There’s something sad about a closed drive-in theater.
No movie names on the marquee, no smell of popcorn in the air and nothing to light up the darkened screen.
But that’s no longer the case in Pendleton County.
The newly revived Warner’s Drive-In theater will reopen Friday night for its first full season since closing in 2014.
And local folks couldn’t be happier that the beloved entertainment landmark, located just north of Franklin on U.S. Route 220, is part of their lives once again.
The story of its return is worthy of a big screen production, because community support made it possible.
In an era when conflict is common, community leaders, citizens and businesses instead banded together to preserve the place where so many memories were made.
A nonprofit organization was formed, the Warner-Drive-In Cultural and Resource Center Inc., and enough money raised initially to pay for a new digital projector as well as some concession area repairs.
None of that was cheap.
Since digital projectors can cost upwards of $100,000, it was a daunting but successful fundraising effort effort that included everything from bake sales to a silent auction, said board member Gail Price.
The group’s big break came when a woman donated her late parent’s home to the organization. It was sold and the proceeds financed a large part of the new projector.
Price was in a particularly pivotal position then because she served as executive director for Pendleton County Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as its Chamber of Commerce.
“Honestly, I’d have to say this was a perfect storm of people who wanted the drive-in to reopen, those who were willing to work hard to make it happen and others who were also part of the logistics. I don’t think I have ever seen a project other than this one where everyone agreed on what they wanted,” she said.
Although the land has been leased for two years, organizers are working to secure grant funding to purchase the facility before moving ahead with other improvements.
But that’s only the beginning.
The long-term plan is to create a cultural community center that will also include a drive-in theater museum featuring its original equipment.
Organizers also want to build a stage at the screen’s base, repair the roof and interior of the building inside the screen, and put up a pavilion at the back of the property.
It would no longer be as seasonal, and instead could be a home for student-produced music, dance and theater.
Movies were shown for two months last fall, and each time a crowd was on hand to see the family-friendly films like “Finding Dory” and the “Secret Life of Pets,” said Mike Mallow, a volunteer who serves as the chief projectionist.
The “Fate of the Furious” is the season opener, and is also part of the official schedule for this weekend’s Spring Fest. Movies will be shown each Friday and Saturday night through mid September. A fall festival will cap off the season on Oct. 28-29.
Getting to this point is a dream come true, Mallow said, who enjoys taking his young daughter with him while he volunteers at the drive in.
“This is all about two things, our community and families. But it is also important in another sense because I think we are only the second drive-in theater in the country that’s owned by a nonprofit. That says alot about this project too,” he said.
Board member Jessica Basagic has a special connection to the project since her great grandfather Charlie Warner built the theater and opened it on April 2, 1952, with her grandfather Harold Warner.
She grew up there, and hopes other youngsters will share this special experience.
“I remember being a kid, and playing ball with my friends in front of the curved 50-feet high and 75-foot wide screen before the movies would start. It was like a family reunion every Friday and Saturday night,” she said.
“Now families from Pendleton County and surrounding areas can continue to enjoy parking on the hill in front of the screen to share the enjoyment of movie night watching under the stars like I did as a child growing up.”
Times haven’t changed all that much, because the back row is still popular with young people who flock there, Price said.
“I guess you could say that these old traditions are new again.”