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It’s January, and drive-in theater stays open

It’s Jan. 8, one week after New Year’s, and the Transit Drive-In is still showing movies.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The Lockport movie theater under the stars hasn’t shown a movie this late since the “Blizzard of ’77.”

But this weekend, the theater’s projectors still were sending beams of light through the darkness and into a light rain that kept windshield wipers on intermittently.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Good Dinosaur” were the featured attractions. So, too, was the novelty of being at the drive-in when it would normally be buttoned up for the winter.

“It’s awesome. It’s like the best,” said Cathy Bitner of Kenmore, who was at the drive-in with her husband Dave and daughters Jackie and Amanda.

Their vehicle’s heater was on to combat the 38-degree temperature.

“We’re so happy it was open to January,” she said. “We’d love to do it all year-round.”

Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In, said he typically stays open through November, but decided to go longer this season with the mild weather and the “Star Wars” film opening in mid-December.

He’s glad he did: The first three days, starting Dec. 17, brought over 500 cars.

“I showed up at 3 p.m., and there was a line of cars on the shoulder four hours before showtime,” Cohen said.

The Bitners were one of eight cars for the 7:30 p.m. showing. Two other screens – the theater’s fourth wasn’t used – drew another 30 cars.

Had it not been for the rain, Dave Bitner said the family would have set chairs outside. And this wasn’t the first time they have been to the Transit Drive-In in the winter.

“We saw ‘Frozen’ and ‘A Christmas Story’ in December when it was snowing,” he said in a previous year. “There was so much snow on the ground that you had to walk through tire treads to get across the parking lot.”

Bitner has taken his family to the drive-in for the past 16 years, since they were babies.

The wipers?

“You get used to it,” he said.

A movie ad before the previews – and after the classic cartoon refreshment stand countdown, with dancing ice cream bars and candy figures – was another reminder of how odd it was for the drive-in to be operating in January.

“Pic is easy to use. Light it and forget. Pic’s aroma keeps mosquitoes away,” the ad said.

Cohen rode around the theater grounds on a Segway, worked the box office and started the projectors. It doesn’t take much for theatergoers to be comfortable, despite the rain and cold, he said.

“You just have to keep your windows up, idle the engine to keep the compartment inside the car warm, and if you do that, you can sit in the car and wear shorts,” Cohen said.

Drive-in regulars Louis Tagliavento of East Amherst and son Isaac, 9, were ready for the movies with a Skittles machine in the front seat that the youngster made in church.

“I like the playground and the big screen,” a wide-eyed Isaac said facing the 65-foot-high, 100-foot-wide screen mounted on a steel tower.

“It seems a little crazy being here, but it’s cool,” his father said, enjoying the father-son outing.

Chuck Yager of Corfu saw “Star Wars” in a drive-in, and thought it was “awesome” to be there in January with his wife Molly, four children and a friend.

“We wanted to see ‘Star Wars’ but we have a big family and it costs a lot to go to a movie theater, so we came here. It’s great.”

Eric Karcher of South Buffalo also jumped at the idea of seeing a movie in a drive-in at such an odd time of the year.

“I wanted to see this movie, and so I figured a drive-in in January, why the hell not?” he laughed.

Karcher stood at the refreshment stand, deciding between popcorn, sodas, candy, ice cream and pizza logs, as well as hot apple cider and hot chocolate to quell the cold. There was no rush: He and a friend were the only ones there.

Cohen said the Transit used to show movies year-round prior to 1977. He thinks his father, who owned the theater before him, stopped because “the world and people’s movie habits started to change,” with video stores and expanding cable allowing people to stay home.

“When the weather wasn’t so great in the wintertime, the business wasn’t there anymore,” Cohen said.

He said it costs too much to clear the parking lot of snow to justify staying open.

The drive-in theater business, however, was “consistently solid” this year.

“I can sum up the whole year in one word: ‘Minions,’” Cohen said of the animated family comedy. “It was fantastic. There was a steady stream of good movies. Everyone expected it to be a big year for movies, and Hollywood delivered.”

Rita Burk of Williamsville chose Friday night to be at the Transit with husband Dick on her birthday.

“We always go to the drive-in at least once a year, and in this type of weather, we just wanted to go. It’s exciting,” she said.

The diehard drive-in fans have been married 45 years, and only missed one year going to a drive-in, she said.

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re willing to be open,” she said.

But with forecasters predicting lake-effect snow this week and attendance dwindling, the drive-in’s last night is Saturday.

“The weather is going downhill real fast,” Cohen said. “It’s time for us to call it a year.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to run the drive-in again in January. You have to consider that we’re usually buried in snow right now in our typical winter. We have had a lucky run of weather, and I was glad to take advantage of it, and I’ll do it again if it happens – 30 years from now.

“I am all for global warming,” he said with a laugh.

The Transit Drive-in will reopen March 25 with the movie “Batman v. Superman, Dawn of Justice.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com