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Colorado drive-in theaters offer summer nights of nostalgia

July 5, 2015 Updated: July 6, 2015 at 9:50 am
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photo - Families and friends wait for their movie to start at the Mesa Drive-In in Pueblo, Colorado, on June 20, 2015. As new screens open in Denver this month, the number of drive-in movie theaters are dwindling. Those that survive, thrive on nostalgia. Photo by Logan Riely, The Gazette
Families and friends wait for their movie to start at the Mesa Drive-In in Pueblo, Colorado, on June 20, 2015. As new screens open in Denver this month, the number of drive-in movie theaters are dwindling. Those that survive, thrive on nostalgia. Photo by Logan Riely, The Gazette 

PUEBLO - It won't be dark for a couple of hours, so Chuck and Marianne James lean against their red pickup parked behind the snack shop and poke at a tray of fried chicken and french fries. They feed crumbs to their two dogs, who saunter in and out of the front seat, and watch as the line of cars gradually swells.

"This is it, this is really why people come here," says Chuck, in between slurps of root beer from a plastic cup. "They come to be outside and see people they know and be a part of something."

They show up for a movie under the stars, but also for everything that goes with it. At this theater, there are no lights to switch off, no timer to go by, no surround-sound speakers to plug in, no carpeted floors to vacuum.

On any given summer night at Mesa Drive-In, parents unfold lawn chairs at the back of minivans, kids toss footballs in the gravel and groups walk back and forth to the concession stand, where ice cream cones, funnel cake fries and popcorn are sold.

It's tailgating with the tap of a rewind button.

A dwindling number

Standing at the center of the 18.5-acre lot he bought in 1994, Chuck James' feet are planted in what's almost an anachronism. Almost.

Of the thousand or so people at Mesa Drive-In, which opened in 1951, it's safe to say most have more convenient methods of watching a movie. But they are here, maybe to pay homage to that memory of their younger, pajama-adorned self in the back seat or maybe to re-enact those scenes of Danny and Sandy in "Grease."

"It's nostalgic," James, 61, says. "Everyone kind of longs for a happier time and a slower time. Almost everyone has that idea when it comes to the drive-in."

At the height of the poodle skirt-wearing and Elvis hip-swinging era of the 1950s, there were about 4,000 drive-ins around the country. Over the next few decades - amid a whirlwind of dot.coms, the birth and burial of the VCR, and the rapid rise of indoor cineplexes - that number started to plummet. Today, there are roughly 350, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, including eight in Colorado.

James has stood by as the "new thing" evolved from DVDs to Netflix to watching a recent release on a 4-inch screen in the palm of your hand.

"You know, we see all the other options, but we still sell out here and there's a reason for that," he says. Selling out typically means more than 750 vehicles, and upwards of 2,000 people, across three lots.

The success hasn't gone unnoticed. The Denver Mart Drive-In opened last month and - with its 40-foot-tall and 92-foot-wide steel and aluminum screen - is slightly more flashy than its vintage counterparts. But the concept is the same.

"We can't control if the movie is good or bad," James says. "But we have a tradition of making it fun despite what's on the screen. That's why people come back."

The throwback feel is why T.J. Oliver drove more than an hour with his wife and kids to see "Mad Max" on the oversize outdoor screen.

"When I was young, we used to have this kind of thing all over and we just don't have them anymore," says Oliver, as his wife, Amber, nods, noting they take a trip here at least once a summer.

"The prices are good and it's fun to be outside minus the Nintendos and the phones and the iPads," she says. "We have to shut all of those down sometimes."

More than a job

For 18-year-old Leslie Jo Myers, taking food orders at Mesa Drive-In is as much a tradition as it is a summer job. Myers' mom also worked at the Mesa as a teenager.

"That's really special to me," she says. "I was basically raised back here because we came to the movies so often."

Myers remembers passing by Mesa's neon marquee and seeing the date for the first movie of the season - it landed on her 16th birthday. "I knew it was time. I applied right then," she says.

Chuck and Marianne James have mostly hired workers who grew up in Pueblo. "This is the biggest small town I've ever seen - everybody knows everybody," Chuck says of the southern Colorado city with roughly 100,000 residents. That includes Mark Lovato, Mesa's manager, who worked his way up since being hired 20 years ago.

"This is Pueblo's drive-in," Lovato says. "They support it and they love to be here and it's been part of their lives for so many years."

Chuck and Marianne never planned on owning a drive-in. After the Colorado natives married, they lived in a school bus for two years, worked a series of odd jobs and did anything but settle.

"We were hippies," they say in unison with a joint giggle.

Nothing quite stuck until Chuck broke into the movie business, where he quickly rose from janitor to owner of a theater in CaƱon City. When the couple heard Mesa Drive-In was closing, something inside them sparked.

"We thought without this place, there would be a void in this town," Chuck says.

The previous owner's asking price of $450,000 was too steep for Chuck and Marianne. But when no one else made an offer, they got the drive-in for about $150,000.

"We did save this place and we're proud of that," he says.

Dealing with change

Two years ago, as most companies stopped making 35-millimeter film, Chuck and Marianne James again were faced with change. To keep the drive-in operating would require going digital at a price tag of $210,000. They thought about selling the land to Wal-Mart, Chuck says.

After weighing the options, they bid goodbye to the cricketing noise of film strips and welcomed in the unknown future of drive-ins.

"She's my best friend, and we do all of this together," Chuck says, looking at his wife of 39 years. "If it fails, we can always go back to the school bus."

It doesn't look like they'll have to. The lots are nearly full this Friday night, even after a brief spout of rain.

As the natural timer sneaks down, the opening credits start to roll. You can't see it, but hundreds of kids sit in back seats wiping at their eyes, boyfriends nudge a little closer to girlfriends, and parents make a trip for a soda refill, each fulfilling their role in the 60-year-old cycle.

"Sometimes when we're here, I have to kind of remind myself, this is ours," Marianne says.

Together, Chuck and Marianne dial back the clock to their 20s. They remember sitting outside in a shiny hot rod, surrounded by scents of popcorn and chatter of friends; but as much as they try, because there have been so many movies, they can't remember what was playing.

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