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Keeping the dream alive at Colorado's unique drive-in theater

July 16, 2017 Updated: July 16, 2017 at 2:54 pm
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A couple of people get ready by sitting the roof of their car for the start of Transformers: The Last Knight at the Star Drive-in on Wednesday June 21, 2017 in Monte Vista, Colorado. The Star Drive-in is part of the Best Western Movie Manor. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

MONTE VISTA - Mike Suthar is hungry, but he has a job to do.

The sun is setting on the San Luis Valley, splashing a golden glow on the countryside and a purple hue across the mountains. One duty at his Best Western Movie Manor has ended: the chores in the office, where Suthar books out 59 rooms. The next is about to begin: it's almost showtime on the two screens of the Star Drive-In.

He hurries across the dirt lot between the hotel and the big screens.

"I have to eat!" says Suthar, 55, as he flings open the screen door of his home, the cinderblock square smack-dab in the middle of the lot.

But a half-hour doesn't pass before he's back out with a still-empty stomach. His black hair is slicked back, and his cologne is strong. He has swapped his collared shirt and slacks for a Movie Manor T-shirt and shorts.

Quickly he goes to the two projector rooms to check on the big black boxes that hum to life. His wife, Sangita, is in the concession stand attached to their house. The popcorn is popping, and a retro Panasonic radio plays John Mellencamp over wooden speakers beside Coca-Cola clocks: "Oh yeeaahhh, life goes on ..."

The locals' dusty trucks and a glossy bunch of touring Corvettes from California pull in off U.S. 160. They weave past the American flag perched high on a pole to meet Suthar at the cash-only box office. They continue to a spot beneath the screens while others, the hotel's overnighters, stay put in their rooms. They look out the windows and flip a switch that pipes in the movie's sound.

Welcome to one of Colorado's last-standing drive-ins. Eight remain in the state. The United Drive-In Theatre Association counts 349 across the country. And none is quite like this one in the state's southwest outskirts.

That it still exists for a 62nd summer is the result of one family's persistence and that of an unlikely newcomer. The Kelloffs sold four years ago to Suthar, who's spent three decades as a journeyman in hospitality, bouncing from one state to the next, managing or owning one hotel after another.

The Movie Manor might be his biggest gamble. There is, for one, its fairly secluded location. Then there is the drive-in, which attracts some local business - a better Friday night option than cruising the back roads or bowling, a few local teenagers say. But the drive-in hardly competes with the Ski-Hi 6 in nearby Alamosa, which has the upper hand in meeting Hollywood's modern market demands.

The industry has almost effectively squeezed out drive-ins, says Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, director of the film studies program at the University of Colorado. Drive-ins struggle to draw a movie's opening-weekend crowds, as theater owners with only night-time shows on their one or two screens struggle to persuade distributors to release those blockbusters to them.

Drive-in owners hardly can afford the flat rate of those movies. And distributors require a percentage return on ticket sales. Bigger theaters get their profits from concessions.

"And really, the social function that made drive-ins so popular is no longer the vogue," Acevedo-Muñoz says, considering teens' latest preference for the couch and Netflix. "The conditions that created the drive-in simply don't exist anymore."

The profit is slim, Suthar says. Sixteen-hour days are common. But he speaks dreamily about the Movie Manor. From the time he passed it on the road, it captured his imagination, as it does for his nostalgic customers.

Movie Manor, Acevedo-Muñoz says, is a relic from the days when cars boomed and highways expanded. A hotel attached to a drive-in - "When considering the American story, it makes perfect sense."

Finding a dream

The short, sweet heyday of the American drive-in was fading when Suthar came to this country.

It was 1979, time for the multiplexes we know today - more screens, more show times, more money at the concessions. For Suthar, it was time to find purpose.

He was 18, new to Brooklyn with his family who emigrated from India, where the extent of his education came under a tree with a chalkboard nailed to it. He and his brother struggled with English. They struggled to find their place. And one night an argument arose at the dinner table as their mother pressed them to learn the language and take advantage of this country's opportunities.

"This country might be a dreamland for some," Suthar's brother said, "but not for us." Their mother slammed the table, broke down in tears.

But Suthar wanted to please her. He wanted to find that American dream. So, still 18, he got behind the wheel of a '64 Chevelle and hit the road, bound first for Pennsylvania's Amish country - most curious about the lifestyle - then onward to the West.

He slept in the car or on couches, getting meals from his restaurant jobs. He also worked at hotels, establishing himself in the business. He opted for entrepreneurism over college and later started a family.

He never could shake his wanderlust. "When you pause, when you stop, you stop growing," he says.

The family's more recent stops include New York, Georgia, Wyoming and Utah. They settled for three years in Nebraska before Suthar lost interest in a hotel partnership there. So he hit the road again, this time lusting for Colorado's mountains; his previous travels to the state reminded him of his childhood near India's foothills.

Heading to Pagosa Springs, he stopped in Monte Vista. His eyes widened at the sight of Movie Manor. Then he learned the story of George Kelloff, who in 1955 opened the drive-in. Nine years later, Kelloff would bet all he had in savings to attach a hotel, thinking it would keep the business afloat. Movie-goers seemed to want more comfort.

Kelloff's picture is kept framed at the hotel's office. "The persistence," Suthar says looking at it. "Back in the day, you know, people came up with a dream."

Hard-working roots

In a book on his life, Kelloff thanks his father, a Lebanese immigrant who opened a grocery store east of the valley, and his mother, who was enraptured by the motion pictures rising in the 1920s. She opened a theater in a building next to the store. And so it was that the couple spent their days at the store, their nights at the theater.

And the kids were expected to work. George's first job was to pump the piano pedals that accompanied the pictures. By 12, he was cranking the projector. And by the time he was out of high school, "[i]t's hard not to think that he had dreams of traveling to the places he had seen on the silver screen," his biography reads. But this was the height of the Depression. The family businesses needed him.

After spending the war years at sea with the Navy, he returned to his little town, again to work at the grocery store. But now Kelloff got other ideas.

"He was infatuated with the drive-ins," says his son, George Jr., who now lives by his 96-year-old father in Fountain Hills, Ariz. "Being outside under the stars, the cars, the kids running around ... Just everything that was the '50s. That was some of the best times in our country."

George Jr. was born the summer after the theater opened, on one of his father's "dollar nights" at the drive-in. Another tradition was "dusk to dawn" marathons, with movies running until sunrise.

The pressure of the business mounted over time. Kelloff went back to school to become a teacher, as the family needed another source of income. One night he looked to the screen and saw a blurry picture. He ran to fix the projector only to learn that his vision was fading.

Stress was a factor, he surmised. He bought a cabin in the mountains - an occasional escape from the cinderblock home smack-dab in the middle of the workplace.

George Jr. also used the cabin in the years he ran the business, starting in the '90s. The time made him bitter toward Hollywood and "their never-ending quest for the buck." He struggled to entice distributors and got tired of losing out on movies going to Alamosa, such as the 1999 "Star Wars" reboot.

"I actually wrote a letter to George Lucas," he says. "I told him about the little theater man sitting in little Colorado."

His last big investment at Movie Manor was the digital projectors. He refused to wash away with other drive-in owners amid the pricey wave of technological conversion. By then, George Jr. had lost interest in the movies that customers demanded. "I'm so tired of no story," he says. "I've seen a car blow up so many times, I couldn't care less."

He sighs over the phone during a fishing trip. "It came time to move on," he says.

He remains emotionally attached to the drive-in, as does his father. When George Kelloff Sr. first came to meet Suthar, he left pleased.

Maintaining tradition

A thin blue light beams from the projector room, and Evelyn Rizzi huddles in the back of her SUV with two toddler grandkids.

"It's a generational thing," says Rizzi, a longtime valley local. "This keeps a tradition going. It'd be sad to ever see it go."

It's after 10 p.m., but Suthar maintains the afternoon enthusiasm he showed behind the hotel's desk. He was greeting people and asking about their life, where they came from, what brought them here. Now he's behind the concession stand, where the radio still plays the oldies. Business is slow; the movie-watchers in their cars or rooms have their own snacks.

Suthar doesn't concern himself with any monetary loss. "I'm a type that, anything that's realistic in life, I go for it. This is America after all," he says, throwing his arms out as if to hug this property under a sparkling night sky. "Anywhere, you can't find anything like this! Anywhere!"

Eventually the music stops. The screens go dark. The cars rev up and head for the highway. And Suthar watches their passing headlights as he walks back to his house, finally, for dinner.

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