Share this article

print logo

Who says drive-in movies are dead?

Conventional wisdom holds that the drive-in theater is dead.

That sounds right. We can get streaming video of just about any movie we want on our 56-inch televisions or Blu-ray players that make the picture impossibly clear. If we feel the need to leave our homes to be entertained, modern movie theaters feature huge reclining seats with cup-holders and climate-controlled conditions in which to experience the latest Hollywood epic.

That's why, by any measure, the four-screen Transit Drive-In in the Town of Lockport makes almost no sense.

That's also what makes it such a special place.

On a recent Saturday with not a cloud in the sky and temperatures still in the 70s as sunset approached, the line of cars on Transit waiting to find a spot at the drive-in was 20 deep. And this was more than an hour before the show was going to start.

Frank and Charmaine Calvello of Niagara Falls found the perfect spot to park their vehicle, their lawn chairs and themselves: dead center, last row, concession stand and restrooms 15 steps behind them. They know the drill at the Transit; they came here for their first date 12 years ago, and now they bring the kids every year.

"It's good for families," Charmaine said. "It's affordable. You can get comfy and kids can bring their friends and you can have a good night out."

Their son, Zachary, who had just celebrated his 11th birthday two days earlier, had never been to the drive-in. He was excited to see "The Avengers" but not sure what to expect.

"I would think it's going to be different from watching it inside," he said, "because of the mosquitoes and the bugs."

Chris and Jackie Jordan of the City of Tonawanda, a few vehicles away, were part of the station wagon generation that came to the drive-in in pajamas and watched the movie from the back seat with their parents up front. That helps explain why they were at the Transit in the back of their pickup truck in "loungewear," as Jackie called it, lying atop a mattress and pillows.

"I just decided get out of the house and see a movie the old-fashioned way and bring back some childhood memories," Chris Jordan said.

That's the Transit: a combination of adults reliving their youth and wide-eyed kids not knowing quite what to expect.

Darting among all this activity whenever a movie is playing -- and also when it's not -- is Rick Cohen. You can't tell the story of the Transit without telling the story of Rick Cohen, 44, whose grandfather purchased the five-year-old theater in 1957.

It has since always been owned and managed by a Cohen, including Rick's uncle, Gary, and his father, Macy. Rick started managing the place in 1987, when he was 19.

Maybe all you need to know about this third-generation drive-in magnate and his personality is that his license plate reads "DRIVE-1N," with a "1" instead of the "I," and when you ask him about the person who has "DRIVE-IN," he says: "I know the guy who has it. I'm just waiting for him to die."

Or when he is asked about the waning popularity of this business, he answers: "Ever see 'Highlander?' Drive-in owners travel the country, and we chop each other's heads off."

All these death references might have something to do with being in an industry that is constantly referred to as dying. But the Transit is not near death. Nowhere near it. It keeps Cohen financially comfortable enough that he can -- and does -- say no to a standing offer of more than $1 million for his 18-acre parcel which, by the way, is not for sale.

He does this while knowing by heart the numbers that reflect the drive-in theater industry of 2012. There once were more than 5,000 in the United States. Today, there are about 350 facilities and 600 screens. He once had dozens of local competitors and now really has only two: one in Silver Lake in Wyoming County, one in Middleport.

Yet here he sits, on one of the last semi-undeveloped portions of Transit Road between the retail strips of Clarence/Amherst and the City of Lockport, with four screens and 1,000 people looking at them on summer nights and no reason to sell.

The reason for his success has a lot to do with the days he spends 20 hours here, but also has something to do with nostalgia, the relatively short time we can enjoy the outdoors and the one thing all Western New Yorkers love: a good deal.

"It's got to be the the most affordable form of family entertainment that the family can do together and everyone will enjoy it," he said of his admission prices for a double feature that range from free for kids younger than 4 to $8 for adults. "If you compare it to a ballgame or a concert or a trip to the amusement park, it's just dirt cheap. That's one of the competitive advantages we have, and that's one of the reasons I want to continue the tradition and keep the drive-in around for future generations."

He is doing this by continually improving his product. The Transit was a one-screen drive-in until he took over. While his competitors were closing, he expanded, adding screens in 1994, 1996 and 2001. He added a miniature golf course in 1995. Over the winter, he built a new concession stand whose second floor holds the four computerized movie projectors. Next week, he starts "Retro Movie Tuesdays," with a different double feature from bygone days playing every week.

He also is constantly looking for ways to improve, which is why in his spare time he goes to other drive-ins and sees what they're doing to stay viable. (Isn't that drive-in operator afraid he's going to go all Highlander on him? "The owner ducks out when I'm there," he smiled.)

Cohen is single, which means he can devote all of his time to the Transit to ensure its future. He does every job, from accounting and payroll to the concession stand and the projection booth, all the while making sure his customers are having a good time.

"I don't know where to stop," he said.

For the sake of all those people sitting out under the stars gazing at the sight of an image flickering to life on a big screen like it has for 60 years, the conventional wisdom says that neither Cohen nor the Transit will stop for a long time.