RIVERDALE — As the sun sets, movie trailers flicker on the massive white screens. Cars roll slowly through to claim a space at one of the four sections of the Coleman’s Motor-vu Drive-In, 5368 S. 1050 West.
Patrons kick back in camp chairs, relax in truck beds filled with pillows and blankets or lie inside an SUV under a raised tailgate, as “The Dark Knight Rises” plays on the main screen.
Since he was a kid, Ogden resident Isaac Montoya has been a regular at the drive-in. He continues the tradition now that he has a family of his own.
“I’ve been coming since I was 12 years old,” Montoya said. “I like it. It brings back a lot of memories.”
About once a month, rain or shine, he loads up the Suburban, picks up a pizza and some candy and watches two first-run movies.
“I don’t check the weather,” Montoya said. “I just show up.”
Montoya and his family are some of the many people who have kept the Motor-vu Drive-In open since 1947.
The family business
Managing director Brent Coleman’s family owns the theater, which is one of six drive-ins remaining in the state.
His father, Howard Coleman, started working at the theater as a lot boy in 1952 during the golden age of drive-in theaters.
The United Drive-In Theater Owners Association said the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, N.J., in 1933. In 1958, the number of drive-ins in the United States reached its peak at 4,063.
Today, there are about 368 theaters nationwide.
Howard remained a part of that history over the years, working his way up to manager.
Even after he started working full time as a railroad engineer, he still put in time at the drive-in.
“He’d work a few hours here, then go work the railroads, get a few hours sleep in the day and start all over again,” Brent Coleman said from the theater office behind the snack bar.
After retiring from the railroad, Howard bought the theater from the Mann Theaters company in 1979.
Since that time, the theater has faced many challenges — as did many movie theaters around the country — but Howard was fortunate to pull it through the lean times of the 1980s and 1990s.
The proliferation of home video machines meant fewer people at the theaters in general, and multiplexes took businesses away from small, single-screen operations.
Many theater owners also gave in to pressures to sell their land to developers. With many drive-ins sitting on acres of valuable land, such an enticement can prove too great to resist.
Except for Howard.
Through all that, he kept the theater open and grew it along the way.
As his three sons got older, they played more of a role in keeping the drive-in viable. The sons, including Brent, currently work or have worked in the movie theater industry.
In 1969, a year-round swap-meet offering 50 display shops opened on theater property.
In 1982, the Motor-vu added a second screen. The third screen came in 1987 and a fourth screen in 1996.
In 1994, the theater converted to the FM system so patrons could listen to the movie through their car stereos, instead of the little speakers that hung in windows.
Montoya said he misses the speakers. He liked that the sound was not too loud.
Brent Coleman, however, said maintenance was high. If a car hit one pole, that pole would take out an entire section.
Wires had to be dug up, and if the accident happened during a busy night, an entire row would have to be refunded or shut down.
It’s all in the experience
Most car stereos do not compare to the THX or Dolby sound systems, but patron Curtis Allen said the price and experience outweigh the need for sound quality.
“It’s nice to have all that ‘dun, dun, dun,’ ” Allen said, “but when you get two movies for the price of one, you can do without all that.”
Allen and his wife, Lacy, came with family members to catch the double-feature of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Dark Shadows.” Their toddler played on top of the mattress and couch cushions that fill their truck bed.
Allen said he remembers coming to the drive-in as a child, but didn’t return until the first date with his wife.
“I hadn’t been for a long time and I met her and she loved it,” Allen said. “I totally forgot they even had them.”
Lacy Allen grew up going to the drive-in.
“That was the only movies my dad would take us to,” she said. “He wouldn’t go to walk-ins.”
Lacy’s dad, Roy resident Lance Mann, was parked in the next stall.
“I love the drive-in and I wish there were more drive-ins,” Mann said. “On a nice summer night, it’s nice to get out.”
He said he had been to the drive-in every day that week. He enjoys the freedom that the drive-in offers, such as the freedom to be outside, the freedom to bring food into the drive-in and the freedom to enjoy the privacy of one’s own car.
Good place for kids
A trio of moms, at the next screen over, liked the ability to let their kids get rowdy.
Clinton resident Jana Johnson, Harrisville resident Emberlee Olsen and West Haven resident Camie Hansen all have children who dance together. They get together for regular activities, including the drive-in.
The moms came in as soon as the theater opened to secure a place in the first row of the showing of “Ice Age 3” and “Brave.” The location gives the 12 children in the group plenty of space to play.
“The kids can run around and watch a movie at the same time,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to try too hard to keep them quiet.”
What does the future hold?
Although they will never again reach the numbers of the 1950s, new drive-ins have opened and old ones have been reopened around the country.
The next challenge for the future of drive-ins will be a costly conversion to digital equipment, which will become mandatory in walk-in theaters by the end of next year.
Brent Coleman said he is working with movie studios to see what will be done to help drive-ins.
“My father managed to somehow bring it through the 1980s and the 1990s when the drive-ins started to close,” Coleman said. “Once we make it through the digital conversion, we plan on being here a long time, absolutely.”
Once the theater figures out how to get through that, Coleman promises that he and his brothers will keep his dad’s legacy alive.
“It seems like every year there is a new rumor that we’re closing or selling,” he said. “We hope to be here as long as people allow us to be here.”