As a child growing up in Albany, the highlight of Michael DiBella’s summers was sitting in the back of his parents’ Dodge station wagon, watching movies under the stars with his sisters and twin brother. As he grew up, he watched the drive-in movie theaters he had loved – the Mohawk, the Twin City, the Super 50 – close, one by one, and felt his past slipping away.
When he heard that the Loomis Delevan Drive-In would close because its aging family owners couldn’t keep up with the operation, he bought it – despite being a busy emergency room physician.
“I’ve always wanted to own a drive-in,” DiBella said. “It’s a piece of old-fashioned Americana, and I wanted to preserve part of that.”
Renamed the Twin Delevan Drive-In, he hopes to have it up and running May 1.
After listing the drive-in for sale on eBay last fall, Don Loomis heard from several prospects interested in redeveloping the property. But, especially after fielding several calls from customers beseeching him not to close, he really wanted to see the drive-in live on as a theater.
“I’m just so happy he’s going to keep it open,” Loomis said. “This was his dream, and it’s what we needed, so everything worked out real well.”
The movie industry’s transition from analog projectors to digital has been a death blow for many drive-in theaters, barely hanging on amid competition from corporate multiplexes and home theater systems. The expensive update has proven too much for many theater owners scraping by on razor-thin admissions margins and meager concessions sales.
Drive-in theaters once numbered in the thousands. Today, there are fewer than 400 of them left across the country. In fact, three theaters in New York State went dark last summer: the Greenville Drive-In in the Catskills, the West Rome Drive-In in Oneida County and the Fair Oaks Drive-In in the Hudson Valley.
Since 2012, the Transit Drive-In in the Town of Lockport has spent $1.65 million on updates and renovations, including the digital conversion of all four of its screens. Loomis had already upgraded one of the two-screen theater’s projectors to the new format, and DiBella will have the second projector upgraded next week. It’s a costly – up to $80,000 – but necessary investment, since movie studios no longer produce reel-to-reel films.
As it was for the previous owner, the drive-in will remain a labor of love. DiBella, who works at Medina Memorial Hospital and in the cardiac stress lab at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, has pared down his medical hours so he can be at the theater. Loomis will stay on until July to teach him the ropes, including how to make the concession stand’s signature pizza. Ticket and concession prices will remain the same.
DiBella has a few changes in store. He plans to extend the drive-in’s season to run from mid-March to Thanksgiving. He wants to add other attractions, such as family events, an ice skating rink and talent shows, and may broadcast live concerts and sports competitions. He will do more advertising and add special nights to honor nurses, first responders and members of the military. But he plans to keep the wholesome family vibe strong. He’s hoping that one of Loomis’ daughters will remain on, and a daughter of his own will work by his side as well.
“I plan to keep it going,” DiBella said, “and pass it on to my family.”