Drive-in continues its legacy
CHESTER – In the heyday of the drive-in theater, moviegoers could see Rita Hayworth play King Herod’s seductive daughter in the 1953 classic “Salome”-plus the Bugs Bunny short “Hare Trimmed,” plus an educational short on the facts of life or proper personal hygiene for teenagers.
If they went to Chester’s Hilltop Drive-In on a Saturday, they most likely got a double feature for a buck. In 1951, they would have seen “Chancy Street Boys” and “Revenge of the Zombies”-each an hour long-preceded by the Looney Tunes short “Frigid Hare.”
Movies were shown daily, a different one each night. Cars lined up down the long driveway and sometimes as far as state Route 8. Movie audio was carried via a bulky metal speaker that hooked on the car door.
“Nothing interfered with it. Of course, fog was the enemy. That would kill it immediately,” said Joe Danko, longtime owner of the Hilltop.
Danko, 85, of Newell, has been keeping a ledger of all the movies shown at the Hilltop since he started working there as a projectionist in 1951. Each line item shows the movie or short, the relevant movie studio, the running time and the run date.
It’s that kind of attention to detail, Danko said, that has kept the Hilltop’s big screen open all these years-through the advent of cable, VCRs and Internet video streaming, through a flirtation with X-rated films and through the decline of America’s drive-in theater industry.
The Hilltop still does a decent business with first-run movies such as “Man of Steel” and “World War Z,” but a new threat is looming-the impending elimination of 35mm film by Hollywood’s movie studios. The film supply runs out later this year, forcing drive-in owners to face the prospect of closing down or making the expensive transition to digital equipment.
Danko said the Hilltop is not closing down. He’s passing the family business on to his daughter and son-in-law, Harry and Katherine “Katie” Beaver, who say they will make the transition to digital.
“People seem to think that the drive-ins are disappearing, but they’re not,” Danko said.
Katie Beaver said the switch to digital will require an initial investment of $40,000 to $70,000, but that the equipment will eventually pay for itself. “It is a costly venture,” she said.
She, for one, can’t imagine life without the Hilltop. “I want to keep it as a drive-in. I was raised here from the time I can remember,” she said.
Before Katie Beaver was even a gleam in her father’s eye, Danko was working there as a young projectionist. A card-carrying member of the motion picture machine operators’ union, Danko risked union disapproval by signing on with Hilltop founder Chuck Pittinger in 1950. “I’ve been involved with it from the beginning. I ran the projector for him for seven years,” he said.
Back then, the union local had 23 members, and drive-in theaters abounded in the Tri-State Area. In addition to the Hilltop, there was the Skyview in Calcutta, the Super 30 north of East Liverpool, the Belle Air in Weirton, the Super 60 in Pennsylvania, the Dependable in Moon Township, Pa., the Kane Road Drive-In in Aliquippa, Pa., and the Winter Drive-In in Wintersville, several of which are still open, Danko said.
The Hilltop was often filled to capacity with 500 cars, its 36-by-80-foot screen showing respectable first-run features, pedantic newsreels, cartoon shorts, offbeat educational films, B movies and bizarre fare with titles such as “Satan’s Virgin,” “Narcotic Dens of the Orient” and “The Birth of Triplets”-the latter in “blazing natural color.”
Danko remembers one unusual feature titled “Bob and Sally” that included an appearance by “noted speaker” Roger T. Miles, who gave a lecture on “sex, marriage and alcoholism” from the low, flat roof of the concession stand. “That was a rare occasion,” Danko said.
Beaver, 62, of Rogers, Ohio, has fond memories of growing up at the Hilltop and then helping her father as she started her own family. “Once, when I was seven months’ pregnant, I went into false labor watching ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ” she said.
Beaver supported her father’s acquisition of the theater in 1988 and helped with the cleanup of what she called “filthy” conditions. “We had to live down a reputation and prove that it was going to be a family drive-in again because they had been showing smut movies,” she said.
In the 1990s, the theater enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with movies such as “The Lion King,” “Angels in the Outfield” and “The Mighty Ducks” attracting so many moviegoers that they clogged state Route 8, Beaver said.
What keeps people coming back, even in the age of Netflix, are the cheap prices, the casual atmosphere and the ability to watch a movie from the privacy of one’s automobile, Danko said. “They don’t have to dress up fancy. Then can bring their children. The popcorn is always fresh,” he said.
A large popcorn (130 ounces) is $3.50, and a large pop is $2.50. Even at prices like that, concessions, not ticket sales, are the biggest money maker at the Hilltop, Danko said. Tickets are $7.50 for adults and $3 for children 7-11. Patrons simply tune in to 87.9 on their FM radio dial and enjoy the show.
“I can remember coming here when I was little with my mom,” said Olivia McClellan, 19, of East Liverpool, who recently came to the Hilltop with a group of friends-a couple of them for the first time-to see “Man of Steel” and “World War Z.” “Those were good memories. There’d be other kids here, and you’d become friends. It’s very family-oriented.”
Sitting on a blanket outside their car on a warm summer evening, several of McClellan’s teenage friends described the drive-in as “old-fashioned” and “different.”
“It’s nice to have something like this right here,” said Karri Wells, 19, of East Liverpool. “Something different. Something other people don’t have.”
“Anybody can come here,” said Chase Smith, 18, of East Liverpool. “There are no restrictions, and they show good movies.”
Beaver said the switch to digital will take place later this year after the Hilltop closes for the season. It will require the removal of two vintage 1946 projectors and two boxes that house 4,000-watt xenon bulbs-equipment that Danko has been operating for 63 years.
The digital equipment will be easier and cheaper to operate, improving the Hilltop’s chances of survival, Beaver said.
“We’ve had people actually be amazed that we still run the film,” she said. “This (theater) is something I don’t want to get rid of. I want to pass it on to my kids.”
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