WOODLAND – From chilidogs and popcorn to neon lights under the stars, summer just isn’t summer without a trip to the Clearfield Super 322 Drive-in. This year, those neon lights are just a little bit brighter.
Long-time drive-in owners Bill and Barb Frankhouser are proud to unveil the new, custom-built neon sign. The new sign was installed Saturday at the theater’s marquee along Route 322, near the entrance to the drive-in.
The Frankhouser’s, like all small business owners, struggled with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the Frankhouser’s were dealt another blow when they realized the large, ice cream cone-shaped, neon sign atop the marque was in bad condition.
The problem seemed like a small one at first. The Frankhouser’s noticed some issues with the lights on the sign and contacted Dave Simmons of Neon Exposure sign company in Sykesville.
Simmons, one of a very small number of sign makers in the country who specializes in custom-made neon signs, had designed not only the marque sign, but the neon lights in the ticket office at the drive-in as well.
“We called Dave and he came out to take a look at it in July (of 2020),” Barb Frankhouser said. “When he went up to see what the problem was, he saw a lot of rust and deterioration.”
The Frankhouser’s nursed the sign long until the end of drive-in season, then had the sign taken down to be repaired in October.
“It was just in really bad shape,” Frankhouser said. “They used a crane to take the sign off, then they loaded it onto a trailer. When they tried to take the sign off the trailer in Sykesville, it just fell apart.”
Frankhouser said rain, cold weather and possibly the road salt during the winter months, took a toll on the metal work of the sign.
“We talked to Dave about it and decided since we needed a whole new sign, we might as well make some changes,” Frankhouser said. The Frankhouser’s met with Simmons and began working on a new design on Dec. 30.
The new sign is composed of three different pieces. The Frankhouser’s and Simmons discovered that by putting the word “SUPER” in an arched piece by itself above “322,” instead of putting both together, they could eliminate the small gap, which caused water to leak into the original sign.
“It looks great,” Frankhouser said. “The letters are a lot bigger and easier to read.” She said it took six months to get the sign exactly right. In June, the Frankhouser’s traveled to Neon Exposure to see the final product lit up.
“Dave did an excellent job,” Frankhouser said. “The stars will flash different colors and the red he used was hand-blown in Venice, Italy. We’re very lucky to have someone in this area who can work with neon as well as he does.”
Getting the sign from Sykesville to Woodland was yet another challenge. Frankhouser said the sign came in three pieces and Simmons had to attach all the glass by hand. The first two pieces were delivered on a trailer, which was placed inside the drive-in’s fence.
“We really had to be careful during the show Friday night,” Frankhouser said. “The kids like to play in that area, so we had to watch it. One piece of broken glass would’ve been a disaster.”
The Frankhouser’s parked their personal vehicle in front of the trailer for protection and roped the area off. Luckily, there were no problems, and the sign was placed on the marquee Saturday morning. Frankhouser said the whole process took between two and three hours.
Since the Frankhouser’s have been involved with the drive-in, the marquee has been changed or updated a total of four times.
Frankhouser said the original marque caught fire and burned down in the 1970’s. A cinderblock marquee was built in the early 1980’s. The block marque was then hit by a truck in 2001.
“Since we had to rebuild it anyway, I said I wanted it to be neon,” Frankhouser said. When the Frankhouser’s purchased the drive-in, they vowed to keep it as nostalgic as they could.
Although COVID-19 caused the movie industry to hold off on releasing new movies in 2020, the pandemic and the lockdown provided the opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to the drive-in theater experience.
The Frankhouser’s made the best of the situation by following the CDC guidelines and showing classic films, since no new movies were available.
So far this year, the drive-in season has been off to a slow start. Hollywood is still hesitant to release new movies, and the weather has been uncooperative.
However, the Frankhouser’s will continue to operate their drive-in as long as they are able.
“You truly have to love it, to get into the drive-in business,” Frankhouser said. “If you think you’re going to make a lot of money and you don’t understand how things work, you won’t be successful.”