by many.
Hollingshead was issued the first U.S. Patent for a drive-in theater May 16, 1933. He showcased “Wife Beware,” a British comedy, on opening night, Tuesday, June, 6, 1933, in Camden, NJ. He charged moviegoers 25 cents per car, as well as the same price for each person. Hollingshead’s drive-in theater offered 400 car spots and a 40-foot by 50-foot screen.
The popularity of drive-in theaters peaked in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s and especially in the rural areas across the United States. By 1958 more than 4,000 drive-in theaters had opened, including the Super 322. During its inaugural showing, the drive-in featured “Fighting Man of the Plains,” a Randolph Scott western, on May 26, 1950, said Bill and Barb Frankhouser.
In its early days, westerns and romantic comedies were among the most popular showings at the Super 322 Drive-in. But old horror movies, such as “Godzilla” and “The Blob” were every bit as popular among moviegoers. Then, in the latter 1950’s and early 1960’s, Elvis Presley and beach movies became popular with Rock ‘N Roll’s influence on society.
According to the couple, the drive-in theater was built by the Theodore Grance Outdoor Theatre Co. Its ownership changed hands a few times until being purchased in the 1970’s by Mr. Royer and Mr. Favuzza from the Bellefonte area. They improved the theater with an AM radio system, making the Super 322 only the second drive-in to add an AM radio sound in Pennsylvania. In addition, they removed external speakers, which increased the capacity to about 650 cars. In the 1980’s, FM stereo sound capabilities were added to the drive-in.
Bill Frankhouser worked as a projectionist for the drive-in, beginning in 1979. In 2001 the Frankhouser couple purchased the theater from Mr. Favuzza. Since that time, Bill and Barb Frankhouser have added a new marquee and neon sign; a ticket office, which is neon, of course; entrance lights; and new menu items at the snack bar.
In 2001 the Super 322 Drive-in Theatre was granted eligibility to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the Pennsylvania Museum Commission. In 2005 a neon sign original to the drive-in was back in use after its restoration. It features pink neon.
The Super 322 Drive-in Theatre is located along U.S. Route 322 about halfway between Clearfield and Philipsburg in Woodland. It’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from May until September and always runs a double-feature, beginning at sunset. The drive-in is a first-run, family theater.