Stars still shining at drive-in: 42nd season to premiere in Leicester
Drive-in theaters have dwindled into near extinction elsewhere, but Leicester’s drive-in is alive and well and getting better. The Leicester Drive-in is preparing to open for its 42nd season next week with an upgraded screen.
By Betty Lilyestrom CORRESPONDENT
Reprinted from www.telegram.com
“It isn’t really a whole new screen,” said Hanna J. Joseph, who built the drive-in in 1965 and has operated it for all but a brief period since. “The steel and everything underneath are the original equipment but I’ve just flipped the surface material, which had become worn and damaged over the years. It will seem like a whole new screen.”
Mr. Joseph said only the main screen of his three-screen theater is getting refurbished. Screen No. 2, built in 1995, and Screen No. 3, added five years later, are still pretty much good as new.
In his early days in the business, Mr. Joseph had plenty of competition. with drive-ins as close by as Oxford and Auburn. Those and most of the others in the state are long gone, leaving Leicester, Mendon, Lunenburg and Wellfleet on Cape Cod as the only representatives of the once-popular genre left in Massachusetts.
After he got the drive-in off the ground, Mr. Joseph sold it and took back a second mortgage. But the new owner’s operation failed and the drive-in was closed for a year in 1983.
“That didn’t work out,” he said. “He (the buyer) stopped making his payments and I finally had to foreclose. And when I went to take the operation back, I discovered much of the equipment had been taken away and someone even came to take the screen down. Fortunately, my neighbor Krikor Sojjan saw him and had them arrested. I wound up closing for a year just to get the theater back in shape.”
Once the theater was reopened, Mr. Joseph has continued operating it himself, making changes as he went along. The biggest change, he said, was getting rid of the speakers on posts, which had always caused problems with patrons driving off with them still attached to their cars. The speakers were replaced by sound broadcast over a radio band that patrons can tune into on their car or portable radios.
In the early days, the Leicester Drive-in was open only on weekends and, like most theaters of its kind, played second- and third-run films.
“I remember the first movie we ever played. It was Elvis Presley in ‘Double Trouble,’ and the second one was John Wayne in ‘War Wagon,’ ” he said.
With the addition of a second screen, he switched over to first-run movies, which in turn led him to remain open seven nights during the season. And the combination of the movies and being the only game in a wide area now bring him patrons from as far away as Connecticut, the Boston area and Western Massachusetts on a regular basis.
“I’ve had people come up to me on many evenings saying ‘Please don’t close it, we just love to be able to bring our family here,’ ” he said. “And I really wouldn’t want to close it. I just love to see the kids in their pajamas, sitting on the ground and enjoying the movies. It gives me a warm feeling.”
The Leicester Drive-in’s gates will open this year May 2. It will be open Fridays and Saturdays only for the first month, open four nights for Memorial Day weekend, then switch over to seven nights as soon as school closes in June.